It had been nearly six grueling years since Steve Johnson had last won a race in Pro Stock Motorcycle. But the list of trials and tribulations, near misses and bumps in the road simply made what happened at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals that much sweeter for the longtime two-wheel competitor.
With the Pro Stock Motorcycle riders kicking off their 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season at the historic event in Florida in mid-March, Johnson rose to the occasion and earned his first victory since 2008, knocking off Scotty Pollacheck in a final round that conjured up a number of emotions.
As the points leader, Johnson and his Steve Johnson Racing Suzuki team now hope to ride that massive wave of momentum into the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, which takes place April 11-13 at state-of-the-art zMAX Dragway and marks the second of 16 bike events during the 2014 season.
“We’ve won six times in what is now our 28th year, and all those times we’ve won have all been special races and I’m crazy proud of it,” Johnson said. “But so much about it is perseverance. When you fight for it and keep fighting and then get it, it’s really powerful. The team is excited and when you win races, your entire team gets that energy. That energy isn’t always from the bike. It comes from people, good plans and lots of work, and it gives us the power to go forward with the same enthusiasm that we left Gainesville with.”
In one of the most unique and thrilling races in motorsports – the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals – the world’s top racers will compete at zMAX Dragway, home to the only four-lane, all-concrete dragstrip. Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners. The race will once again be televised on ESPN2.
Johnson stole the show in Gainesville, racing past early round foes Katie Sullivan, world champion Matt Smith and Hector Arana Jr., who beat Johnson at Gainesville in 2012. By defeating Pollacheck in the final round, Johnson repeated his 2005 performance that saw him win the Gatornationals and take the early-season points lead, while also posting the first Suzuki victory in the class since 2011.
Since winning in early March, Johnson hasn’t stopped smiling. He took the Wally to the most recent NHRA event in Las Vegas, posing for pictures with fans even though the Pro Stock Motorcycle class didn’t compete at the event.
After struggling late in the 2013 season and failing to make the Countdown to the Championship, it’s been a memorable turnaround for Johnson. He’s been impressed with the work his team put in during the off-season and his Suzuki seems in a better place than it has been in recent seasons.
“One of the fun things about winning that first race in Gainesville is you really get to enjoy it,” Johnson said. “We’ve narrowed the gap in the class a lot and we’ve definitely found something good.”
The next step is repeating it at a race that presents challenges outside the norm. With riders taking up spots in all four lanes at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, there is plenty to take into account in order to be successful. But Johnson embraces that challenge, much in the same way he marvels over the uniqueness of the race.
“I love it for our sport,” Johnson said of the event. “It’s so different and gives the fans the drama and the excitement. Fans want to be entertained and this is the epitome of entertaining them. It’s hard to prepare for, but it’s our job to rise above, put on a good show and be good at it.”
The top names in the class will be stacked across all four lanes and Arana Jr. will face tough competition in his quest to repeat at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. Smith won the event in 2010 while the likes of Eddie Krawiec, Andrew Hines, Michael Ray, John Hall and more of the two-wheel contingent will also try to add their names to the winner’s list. Johnson, whose last win came at the Charlotte fall event in 2008, certainly fits into that mix as well, while also noting the unpredictably everyone must be aware of for this race.
“Probably the biggest challenge we have is just being organized to be ready to race,” Johnson said. “With four lanes, there’s just nothing that you can count on. There’s nothing that can prepare you for it, and that’s what makes it unique.”
In Top Fuel, there’s been nobody better at the NHRA Four-Wide race than Massey, who has won two straight years in his Battery Extender powered by Schumacher Electric dragster. He will face tough competition from the likes of points leader Doug Kalitta, who has three final round appearances in four events, teammate Tony Schumacher, who picked up his first victory in 2014 at Las Vegas, defending Top Fuel world champ Shawn Langdon, 2012 champ Antron Brown, Steve Torrence, Khalid alBalooshi and Brittany Force.
In Funny Car, Four-Wide Nationals winner and former world champ Robert Hight takes the points lead into Charlotte and has posted three final round appearances in 2014. His teammate and defending world champion John Force is second and was the first Four-Wide winner in the class. Other top stars in the class include Alexis DeJoria, who won for the second time this season at Las Vegas, Ron Capps, defending event winner Hagan, Courtney Force, Del Worsham, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Jack Beckman.
With defending event champ Edwards taking a break from competition and local favorite and two-time winner Greg Anderson still recovering from heart surgery, the Pro Stock field will be loaded with drivers trying to race to their first four-wide win. Points leader Erica Enders-Stevens comes to Charlotte on the heels of a memorable weekend in Las Vegas where she swept the K & N Challenge as well as the title on Sunday. Other top competitors include Allen Johnson, reigning world champion Jeg Coughlin, Jason Line, V Gaines, Shane Gray, Vincent Nobile, Dave Connolly and Jimmy Alund.
As always, fans will have the chance to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. Fans will have direct access to the teams, allowing them to see the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and enjoy cherished face time with their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Series qualifying begins Friday, April 11, with sessions at 1:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, April 12, at 1:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 13.
Be a part of the action all weekend with a 3-Day Pass to the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals starting at $99. Tickets for children 13 and under are free with any paid adult ticket; to purchase general admission or reserved seats please visit www.zMAXDragway.com or call the box office at 800-455-FANS (3267). For more information about NHRA, please visit www.NHRA.com.