By Steve Johnson
You know how time flies when you’re having fun? As the weeks, months, and years go by, you rarely think about how long that road has become. I know I sure didn’t, and was stunned when I was told that the Fallen Patriots NHRA Route 66 Nationals presented by K&N Filters in Joliet will be my 400th race in NHRA competition. Four hundred races! I’m having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around that. I can remember when we had seven races a year. It’s overwhelming the time that has passed.
Look, I know there are a lot of people out there who have raced in more NHRA races than that, but, in all honesty, those aren’t numbers that many of us think about. It’s one of those deals that kind of goes in one ear and out the other. Kinda like, “Oh, wow. You mean so-and-so’s run 500 NHRA races? That’s cool.” And then you move on to the next carburetor adjustment or the next autograph session without giving it another thought. But, when someone says that this is going to your 400th race, well, it hits you a little differently.
When I started racing more than a quarter century ago (that makes it seems like a really long time doesn’t it?), I honestly never gave much thought to how long I’d be doing it. It’s just not something most of us think about. Sure, some stick-and-ball sports athletes might say, “I plan on playing no more than five years. Then I’m going to become a stock broker,” but have we ever heard a drag racer say anything like that? Well, maybe you have, but I sure haven’t.
Of course, the real problem with predicting the length of your own career is that you’re liable to turn out to be a liar. As any and every racer will tell you, there’s something about drag racing that grabs hold of your soul and doesn’t let go until you take your last breath. There may be a lot of negatives to being a drag racer, but let me assure you, in the strongest terms possible, that the positives outweigh the negatives by tons. Sure, I wish I could brag about my 100 victories, but how many people win that many races? There are just so many John Forces and Frank Manzos in this world, and I am definitely not one of them, dammit! It is almost impossible to crack that 100-victory barrier. Just ask two other outstanding performers – Dan Fletcher and David Rampy. They’ve been knocking on that 100-victory door for a while now, but it’s still “locked.”
Me? My “astonishing” win record stands at six! Yeah, I guess it’s safe to say those other guys have nothing to worry about concerning me. Unless I figure this racing thing out. I’m thinking my tune-ups need to be more aggressive these next 400 races. That could be the trick. So, look out 100 wins, I’m making my plans.
Sure, it’s all about winning. Everyone knows that. There are not as many as I want, but the wins are all really special to me. I’ve won the U.S. Nationals. Twice. Once when we had seven full-time employees and once when I was the crew chief and rider. The first one was even involved in one of the most controversial finales of all time. I remember Shane Maloney (my only crew guy) storming out of the TV trailer after watching the replay saying, “We won that final round.” It took a few days, but multiple views of the television replay was pretty good proof. An incredible story that I was always reminded of because Wally Parks would ask each time he saw me, “What do you think happened?”
You know we didn’t even get to celebrate in the Indy winner's circle. My (somewhat muted) celebration took place at the following race. I seem to recall that was Maple Grove, back then, but what the heck, regardless of where it was I’ve still got that Indy trophy.
I was also involved in a controversial disqualification at the Gatornationals one year and will never forget that NHRA actually sent a couple of senior people down to our shop in Alabama for a reinspection of our sealed-by-NHRA engine, which proved our innocence. The point is that NHRA did the right thing by tossing us out based on the information they had at that point, and then did the right thing by reinstating us while removing the onus of a disqualification from our record. That kind of stuff means a lot because your reputation is just about the most important thing you have.
A lot of people have helped me along the way, but if I tried to list them all it would probably take, well, maybe 400 pages! The problem with even trying is that I know I’d forget someone, and I wouldn’t want to do that. Suffice it to say that no one does this by themselves. It really does take a group, a team. Without good people behind you, you might as well leave the Suzuki in the garage and stay home, because without a team you aren’t going to win a single round of racing.
Drag racing is one heck of a lifestyle, and it appears that I should know, because I’ve lived it through 399 races. There have been good times and bad, but overall it’s been one helluva a great ride. I know how this is going to sound, but trust me when I say that I wouldn’t trade a minute of it for, say, three or four championship rings. OK, ya got me. I probably would trade a lot of minutes for those rings!