Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – CHANDLER, AZ – Tommy Johnson Jr.’s first trip to Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the site of this weekend’s 35th annual Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Arizona Nationals, as a nitro driver came in 1989. With the race marking the 30th anniversary of his Top Fuel debut, the now Funny Car championship contender reflected on what three decades of nitro racing has taught him.
“You can definitely see where being a veteran and having experience pays off,” said Johnson, who has 17 career wins. “I want to use that now. I think it’s all about maintaining focus throughout the year. It’s a long season and you can’t let the lows get you down or let the highs distract you. That comes from years of experience. When you’ve been there and done that, it helps keep you on track. Being a veteran, it gives you a whole different mindset on racing.”
With that in mind, the track just outside of Phoenix holds a special place in Johnson’s heart and he will look to grab his second career win at the early-season NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series race. The Don Schumacher Racing standout lost in the final round of the race a year ago, but is off to a strong start in his 10,000-horsepower Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat.
Johnson advanced to the semifinals at the 2019 opener in Pomona as he tries to take it a step further in Phoenix. Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Courtney Force (Funny Car) and Chris McGaha (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of a race that will once again be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1 (FS1), including live finals coverage starting at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, Feb. 24. It is the second of 24 races during a 2019 season where Johnson may already be ahead of schedule.
Despite missing out on a win in 2018, Johnson was impressively consistent and finished third in points, finishing off the year with a final round appearance in Pomona. The team left well enough alone, made very little changes in the off-season and picked up where they left off last November. Heading into Phoenix, that has Johnson feeling like the team is ready for a breakthrough.
“It speaks well to the consistency of our tune-up and we’re racing better earlier in the year than we ever have,” said Johnson, who is looking for his first win since the 2017 finale heading into Phoenix. “We made minimal changes as far as what we did in the off-season and came out and ran well. For our confidence level, that’s tremendous. We ended the season on a really high note and to continue that after a long break, that’s pretty important.”
Johnson qualified third with a 3.904 at 327.03 mph in Pomona and then went as quick as 3.876 in eliminations en route to the semifinal finish. For a team that is admittedly a slow-starting one, it was a good way to begin 2019. Of course, Johnson wants a victory in Phoenix and to do that, he’ll have to get past Pomona winner and 2017 world champ Robert Hight, defending world champ J.R. Todd, 2016 champ and DSR teammate Ron Capps, Shawn Langdon and Jack Beckman.
“History shows it’s hard to keep your performance all season, but it’s definitely easier if you have it right away than it is to try and find it,” Johnson said. “I’m sure there will be a point in the season where we have to get back on track, but our focus is trying to maintain this. To get into a flow right off the bat is big, and to have a car that runs well no matter the conditions is super encouraging.”
Top Fuel defending world champ Steve Torrence will look for a second straight win in Phoenix after finishing as runner-up to Doug Kalitta in Pomona. Others to watch include Clay Millican, Terry McMillen, Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown and 2017 world champ Brittany Force.
Pro Stock’s Chris McGaha earned his first Phoenix win a year ago, knocking off Jason Line in the final round. McGaha will look to continue that success against Pomona winner Bo Butner, two-time world champ Erica Enders, Alex Laughlin, Greg Anderson and Jeg Coughlin Jr.
The event also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where future stars of the sport hone their skills.
Those in attendance will also have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with some of the biggest names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This includes meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 22 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Feb. 23, also at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 24.
NHRA FANS TO VOTE FOR MATCHUPS IN “UNFINISHED BUSINESS” COMPETITION
Earlier this year, NHRA released the names of the eight NHRA Legends who would be competing in a one-time-only “Unfinished Business” competition as part of the 50th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. Now it’s time for the fans to decide who will face off in the first round of eliminations.
The legendary lineup features some of the biggest stars in NHRA Championship Drag Racing including “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Joe Amato, Kenny Bernstein, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, Warren Johnson and Terry Vance. To top it all off, Florida native and NHRA fan favorite Darrell Gwynn will serve as the honorary starter for this prestigious group of competitors.
Each driver will compete in a custom Toyota Camry distinctly wrapped to emulate looks inspired by some of the drivers’ favorite rides.
The competitive bracket is up to NHRA fans. From now until February 22, fans can visit www.nhra.com/unfinishedbusiness to vote for the first-round matchups they want to see.
“It’s going to be exciting to have our fans play a part in determining the bracket for Unfinished Business,” said NHRA president Glen Cromwell. “We are all excited to see these heroes of the sport to head to head and knowing that the fans are playing such an important role in the competition just adds to the anticipation.”
Follow the hashtag #UnfinishedBusiness on NHRA’s social media pages and NHRA.com for updates on NHRA Unfinished Business.