Funny Car driver Johnny Gray is a memory-maker. The feisty 59-year-old has enjoyed a deliciously rich adventure spanning several forms of motorsports, including a lengthy stretch of NHRA competition that has included successes in both the Sportsman and Professional ranks and isn't looking to slow down anytime soon. The pages of Gray's mental diary are emblazoned with moments that many would only dream of. Some good, and some, well, not so good.
Last year, Gray made a spectacular entry in that diary at his sponsor's event, the Big O Tires NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas.
Gray's Big O Tires Dodge consistently picked up the pace in qualifying with a 4.21 to open the weekend followed by a 4.12 at nearly 312 mph and an improved 4.11, 311 to continue the upward climb. The final session of qualifying pushed into the early evening on Saturday, and awesome possibilities began to materialize for the charging team with the improving conditions.
"We were going for the pole," said Gray. "My crew chief, Rob Wendland, told me to hang on – if it makes it, it'll be real fast."
And fast it was in the early part of the journey – until the engine gave way and mayhem ensued. The Big O Tires Dodge Charger erupted in a booming ball of flame, launching the Funny Car body high in the air and over the guardwall to ultimately settle in the grassy area to the side of the racetrack. With the flames out and no fluids leaking, Gray guided the convertible across the finish line (clocking a 4.20) and safely came to a stop.
"Basically, the clutch got a little ahead of the car and pulled the motor down. Most of the time, it'll knock the tires off when that happens. This time, it didn't," explained Gray. "It hung on, the G meter stood straight up, it drove me up in the car real hard, and I thought, 'Oh boy, we're goin' for the pole.' About that time, it turned an intake valve inside out, and the rest is history. It blew things up pretty good."
After the spectacular explosion, Wendland's final declaration to Gray before they fired the engine became a standing joke among the Service Central crew; nowadays, when they're aiming for those monster numbers, Gray requests that his lead tuner not repeat the phrase – or history.
"Just don't tell me, 'If it makes it, it'll be real fast,' " laughed the Artesia, N.M.-based driver.
Gray went on to pilot the Service Central-backed car to the final round at The Strip with victories over Melanie Troxel, Paul Lee, and Bob Tasca III, and his 4.123 in the semifinals was good for lane choice over Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps in the final. Unfortunately for Gray, he slowed to a 4.20 in the event closer, and Capps, on the rebound from a nonqualifying effort in Phoenix that pushed him out of contention for the championship, surged ahead for the 4.10 win.
The Las Vegas money round was the third consecutive final for Gray, and although he would finish the 2011 season in the No. 11 position, the veteran Funny Car pilot had, arguably, the best car in the six-race Countdown.
This season, Gray isn't playing the role of spoiler and is instead fighting for one of the top spots. Although nearly mathematically eliminated from championship contention, the collective heartbeat from the Service Central camp is still strong.
At the last event, the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Gray drove the Alex's Lemonade Stand-themed Dodge to the final round and clocked a career-best speed (318.99 mph) on the way – and he made an exceptional move in the Full Throttle Series Funny Car standings, jumping all the way from the No. 8 position to fourth.
"It's kind of a bittersweet deal," said Gray, who exited in the first round at the first three events in the playoffs. "We came into the Countdown and thought we had a real good race car, but we lost it for a couple of races, and it basically cost us a shot at the championship.
"Fuel Funny Cars are an amazing piece; at any given time, they can leave you. They can leave you standing there scratching your head wondering, 'Why won't it go down the racetrack?' When that happens, you just have to pick around that a little bit 'til you figure it out. Eventually, you'll get it going down the racetrack again, and you'll be able to say, 'Here's our old car back. We're ready to compete again.' It can come and go so fast that it's unreal. These things are very fickle pieces of equipment.
"We think we have her back now, and our goal now is to be in the top five. It isn't realistic to think that we can win the championship, it's really a long shot, but we're going to do everything we can to be in the top five."
Gray is right on track for the finish he is aiming for, with two victories in four final rounds and two starts from the No. 1 position plumping up his season-long scorecard, including the recent strong showing in Reading, where he started from the top half of the field for the 13th time this year.
Just two national events are left on the schedule for claiming points and gaining position: the upcoming Big O Tires NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the season-ending Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals in Pomona.
"We're going out there to go rounds these last two races," said Gray. "We would love to bring the Big O Tires/Service Central Dodge to Las Vegas, be a dominant car, and win that race for our sponsors. We had a pretty good shot at it last year, but my car pushed a head gasket out, and Mr. Capps ended up with what I consider to be my trophy. I would like to go get it this year."
For tickets for the 12th annual Big O Tires NHRA Nationals, call The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 800-644-4444, or log on to www.lvms.com.