JOHNSON WINS ONE FOR TERRY CHANDLER AT NHRA SEASON FINALE
This one is for Terry Chandler.
That was the declaration made by Funny Car veteran Tommy Johnson Jr. moments after earning his second victory of 2017 and first since the passing of his longtime sponsor, supporter and friend Sunday at the 53rd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
Chandler, who had sponsored Johnson’s Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car, along with Jack Beckman’s Infinite Hero machine, for the past few seasons, lost her battle with cancer back in July.
“This has been a very emotional year with the loss of Terry. She was such a great person and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” Johnson said. “I had sat out for five years and she gave me the opportunity to drive for her. To lose her this season was very tough on our entire team. We had four runner-ups throughout the season trying to get a win for Terry and at the last opportunity of the season, we were determined to do it.
“I kept thinking all day what it would mean to get a win for her to close out the season. It was just a great day. It wasn’t an easy win, but we got it done.”
Johnson defeated newly-crowned NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car champion Robert Hight in the final. Hight smoked the tires just past the 60-foot lights, while Johnson breezed to a 3.920-second pass at 329.10 mph to earn his 17th career NHRA Wally.
The win capped what was not only an emotional day, but a trying one as well. Johnson suffered a fireball in a round one win over Bob Bode and then went into the sandtrap at the top end in round two after defeating Alexis DeJoria.
Ironically, Hight also suffered a trip into the sand in his semifinal win over Courtney Force.
“What are the odds that two people in the final have both been in the sandtrap in one day,” Johnson said. “This is a short track and we had some issues with the chutes. We kept getting the chute caught in the back of the body and just couldn’t get the thing stopped.”
But thanks to a valiant effort by both his team and the rest of the Don Schumacher Racing teams not remaining in competition, Johnson was able to turn the car around and record a semifinal win over No. 1 qualifier Jack Beckman - a 3.890 to a 3.914 - before dispatching of Hight in the final.
“The guys did a great job. I think everybody that was out of competition on the DSR team was over here. There were members from every team and it was just a great team effort,” Johnson said. “It shows you how well we work together to come fighting back. I was a little concerned, we had those issues first round, had issues second round, so in the semis you try and put it out of your mind.
“I was obviously concerned if the chassis was ok. It didn’t hit too hard and amazingly the body was not too bad. We came back up the return road and it was bouncing up and down and we were watching the rocks fall out of it. We stripped the car down, got all of the stuff out of it, and had our best run of the day against Jack (Beckman).”
With the trip into the sand, and the previous fireball from a lost cylinder in round one, Johnson stressed the importance of not giving up as a major reason for the team’s win on Sunday.
“You can’t give up on Sunday. That is one thing about being a Funny Car driver. You have to ignore what is going on around you, put it out of your mind and remain focused on the finish line,” Johnson said. “Whatever is happening is just going to happen. You just have to stay in it and hope for the best.”
Thanks to the late-season win, Johnson finishes sixth in the Funny Car championship as Hight clinched the championship after Ron Capps went out in a round one upset to Del Worsham. That win clinched the title for Hight - his second - and was the second championship in nitro won by the John Force Racing team. Brittany Force won the Top Fuel championship in another come-from-behind effort.
As for Johnson, he can take into the offseason the comfort of having finally won one for Terry, and doing it at the site of his last win with her in attendance. With Chandler unable to attend Johnson’s other win earlier this season at Las Vegas, the last time Johnson and Chandler shared a winner’s circle was at this very race one year ago.
And, ironically, he was running the same body he had on his car in the 2016 win after switching to it following the trip into the sand.
“The last time we took pictures in the winner’s circle Terry was here and I said if we happen to get there today, she will still be there with us,” Johnson said. “And it was kind of funny, as we were pulling up for the final, the body we put on was the body from last season, the one we took to the winner’s circle. So I think it is very appropriate that we are here today.”