It's been a busy start Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Is it April already? What a busy start to the 2014 season it has been for the Johnson & Johnson Mopar team!

We already have four national events under our belt and each one of them was an adventure.

After seeing the Roy Johnson HEMI-powered cars finish 1-2 in the 2013 NHRA Pro Stock World Championships, I was anxious to build on my runner-up finish last year, but the season didn’t quite start off the way I had hoped.  We had some problems in the season opener at the Winternationals in Pomona and the driver (me) didn’t do his job, losing the first round of eliminations with a terrible reaction time. I’m not going to make excuses because, while I didn’t feel well that weekend, I should have been able to suck it up and go the distance.  To be honest, it was the worst I have ever felt in my life and it was hard even getting to the racetrack on race day, but that doesn’t matter. What counts is what happens on the track and I lost us the race in the first round.

It was definitely my worst personal performance in 18 years and it p*ssed me off so much I went to Phoenix guns blazing wanting to make it right and fight to redeem myself.  On race day, I was responsible for one round-win, and my crew, the car and the HEMI engine were responsible for the other three. On the plus side I cut my reaction time in half with the runs in Phoenix! (It wasn’t hard to do!)

Winning at Phoenix was great for a number of reasons; there was a sense of relief to redeem the bad start at Pomona, and then of course it was great to retire the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Avenger on a winning note. The Avenger has been a great race car for the past several years but I knew that the new Dodge Dart was going to knock the socks off everyone!

We were flat out since February and it took weeks of tireless work by the team to get the new race car ready in time for the Gatornationals. It’s an amazing car and everyone did such a fantastic job to make it happen. Everything to do with the design of the new race car, the engineers took our input and really came up with a great vehicle. The Dodge dart was designed virtually by Chrysler engineers and then the data was validated in the wind tunnel before the car even hit the track. What a great job the Mopar engineers, everybody at Chrysler Group, Dodge and SRT did.

We tested our new Dodge Dart with the Dodge Avenger in Chrysler’s wind tunnel at headquarters in Michigan to get a comparison before taking out for its very first run. I took it for its very first pass at the test at Bradenton, Fla. just a week before the Gatornationals and I knew it was going to be bad to the bone right away but we couldn’t have hoped for a better result than what happened at that race weekend!

We kicked it all off with the unveiling of the new Magneti Marelli Dodge Dart at Two Tails Ranch near the race track, where we got the help of an elephant named Luke in honor of the 50th anniversary of the 426 HEMI. That was awesome. You see, the HEMI engine was nicknamed “the elephant” when it first came out in 1964 because of how big and powerful it was.

Jeg Coughlin Jr. and I took lots of photos of both new cars with Mopar CEO and President, Pietro Gorlier, and our pachyderm friend.  We were really excited to get the media’s first impression of the Dodge Dart which was overwhelmingly positive. On Friday, we covered up the both new cars and brought them through the staging lanes to the start line and unveiled them to fans just before our first run. It was very cool to feel the excitement of fans and get that first run under our belts.

Taking our new Dodge Dart to the winner’s circle at the Gatornationals was just such a thrill. To be able to do that in its first race straight out of the box is a huge accomplishment. It says a tremendous amount about our crew, and the engineering efforts behind it.

Not only did we defend last year’s Gatornationals win but to retire the old Avenger and start the era of the new Dodge Dart with victories was just incredible.

We rode that high right into Las Vegas hoping to keep our winning streak going and try to repeat what we did last year;  doubling up by winning the K&N Horsepower Challenge and the National title. But with 10 to 12 cars capable of winning every weekend, it was going to be tough and it sure was.

We gave it our all but it wasn’t meant to be this time.  It was hard enough battling each other, but Sunday we had a fierce wind and dust to deal with so we waited it out for a few hours for safety’s sake. There was so much dirt on track in the first round that with little downforce, the cars just danced around on the track. The wind would then upset the car even more when you were unstable to begin with.  Ultimately the wind affected us in a different way when, on the burnout, something went through the carburetor and closed up the gap on the spark plug.  When I staged it, then dropped the clutch, it was only on seven cylinders all the way through first gear.  In the middle of second gear, it came back to life and ran better the rest of the way down the track but by then it was too late.

So now we get set for the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte this coming weekend which, with its unique format, is always fun for fans.  Heading there with two wins under our belt after four events so far isn’t too bad and I’d love to have another strong weekend with the Dodge Dart.

The focus in the past two months has definitely been on getting the new Magneti Marelli Dodge Dart ready for battle but there have been a few bright moments away from the track too.

I didn’t get to be there because we were so busy with the new car, but I’m happy to hear that Doug Hebert’s B.R.A.K.E.S event that I sponsored at my home track at Bristol was a success and really hope it made a positive impact with our local teens.

I’m also happy to share that Pam’s dad is recovering really well after his stroke a few months ago and we are very thankful for that. Pam and I even got a few days here and there at our favorite place in the world, our little home away from home on Sanibel Island.  We also got to spend quality time with the grandkids cheering for our Tennessee Volunteers basketball team. No matter how busy things have been and will continue to get this season, it’s important to remember your family and enjoy as much time as you can, so we do, any chance we can.