TJ WANTED TO WIN CHICAGO MORE THAN ANY RACE EVER
Never had Sweet Cheeks wanted to win so badly for Nellie.
Sweet Cheeks, a.k.a. Tommy Johnson Jr., reached the Funny Car finals of the NHRA Route 66 Nationals in Joliet, Ill., losing a close race to teammate Ron Capps, who seemed somewhat like a reluctant winner.
Sunday's race was the first national event since the passing of Terry Chandler, a drag racing philanthropist who funded the car driven by Johnson, honoring the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Chandler and Johnson had a unique relationship which transcended their roles at Don Schumacher Racing.
It was Chandler who playfully labeled Johnson as Sweet Cheeks,and Johnson quickly from the hip, christened her as Nellie, for her nature of being what he described as a Nervous Nellie.
Johnson said he could always see her every time before he went to make a run, pacing around nervously; it was almost as if it were a mother worried about a son. After all, it was Chandler who proclaimed herself to be his 'Nother Mother.
"Oh when I could see her, she's been up there just pacing back and forth and twiddling and rubbing her hands and as nervous as can be," Johnson recalled. "She used to laugh when I'd call her Nellie."
Johnson shakes his head and smiles at the one moment where he shared her tendency to show concern for him, unintentionally sent her for a tumble. Ironically, it was at Route 66 Raceway, the site of Sunday's race.
"She always would come and give me the good luck before we started the car when I pulled under the tower. On Friday the memory came back to me," Johnson said. "We were in the final round, and she comes over and they’re rushing us for live TV, and she hurries over to give me good luck and she tripped over the starter cables as the car was starting, and she fell down. She was on the ground in front of the car and they’re getting ready to put the body down.
"I was thinking, ‘She’s got to get out of the way, I’ve got to do a burnout.'
"And Antron happened to be up there, and he helped her get up and get out of the way."
Johnson only smiles because Chandler was more embarrassed than injured.
Johnson did give her a little good-natured ribbing because he knew she could dish the business as well as she could take it.
"That's the thing I’m going to miss the most is the stuff that people didn’t see - her giving me a hard time, and I used to give it right back to her, and she loved that," Johnson admitted. "She liked that somebody would give it right back to her because she liked to be ornery. She was the sweetest lady in the world but she had that little ornery streak in her.
"She and I always had that thing going and that’s what I’ll miss the most is her and I kidding each other and giving each other a hard time. That will be the biggest thing that I miss."
Before his current driving gig, Johnson was a proverbial jack of all trades at Don Schumacher Racing, filling every kind of role from team test driver to checking the track conditions for the crew chiefs. He never gave up hope one day he'd race again, but even he admits there were times the dream was becoming dimmer and dimmer with each passing season.
Then Chandler began hanging around Don Schumacher Racing more and more during her brother Johnny's final season driving for the team. When Johnny opted for retirement, Chandler opted to take over the team.
For Chandler, Johnson was her first and only choice to drive a car which she would donate the sponsorship to charity. It was always her goal to ensure the Funny Car would be used to raise funds to help others.
"I had a couple of years to get to know her, and when she asked me to drive, we bonded almost immediately," Johnson said. "It’s funny; she always called me her ‘nother mother. She was a mother figure to me. She and I had a great relationship."
Chandler was laid to rest on Saturday during a private ceremony in New Mexico, and as much as Johnson wanted to be there, he knew being at the race track was the place she wanted him to be.
Johnson wanted to do what Chandler would have wanted him to do.
"She would have been livid if I’d have missed a session of qualifying to come to the funeral," Johnson said.
For Johnson, he wanted to race and shine the best he could for Chandler, someone he says without hesitation made an indelible mark on not only his life but also his driving career.
"You know I think that her last four years with us, I think she started living really well," Johnson said proudly. "We were told by her friends that this was her life, she loved this. We were her family.
"You know, talking with Don yesterday, he said, ‘You have no idea what you meant to her. All the pictures and the collages and the videos were nothing but her and us.
"I had heard that from people but didn’t really know how much it was true. I’m just thrilled to be a part of that. You don’t meet too many people along the way that are that good. I looked at the social media this week. I saw all the posts and how much everybody loved her, all the people and all the lives she had touched, and how many good things everybody had to say about her. I thought, ‘You know, I hope when I pass someday that it’s even somewhere close to that.'
"It’s something that I didn’t realize how many lives she had touched. I knew what she had done for me but seeing all that, it shows what good she did on earth."
And for Johnson, whether he won or lost on Sunday, he'd always won because of the day he met Nellie.