When it comes to international experience driving 8000 horsepower nitro Top Fuel dragsters, few have more runs under the belt than Avon, Indiana-based Tommy Johnson Jr.
The nine times NHRA event winner has raced in the US, United Arab Emirates, England, Sweden and Finland during his career and is looking forward to adding Australia to the list when he drives for the Rapisarda Autosport International team at the Nitro Champs at Sydney Dragway.
“As a kid growing up in a family of drag racing I loved the sport and always followed drag racing in Australia,” he said.
“Outside of the US, drag racing was most popular in Australia. I have dreamed ever since that young age of one day competing in an event there. I’m finally glad that it is happening thanks to the Rapisarda family.
“I arrive Wednesday morning so I want to see if I can get as much sightseeing in Wednesday and Thursday before the race action begins. I’m scheduled to come back home the Monday following the event so I don’t see a lot of sleep in my time there if I want to take in all of the sights.
“I visited New Zealand several years ago and have kicked myself ever since for not visiting Australia while being that close so this is my chance, hopefully it’s not the last one to get to know the people and see the sights.”
Johnson Jr said he had spoken to recent Australia visitor and fellow top NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) driver Larry Dixon about his experiences when he raced at Queensland’s Willowbank Raceway as part of the Santo’s Cranes Super 3 Extreme Drag Race.
“The one thing (Larry) said that I also found to be the same was the people,” he said. “Whenever I have raced in another country the biggest impression I came away with is the people and their shared passion for drag racing.”
The car Dixon drove to a new Australia record of 4.503 seconds at Willowbank will be the same one Johnson Jr climbs into at Sydney.
Racing different cars has become a way of life for Johnson Jr, earning a reputation as one of the best available freelance drivers. His recent driving roles have included testing for top US outfit Don Schumacher Racing.
“Every car has a different feel. I drove eight different nitro cars last season,” he said. “One of those was for the Rapisarda team at Indianapolis last season in their second car they have here in the US so I do have a little familiarity of working with them already. I know the potential of this car and team so I jumped at the chance to join them next weekend.”
The competitive spirit is already rising in Johnson Jr and he said that the Rapisarda team and their crew chief Lee Beard had mentioned wanting to improve on the mark Dixon set, which would likely mean aiming for Australia’s first pass in the 4.4 second zone.
“I hold the European record so I would love to put my name in the record books again in Australia,” he said.
“I know myself, the car and team are capable and it will probably come down to the weather conditions and hopefully that will be on our side as well.”
Johnson Jr is looking forward to running over the traditional quarter mile (402m) again as well, versus the 1000 feet (304m) format the US and Europe have adopted in recent years.
“It is amazing how that last 320 feet feels. You definitely feel the speed in that last part of the track,” he said. “As a driver there is an internal clock in your head of how long the throttle has been down and where you are on the track. I don’t see it being a problem because the last thing you want to do is give up the feeling of speed. I would like nothing more than to go in the 4.40s at over 330mph (531kmh).”
Tommy Johnson Jr will take on a classy field of Top Fuel dragsters including tied points leaders Phil Lamattina and Darren Morgan, fellow Rapisarda Autosport International driver Damien Harris, returning three times Australian champion Phil Read and three-valve motor innovator Terry Sainty.
The Nitro Champs takes place May 3-5 at Sydney Dragway.