National Hot Rod Association Media Conference
Tommy Johnson, Jr.
August 22, 2007
MICHAEL PADIAN: We have Ron Capps with us, Tommy Johnson Jr., and we are trying to get ahold of Robert Hight. John Force, who was scheduled to be on the call today, because of the race finishing up in Redding, will not be joining us today.
Speaking of today's race, that's where I'd like to begin with today's call. The skies cleared over Redding today and we were able to complete the Toyota Tires NHRA Nationals and set our first ever playoff fields.
In Top Fuel, Doug Herbert defeated Rod Fuller to complete his improbable Cinderella march into the countdown. He hadn't been inside the top 10 all year and he hadn't won a race since Chicago 2004, a span of 65 races. He passed 10th place Corey McClenathan with his quarterfinal win over McClenathan. He passed Melanie Troxel with his semifinal win over Doug Foley, then passed eighth place Dave Grubnic with his finals win over Top Fuel points leader Rod Fuller. He was quoted as saying earlier in the week, "The odds aren't really in our favor, but crazier things have happened." Indeed he was able to pull it off.
In the other three classes, the drivers hanging on to the eighth and final playoff berths were able to hold on. In Funny Car, Jim Head clinched when Del Worsham lost in the semifinals to Tony Pedregon. In Pro Stock, Larry Morgan clinched when V. Gaines lost in the semis to Dave Connolly. And in Pro Stock Motorcycle, Craig Treble clinched when Chris Rivas lost to Matt Guidera in the semis.
Look in your email in-boxes for an updated Countdown newsletter which will be emailed out in the next hour or so. Also we are building our first ever Game Notes Pack designed especially for the Countdown, and that will be ready for delivery tomorrow. We will also have copies available at the O'Reilly Raceway Park media center next week.
On to today's call which has been reserved to provide access to some of the key drivers in next weekend's Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the first race of the POWERade Series Playoff, the Countdown to the Championship.
The Mac Tools U.S. Nationals will also play host to the two race-within-a-race bonuses, the Ringers Gloves Pro Stock Motorcycle Battle, a $25,000 bonus race, and the Skoal Showdown, a $100,000 bonus race for the Funny Cars.
I'll begin with an opening statement from each of the drivers, then I'll open it up to questions. I'll start with Ron Capps, who drives the Brut Dodge Charger. I read today about you comparing the last several weeks, because you built such a big lead, clinched your playoff berth early, to an NFL team having a bye. With so much at stake now heading into Indy, I guess the time has come to flip the switch for you and the Brut team.
RON CAPPS: Yeah, we made a decision after the first-round loss in Brainerd, I said before we tested for some time, brought a new car out in Topeka. As it turns out, something was actually wrong with that chassis. So it kind of threw all that testing of things that we tried a little bit out of window.
So after the first-round lost in Brainerd, Ace told the guys to get our other car ready. We pulled it down from upstairs. It was a brand-new car sitting up there, was our backup. Went to Redding, first pass, qualifying, went right down through there. Made a great run. We ended up qualifying fourth. We felt like we were back.
Couldn't have come at a better time because, you know, comparing it to the playoffs, you know, you don't know if it's a good thing or bad thing sometimes to win your division and have a bye week. The guys don't get to hit as hard with pads and things like that.
Same thing in our deal. You got to get into your race mode as a driver, and the crew's got to get in the mode of turning the car around between rounds.
So it was nice to get back to focusing on racing and race day and approach and everything like we're going to starting here with the Countdown, and Indy, and especially with Skoal Showdown. It's gonna be in the heat of the day with the Showdown. It's hot and muggy today. It's miserable. But that might be the way it's going to be on Sunday.
I think that's why, you know, us, a lot of other teams, are out here in the middle of the day trying to duplicate what we may see.
MICHAEL PADIAN: A note on Ron. He mentioned the Skoal Showdown. He is the No. 2 seed in Skoal Showdown and will face his teammate Gary Scelzi in the first round of the Skoal Showdown next weekend at Indianapolis.
I'll jump to Tommy Johnson. You are the No. 4 seed in the Skoal Showdown. You drive the Skoal Chevy Impala. I know you did not qualify for the Countdown, but there's still an enormous amount at stake for the rest of the year and particularly next weekend, racing for the U.S. Nationals and your title sponsor's bonus.
TOMMY JOHNSON, JR.: Not making the Countdown, it's frustrating, disappointing, but almost at this point with all the pressure that's been put on to get in it, it's almost a relief. It's done. We're not in it, so let's go have some fun and win some races.
Coming into Indy, to win the Skoal Showdown and even maybe double up and win the race here at Indy would make up for that. You know, I think it would make up for a lot of heartbreak by not making the Countdown.
We have a really good team. The Skoal Impala has run really well at times and showed that at Englishtown, where we came out, qualified No. 1, won the race. It's not like we are way off and not competitive, it's just that we have had some problems this year getting it put together on a consistent basis.
But the performance is there. We've just got to buckle down and make sure that happens every week. I think it's going to allow us to maybe do some testing and try some things we haven't been able to do because the pressure has been on us to try to get in the Countdown.
I think, you know, coming into the rest of the year, I'll be disappointed if we don't finish the season, maybe win one more. We should go out there and win another race, got that good a team.
So I'd like nothing better to go out and win the Skoal Showdown, especially since Skoal is the sponsor of it, the sponsor of our team. To go to the final round last year and get runner-up to John Force in a really good drag race in the final there, I think our chances are really good. We're in the top half of the Skoal Showdown, so we'll have lane choice for first round. It's going to be a rematch. We're going to race John Force again first round, rematch of the final last year.
I was just hoping maybe Force would have saved that red light today for the first round of the Showdown. I'll let him be late the next time. That's fine with me.
MICHAEL PADIAN: As Tommy mentioned, he has John Force in the first round of the Showdown. The other first round matchups, top seed Robert Hight will meet eighth seed Jack Beckman, and No. 3 seed Tony Pedragon, who won today's race in Redding, will meet No. 6 seed Mike Ashley.
At this point I will open it up to questions.
Q. Michael, and the drivers, with the rain delay in Redding, testing having gone on for two days in Indy, is there going to be any kind of extension or special provision so the teams that were still competing at Redding will be allowed to get extra days so it's all balanced?
MICHAEL PADIAN: I'm not aware of that. That would be more of a question for Graham. I can look into that. Did you want to direct that to anyone else or have a follow up?
Q. Tommy, I was surprised and impressed and shocked when Melanie wanted to run heads up with Morgan. That was pretty impressive. Were you surprised that was her and her team's decision?
TOMMY JOHNSON, JR.: It's a good thing it wasn't me because I wouldn't have chose that (laughter).
But, you know, I don't think it was her place to say what they did because she's the driver. She's not the owner of the team or have any control over that. So I think she said, Hey, whatever you guys want to do, but let's go race and we'll run a heads up.
I was probably a little surprised by it. I mean, that's basically your whole goal, having multiple teams, to better each other, help each other when you can, make both cars better. When one has a chance and one doesn't, I would have looked at it in a little different light, but I wasn't in that situation.
You know, as far as she goes, I respect her decision. You always want to as a driver not have it held over you that it kind of was given to you anyway, so you want to go out there and earn that spot.
Everybody looks at it a different way. I think they were in a difficult situation. I think everybody would have thought badly of them if they did throw the race. Now everybody looks at them and thinks, Boy, they were stupid for not doing it. I'm not sure you could win in that situation.
I would have done it differently, but to each their own.
Q. Snake would have made you do it differently.
TOMMY JOHNSON, JR.: Yeah.
Q. Ron and Tommy, going into the end of the season for the multi-car teams, last few years everybody expected if one guy was contending for the championship, a teammate wasn't, they faced each other, dive, go for the big check. With this Countdown, it seems like it's pushed that strategy way earlier into the season. Do you think that's a good thing? Seems like it takes away from the National event competition.
RON CAPPS: No. I kind of disagree. The way I look at all that, you guys aren't writing stuff every Monday morning when Martin Truex pulls over and let's Earnhardt lead a lap and gain five points. Little things like that, I know they're not as big of points, but that's kind of the same as our qualifying points. Those things can add up.
I really don't think it's that big a deal. When it comes down -- basically the season's three parts, you know, as far as the way we look at it, the way I look at it. Guys like Tommy are gonna be spoilers. There's no doubt last year I probably lost the championship single handedly by Scott Kalitta. He beat us three times near the end of the season when we were leading the points and they were just trying some things and something they tried caught on and they were on fire. I mean, literally just hauling the mail there at the end of the season, and we ran into them. First round here, second round there, another first round, basically took us out.
I think what you're gonna see, later in the season if a team car isn't in the Countdown, yeah, you might see some help because then it's so crucial. It's like one of those guys pulling over and letting them lead for a lap. But right now we got our three cars in, so you're not going to see anything there. I hope I answered your question.
MICHAEL PADIAN: We do have Robert Hight on the call. We'll proceed with questions.
Q. Robert, you have a whole new car now, right?
ROBERT HIGHT: Well, that's where I'm at right now. I'm here in the shop in Indy. We're putting a car together and planning on going over to IRP tonight, making a run with it. So, yes, we have a brand-new car.
Q. Do you feel comfortable with that?
ROBERT HIGHT: I'll tell you in a few hours (laughter).
It should be just fine. It should be just fine. It's basically the same car we ran earlier in the year with a new front half on it. It's the car that went 463, 464. It should be good.
Q. Tommy, you said you're a little disappointed because you didn't make it into the Countdown. The whole first part of the season, the 17 races were focused on that. Now you can focus on something else. This is a whole new thing. Has it changed the whole team dynamic? A little bit of a letdown or you go down, run the last six races, do the best you can?
TOMMY JOHNSON, JR.: Yeah, I think so. Definitely the team morale took a hit when we didn't make the Countdown. I saw a lot of lips hanging out there last weekend.
But afterwards, you know, a day or so into it, I think more of a killer instinct comes out in them. Now they want to go out and have fun and maybe ruin it for somebody or play a spoiler in the thing.
I'm sure we're not going to run the standard setup we have been running because that obviously didn't work to get us into it. So we're going to start trying some things and do a little experimenting. Like Ron said, who knows, we may hit on to something, the car's performance picks right up, really excel. In the middle of all these eight guys battling it out, you might have somebody step up to the plate and be the guy to beat all of a sudden. So if they're going to win the championship, they have to get around that guy, the new guy that's not in it and ruining it for people.
We definitely have a new attitude, a new outlook on it. As far as I'm concerned, it kind of took the pressure off. You didn't make it so there's nothing you can do about it. Maybe bring a little more fun back into the racing because it gets to be so intense there.
I can tell you the last three or four races for me have been really pressure-filled, not only from your sponsors, owner, the team, yourself, the pressure you put on yourself, it hasn't been a whole lot of fun these last few races trying to perform and trying to make sure you get into that thing.
I'm going to go into Indy now probably the most relaxed I ever went into Indy, having a whole new attitude about it. Points are kind of a thing of the past. I'm going out to just win the race. Don't really care about anything else but having fun, winning the race. I'm kind of excited about it.
Definitely disappointed you didn't make it, but there's not a lot I can do to change that now. Let's go get 'em and let's go out and win every race we can and see how bad we can screw this thing up.
Q. It changes your approach for the last six races. You can actually do some experimenting or some testing for things you might want to look at in 2008, be a spoiler. Any particular targets in mind when you mention 'spoiler'?
TOMMY JOHNSON, JR.: I don't like any of them. They all made it, I didn't (laughter).
I think if there's any kind of advantage for not making it, the only advantage you're going to get is being able to test and try things for the next season where these other teams can't. You know, they're going to have to really concentrate on racing and concentrate on that event, where you can go out and try some stuff and experiment a little bit. I basically have six races of testing where that's a head start on all these other guys.
RON CAPPS: I'm going to an ATM with Tommy to pull some money out for him.
MICHAEL PADIAN: Ron, before I proceed, I want to bring something up that Tommy mentioned. One of the things you mentioned you like about the Countdown, last year's race there were so many cars, more cars, that may have been testing, whereas this year with eight cars in the Countdown to the Championship, there's fewer cars going to be testing, more cars that you're going to race heads up.
RON CAPPS: Are you asking me or telling me?
MICHAEL PADIAN: I'm asking you to touch on that point. I know you touched on it before as one of the things you liked about the Countdown format in terms of the teams involved in the championship.
RON CAPPS: Yeah, I really -- I grew up playing sport so I love the playoff atmosphere. You know, all you reporters, media, have asked us all year long, What do you think about the Countdown, what are your thoughts? It's funny because you guys are asking us the question, so it's obviously created a lot of buzz. People thought I might be upset we're leading so much in the points. We knew it going in. But I love it.
One thing we were real critical of NHRA about, just doing anything to elevate our sport, to bring any more fans, just anything. They've done so much in the last couple years. When this thing came out, it shocked all of us. It was a well-kept secret, but, man, I thought it was really cool.
I'm pumped. Again, I'm in it. Unfortunately, Tommy is not. I think probably NHRA is going to make some changes for next year. There will be things they find will work better. Man, I tell you what, the atmosphere in the pit area with us especially, I mean, I really can't wait to get here and just get it on. It's going to be exciting.
Q. Ron and Robert, you have enough to worry about at Indy with just winning Indy and the status of that event. You have the Showdown and everything. How much more urgency does the Countdown add to that weekend? Where do you think your head will be at that weekend?
RON CAPPS: You and I talked a little bit about that. 'Urgency' is probably a good word for it. Back at the end of the season, you probably went over in your head cars that should have made it, who your pick would have been. At the time you kind of put the format in your head, okay, eight races, then there's some races after that, then there's the Vegas and Indy part where it gets down to four cars.
Now, I mean, it's like four races, it's going to be incredibly quick. I was just looking at my schedule the next month and a half. Okay, we have the Indy race, weekend off, Memphis, Dallas, Richmond, boom, we're done. The last four are gone. The front four go on. It's going to happen fast.
I think if anybody's taking any kind of lackadaisical approach, we can do okay here, I mean, you just have a bad one of those four races and it's going to put you behind the eight ball for sure.
But 'urgency' is a good word for it 'cause, you know, you want every single point now. Not that you didn't before, but every qualifying point, every round is ultra important.
Q. The Showdown, do you think that kind of shifts your focus a little bit? How do you focus on the Showdown when you have the Countdown? A follow-up would be, the cars, trying to get them ready for an event like this and the Showdown as well.
RON CAPPS: The Showdown, I've been lucky enough, I drove for U.S. Tobacco for a decade. Tommy was my teammate. He can tell you, too, it's a race within a race, and you kind of stand back on Thursday before the race starts, Okay, we need to get qualified. It always figures that some guys aren't in the show, then they're in the Showdown, they're trying to move up at the same time. It's the heat of the day. You got to go into that race with a race-day approach. You got to maybe roll it in a little deeper staging. It also counts for your qualifying up till the final round of that thing.
That thing, you wake up Sunday morning, you have this whole mental attitude of what you think you're going to approach the Showdown, and that goes out the window. They do driver introductions for the Showdown. The guy skydives down with his load of money in his briefcase, then those nerves hit. The hair stands up on the back of your neck. You're like, This is the best eight Funny Cars going for $100,000.
I tell you, that race in itself is such just an All-Star feeling that you forget that you're at Indy, you forget about the whole race. It's just that race you're concentrating on. It's bitchin'. I mean, it's the -- knowing there's $100,000 and only three rounds to do it, it's pretty cool.
Q. Do you use different cars for the Showdown and for the race?
RON CAPPS: No. We use the same cars. It's actually -- you go to the final of the Showdown, you actually get a little more track time over the other guys. If you happen to hit your stride during the weekend and you're doing well in the Showdown, you actually get a little more track time, a little more data against the other guys.
I think the guys that are in the Countdown that are also in the Showdown, it's probably going to be an advantage to them come Monday when we race the race here. Could be a good thing for those guys just to have extra data and a little more information.
MICHAEL PADIAN: Robert, with the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals already being the race on the POWERade Series, now it has the added significance of being the first race in the playoffs, how do you keep your and your team's emotions in check this weekend?
ROBERT HIGHT: In the past, everybody has worked toward Indy, to win Indy. The truth of the matter is, you get the same amount of points at Indy as you get at any other race, just there's more prestige, a little bit more money at stake, and especially for the Funny Cars, the Skoal Showdown. It's like you go to Denver and the high altitude, you get the same amount of points, the same amount of round wins.
So this year I think they did it to where it definitely makes Indy way more special and it's more important than it has been in the past. Last year going into Indy, I think one of the reasons we did so well there with my team is we were kind of out of the deal with the normal points system. We went in there and we won the race and got on a roll, went to Dallas and won, Maple Grove runner-up, and now suddenly we're back in this points deal.
That's the toughest thing to me, is to go this with the attitude, you know, like what Tommy said earlier, relaxed attitude. I think you'll have a better shot at winning. But once you get there and you see all the people that are at Indy, all the former stars, guys that have won it in the past, just all the hype around Indy, it's pretty hard not to be nervous and keep your cool about you. But that's what we have to try to do.
Q. Tommy, you touched on the spoiler role. It's really more than just a silver lining. You didn't make the Countdown. You touched on the killer instinct, the ability to test and work towards the 2008 season. It's also got to be a great feeling knowing these guys still in the Countdown have that added pressure. What the heck are these other guys going to do, they've been strong, won a race or two like you?
TOMMY JOHNSON, JR.: You almost have a little chip on your shoulder to say, Hey, we belonged in that Countdown. And just because we're not in it, don't forget about us. You definitely come out here with a little bit of an attitude as far as wanting to be a spoiler and still get those race wins and show that your team is capable of competing at that level.
We won a race earlier in the season, so, I mean, it isn't like our car isn't competitive and we can't win races. We just happen to not put enough of them together to get in the Countdown.
You definitely come out there with a little bit of a different attitude of maybe, let's Show 'em. Just 'cause we didn't make it, don't think we aren't capable of it, don't forget about us. I think you're going to see a lot of upsets by people that aren't in the Countdown against guys that are and you'll look back at the end of this thing and think, you know, the guys that Funny Car as a class, as a whole, there are 19 or 20 cars that show up every week that here lately every one of them can win the race. We've had this season where every car that's been on the tour has not qualified at an event. So that's never happened before, where every Funny Car has not qualified at least once. That shows you how tough the class is.
Just because you're in the Countdown, I don't think it's going to be any easier for you the rest of the year. You've got at least 10 or 11 cars out here that are going to be extremely tough and you've got to get by them as well as the other guys that are in this Countdown. I'm sure the guys that aren't in it got an attitude of, you know, a little bit of spite and 'I'll show you' attitude.
Q. Robert, what happened in Redding with the chassis on your car on that run?
ROBERT HIGHT: Well, we had pretty severe tire shake. Until just a few minutes ago, we didn't quite know how much tire shake. We have some instrumentation on our cars that show the amount of g-forces, vertical, lateral and horizontal. Actually we have an accelerometer in my ears. There were spikes of 200 g's up and down. When I pedaled it, what it did was it unloaded one tire, basically one tire was off the ground and one tire was on the ground, and it basically buckled the bottom frame rail of our car.
You know, we noticed it. It was not safe to go back up there and even do a burnout against Tim Wilkerson. So my team headed for Indy and we're putting a new car together. Luckily we have a little bit of an opportunity to test tonight and tomorrow here in Indy.
Q. Ron and Robert, do you think the intensity level of the Countdown, do you think that takes an additional toll on yourself and your team over time?
ROBERT HIGHT: Well, you know what, I'm probably at kind of a disadvantage in this deal because I'm so new at this. Ron has been out there a lot of years as well as my boss, John Force, a lot of the guys in the top eight, Scelzi. All these guys have a lot of experience. They've won championships. They know what it takes to get over these adverse conditions, rise to the top. I still have to learn all that.
Luckily I have John, a mentor, my teammate. He can kind of coach me through this. But I'm still just loving this job, the opportunity I have to drive this Funny Car. I don't ever look at it negatively like it's going to take a toll on me. I can't wait to get to the next race already.
I'm sure the pressure, it will get you. That was one thing I noticed from working on the cars, there's a lot of physical stress. Those guys work their butts off out there day after day. When I start driving, I didn't work as hard. But trying to win and trying to do all you can to get better, that's a lot of mental pressure. It definitely does take a toll on you.
I'm up for it, I can tell you that.
RON CAPPS: I felt like we have a little bit of experience from the last few years battling down to Pomona basically. You know, Robert, when he's in the lane next to you, definitely you don't even think he's a new driver, he does such a great job. I think all the guys, every scenario is so different that you think you've got a little edge maybe because you've been in that situation.
I tell you, every single run, there's always something different. Whether you don't have lane choice, this or that, it never seems like you've already been there. It seems like every time you're in the car, something different and new happens. I just try to take it one single run at a time. I know it sounds cliché, but that's about it. That's all you can do.
Q. Robert, that reading you got from the tire shake, is that one of the highest readings since you had all that technology added to collect data like that to improve the race cars?
ROBERT HIGHT: Yes, it is. That is the main reason we're taking all this data is so that we can improve these race cars and the safety of 'em. I believe when we get some more data, it's also going to improve the performance of them, as well.
You know, when you say 200 g's, that's a number, right? Well, I didn't look at the data very much. It probably wasn't obviously for a sustained amount of time, just a quick 200 g hit. Yeah, that's pretty aggressive tire shake. We've had that before. But we just haven't had the instrumentation on the cars to detect it and try to figure out what goes on there.
Murph McKinney makes chassis. He can go in there and computer model a lot of things. Unless he knows the forces that are being applied to it, he can't really simulate it and model it like in real life.
What all this data is doing, he's here at our shop today. This data is going to help make better Funny Cars and safer Funny Cars for everybody.
Q. Did you feel better during this situation with all the new stuff you put into the cockpit? Did it give you a headache?
ROBERT HIGHT: No, no headaches at all. I had good vision. I could see. When the tire shake is going on, obviously your vision's a little messed up. But I pedaled it, the car recovered. Went down there and just barely got to the finish line before Scelzi.
But, yes, the safety stuff and the padding that we had obviously did its job because under those kind of extreme conditions, you probably wouldn't have driven it to the other end, you'd probably just lift it before.
Q. Ron, after St. Louis, winning there, you didn't qualify, and then you had a spate of first-round losses. Did something change after St. Louis?
RON CAPPS: We brought a new car out in Topeka, decided to go into a test mode to try some things for the Countdown. We expected to lose maybe a couple positions even. So, anyway, all the things we tried, it turned out that we brought in another car after Brainerd and found out the chassis we had since Topeka wasn't reacting, something was wrong with it. Talked to Murph McKinney. Pulled one of our spares down. It was fresh the front half. Pulled it out for a first run in Redding and everything is back to normal. Ace has all the setups back to the way it was at the beginning of the year and the car started running great again.
Just one of those things. We learned a valuable lesson. The car was trying to tell us that something was wrong with it and we just thought it was things we were trying in testing. So we'll file that away in our memory banks. I'm just glad we got a hot rod under us.
Q. You were No. 1 or the quickest runs yesterday at Indy. This is the car you'll go into Indy with?
RON CAPPS: Yeah, we have a new wide-cage car that just got finished from Murph. Get fitted for that next week. We're going to try to test Tuesday after the Indy race, make a couple laps on it, maybe bring that out and try. But we're going to run this, yes, to answer your question. Ace is kind of in a practice mode here. I know it's a test session. But we're kind of practicing racing rather than just trying to test some things. We feel like we've tested enough since Topeka. He's approaching it like race day. I think that shows why we were quick in the heat yesterday and last night.
MICHAEL PADIAN: I'd like to thank Ron and Robert and Tommy for joining us today. I know they all have very busy schedules heading into next week. Of course thank you to the media for joining us on today's call. We'll see you next week. Any request you have for drivers or anything else you need from the communications department here at NHRA, please don't hesitate to call. Thank you and have a good afternoon.
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