Johnson, fellow drivers like racing at Raceway Park

Staff Writer

Staff Writer

There is a two-way love affair between driver and fan that makes drag racing such a unique sport, according to veteran driver Tommy Johnson Jr.

"It’s the interaction with the fans that makes drag racing different from other racing," Johnson said. "The fans can come up to the car and watch the crew working on it and drivers can mingle among the fans. It’s cool. Drivers enjoy it."

One of the National Hot Rod Association drivers’ favorite tracks to race is Old Bridge Township’s Raceway Park.

"You have very die-hard fans at Raceway Park," noted Johnson. "I see a lot of the same people every year and some new ones. I always look forward to coming out there.

"It’s a great facility and it always throws out great numbers, some of the best of the year every year," he added.

The NHRA makes its annual trek to Raceway Park this weekend for the 35th Annual K&N Filters SuperNationals, presented by Strauss Discount Auto, tomorrow through Sunday. Johnson, who drives the Don ‘"the Snake" Prudhomme-owned Skoal Racing Chevy Monte Carlo Funny Car, will be looking to add on to his five career NHRA victories.

Raceway Park is a very familiar venue for Johnson.

"I first raced here in 1988," he pointed out. "When I was first coming there I couldn’t drive [in the competition] because I wasn’t 18."

Raceway Park is the National Hot Rod Association’s only stop in the Metropolitan Northeast and the drivers love the area. Johnson said he and his wife took a day off last year and went to New York City for the first time. The native of Ottumwa, Iowa, said he and his wife, Melanie Troxel (a Top Fuel driver) are looking forward to doing the same this year before settling in at the track and concentrating on getting a NHRA victory this weekend.

Racing will start with Sportsman Qualifying tomorrow over two sessions, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Friday, the qualifying continues with the Funny Car, Top Fuel Dragsters and Pro Stock Bikes and Pro Stock Cars making their debuts. Racing will go on from 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

"Friday night under the lights is always the time to be there," Johnson said.

Qualifying continues Saturday with another 10 a.m.-10 p.m. session. Sunday, Prerace Ceremonies are schedule for a 10 a.m. start, with the final eliminations starting at 11 a.m.

As the son of a NHRA driver, Tommy Johnson Sr., Johnson Jr. comes by drag racing naturally.

"I grew up around this sport," he said. "It’s something I always thought we’re supposed to do."

Besides his early exposure to the sport through his father, Johnson discovered a love for the one-on-one nature that drag racing supplies.

"Drag racing is so different from the other [auto] sports," he remarked. "It’s you and the other guy to see who throws their [para]chute first and is the winner.

"I like the competition," he added. "Ninety percent of drag racing is mental. You have to work up to the point where you hate the guy you’re racing. You want to tear him up."

Having grown up in the sport has given Johnson an edge because he knows everything there is to know about the car he is driving.

"I know how everything operates, by necessity," Johnson explained. "When you drive without sponsorship [as he did early in his career] you have to do everything.

"I can give a lot of feedback to the crew," he added. "The crew chief and I have good chemistry."

The sheer speed the Funny Car and Top Fuels go is what impresses fans the most about drag racing. The most frequently asked question for dragsters is what it’s like to go zero to 300 mph in less than five seconds.

"It’s a feeling you can’t describe," Johnson said. "It’s not the speed, it’s how quick you get there. You hit the throttle and it lunges you back in your seat.

"It’s an adrenaline rush, a natural high," he added.

Drag racing may not appear on the surface to be a very physical sport, but a full weekend will test anyone’s mental and physical capacities.

"Sunday, after four rounds, you are wiped out," Johnson said. "You are mentally wiped out.

"It’s incredible what it does to you body," he continued. "It takes total concentration and focus. It’s intense."

It’s one of the reasons that Johnson and his fellow drivers aren’t adverse to working out. Johnson said that the better conditioned drivers have an edge.

The intensity that Johnson talked about materializes in a driver’s heart rate during a competition. People would be surprised just how worked up a driver can get in a race that lasts less than five seconds.

"I had a heart rate monitor once, the closer I got to the start, my heart rate kept climbing," he said. "It climbed to 190, off the charts during the race."

Racing for a legend, Hall of Famer and former NHRA Funny Car champion, Prudhomme, has its advantages, according to Johnson.

"I was a fan of his when I was growing up," Johnson said. "You couldn’t ask for better than to have him ask you to race for him. It means you’ve made it.

"Don is a really intense competitor who wants to win," he added.

Johnson expects another exciting and competitive weekend of racing at Raceway Park. The SuperNationals were pushed back from May to mid-June this year and Johnson believes it will have an impact on the racing. Crews will be working overtime to get the right set-ups and tires for this weekend’s racing.

It’s only a month difference, but in that month there is enough temperature change that drag racing teams will be starting from scratch this weekend. Temperature means everything in drag racing. The cooler it is, the faster the drivers can go (that’s why the fastest times are in night qualifying).

For ticket information to this week’s K&N Filters SuperNationals, call Raceway Park at (732) 446-7800 or visit the track’s Web site at

NHRA notes … Last weekend, the NHRA was in Columbus, Ohio, for the 40th Pontiac Excitement Nationals. Darrell Russell was victorious in the Top Fuel final over points leader Tony Schumacher.

Del Worsham defeated Gary Scelzi in the Funny Car final and Greg Anderson won his eighth win of the season in Pro Stock, while Andrew Hines scored one in Pro Bike.