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On the Throttle with … Tommy Johnson Jr.
NHRA Funny Car driver Tommy Johnson Jr. has had quite a ride over the past few seasons as the driver of the Terry Chandler-sponsored Don Schumacher Racing Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car. His nephew Gage, now 11 years old and an avid Jr. drag racer with a hunger for HEMI® engine power, has been along for the ride. In the final hours of a career-best season in his Mopar® – one that has included two victories in five final rounds – Johnson discussed the responsibility of influencing the next generation.
MOPAR® MAGAZINE: How did it come about that Gage has become something of an honorary crew member on the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger Funny Car team?
Tommy Johnson Jr.: My sister, Wendy, asked me to speak with Gage about his grades a few years ago and give him some motivation to improve. When I was younger, I wasn’t allowed to race unless I made the honor roll, so I told him that if he could get his grades up to all A’s and B’s, we would go on the road, just the two of us, and do some races. He absolutely wanted to do it, and instantly, his grades came up.
MM: How many races did Gage attend with you that first year?
TJ: That summer, we went to two, Norwalk and Chicago, and had a great time. He grew as a person, gained some maturity and learned some life lessons. It was such a good time that he asked if we could do it the following year if he was able to get all A’s and B’s again. The next year, we did three races; then this year, we spent almost four weeks together on the road.
MM: Do you see this as an effective on-going reward system?
TJ: I think so. For the last couple of years, he’s been working on a deal to come with us on the Western Swing, those three races in a row on the West Coast in the middle of summer. But that’s a tough stretch, so I told him it has to be a big goal. He has to make all A’s, and he’s come close, but we aren’t there yet. Each year, he does better and better, though. Through this process, he’s learning something that I learned from my dad – there is a reward for putting in hard work.
MM: He’s experienced the thrill of success through this process, but he’s also had a taste of defeat, hasn’t he?
TJ: Yes, he experienced success of his own in doing well in school and getting to come to the races, and then he watched me get runner-up and lose in the final round in Chicago his first year – and he was crushed. I told him that you can’t always win. You have to take what we did well that day and apply it, just like in school. He’s learned a lot of life lessons along this journey in terms of failure and success, and that will go a long way when he’s older.
MM: How about you; has this taught you anything?
TJ: Oh, yeah. I don’t have kids of my own, and I love having the opportunity to spend time my sister’s two boys [Gage and brother, Zane]. Taking Gage with me on the road has meant that I’ve had to be the responsible one. I used to be a big kid, but this really put me in a position to be an adult. I would certainly say that Gage has learned a lot, but I’ve learned some things along the way as well.