BY DARREN REESE
SUN SPORTS EDITOR
December 8, 1959.
Unofficially, that's when Johnson & Johnson Racing first began.
It didn't come in the form of a garage with shiny new race cars and fine-tuned engines. It didn't come on a track somewhere in Pomona or Gainesville.
That's the day Roy and Revonda Johnson gave birth to their only son, Allen.
Roy had been a racer nearly all his life. And though it took nearly 35 years for both father and son to realize it at the same time, the love for the sport was also in Allen's blood.
Since 1995, they have been inseparable - Allen the driver and Roy the engine builder and crew chief.
Together they have shared adversity and good fortune, success and defeat.
They have fought with each other, laughed with each other, cried with each other and celebrated with each other.
During those first few seasons on the NHRA circuit back in the mid-1990s, the money went fast, the results came slowly, and the lessons learned were hard. Allen and Roy never thought about giving up on each other.
When Roy suffered a heart attack at a track in Arizona back in 2007, his only thought was to get back to helping his son win races. He was back to work almost immediately.
Since that fateful afternoon, Johnson & Johnson Racing has been on a tear. And last November, after almost two decades of doing everything they could to make it in the business, Allen and Roy stood on the stage in the Grand Ballroom of the Hollywood and Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif., realizing a dream.
Allen was being honored as the 2012 NHRA Pro Stock Division champion. He called his dad up on stage, and the two broke down in tears.
But as touching as that moment was, winning the championship may not be the most special gift Allen wants to give his father, as a thank you of sorts for Roy's dedication, belief and love over the years.
Allen wants nothing more than to give his dad a win at Bristol, their home track, on Father's Day Weekend.
That opportunity is here once again as the Ford Thunder Valley Nationals are scheduled for Friday-Sunday at Bristol's famed drag strip
Allen lost in the finals at Bristol a year ago in the most heartbreaking fashion - a virtual dead heat at the finish line to rival Mike Edwards.
This weekend, Allen Johnson comes home with redemption on his mind - not just for himself, but for Roy and the entire family.
"To give dad a win on Father's Day at Bristol would be something that would rank right up there with winning the championship," Allen said Wednesday afternoon.
"A lot of people don't have the opportunity to be with their father on Father's Day, so to be here with him, doing what we both love to do, what we've worked so hard for together, that would just be something very, very special."
The Early Years
Cars were a way of life for the Johnsons even before Allen was born.
Roy, a full-time mechanic, raced anything that had a motor, from go-karts to stock cars to drag cars.
With a wife and three kids to support, Roy's racing didn't always make economic sense, but somehow he and Revonda found a way to make it work.
"There were some tracks we would go to where we didn't have enough money to get everyone in," Roy remembered, during an interview from his shop in Greeneville Wednesday evening. "So Revonda and the kids would stay outside and play in the grass."
"When I look back on it now, it wasn't very smart to keep on doing it from a money standpoint, but somehow we did."
Revonda once described in an issue of IHRA Drag Review Magazine what life was really like for the family back then.
"We stayed in one room, all nine of us," she explained. "We took the mattress off the bed and some people slept on the floor on the mattress and some slept on the bed on the spring. We took bologna and cheese. We ate potted meat and Beenie Weenies. We couldn't eat out. All the money we had had to go to getting the car in the lane.
"That's the only life we knew," she said. But it was a fun life, full of family outings and memorable times with their racing family.
Allen remembers those years fondly, as well, even though he wasn't particularly interested in the racing.
"Growing up, I remember I was seven or eight years old, playing in the red clay dirt out at Newport, listening to those cars go by," Allen said.
"It was something we did together as a family. My mom, she would help drive the truck. Her and dad worked on the car. We would leave on Friday after they got off work, just in time to get to the races. Then on Sunday, we would drive home late so that they could be back at work Monday morning."
In the 1970s, Roy began racing IHRA and eventually became a two-time Super Stock division champion.
At the time, Allen wasn't impressed.
"He was more interested in football and girlfriends and stuff like that, just like any other high school kid would be," Roy said.
But even then, Allen still respected what his father was doing.
"I always looked up to him," Allen said. "He was one of those dads that could fix anything, who could do anything. Our relationship was always good. It's always been special."
Allen Catches Racing Fever
That father-son relationship took an unexpected turn around 1977 when a 17-year-old Allen came to Roy and asked if he could tag along to a race.
Roy couldn't believe it, but he went along with it
Eventually, Roy put Allen in a car, and the younger Johnson began competing on the IHRA circuit as well.
Allen first made a trip down the Bristol Dragway pavement in 1979. He almost won the IHRA championship that year.
Like his father, Allen was hooked on racing. In fact, he was too hooked, according to Roy.
"He would come in and keep working on that race car when he should have been going to school," Roy said. "I thought, 'This isn't going to work'."
"I had a chance to sell the car and got rid of it. He got mad at me. I told him if he ever got the money on his own, we would race again."
"That's where I made my mistake," Roy added with a laugh.
And just like that, Johnson & Johnson racing was shut down by the man who started it.
Roy told Allen to forget about the racing and concentrate on getting a college education.
start of the journey
Nearly a decade later, Allen approached his father with the intention of holding him to that promise.
Allen had a degree from East Tennessee State University and by then was on his way to becoming a successful business man in Greeneville.
Now he wanted to race.
"I basically just told him, 'Good luck,'" Roy remembered.
"Revonda and I were having a good time making flea market runs and stuff like that," he laughed. "I was enjoying life. I didn't really have an interest in getting back into it."
Allen wasn't going to take no for an answer though.
"He basically told me, 'This is what we're going to do,'" Roy said.
Neither of them knew what it took to compete on the NHRA Pro Stock level, but that's where they headed in the mid-1990s, with Allen as the driver and Roy as the crew chief and engine builder.
The first few years were a money pit. The team tested a lot but never saw positive results on the track.
But even then, neither one of them ever seriously considered throwing in the towel.
"If money is the only reason you race, then you don't ever need to start," Roy said, "because 99 percent of the time, the outcome is always going to be negative."
Allen added, "There were times we were beating our heads against the wall, times when we thought that it wasn't worth it or it wasn't any fun. But we always smoothed things over and got right back to it."
The team tasted its first bit of success in 1999 with a victory at Richmond. But, still, things didn't just take off from there. The next two wins were in 2002 and 2005.
a defining moment
Drag racing is known for its death-defying speeds and spectacular crashes.
But the biggest scare for Allen didn't come behind the wheel of a car.
In late February 2007, Roy suffered a heart attack during qualifying for the Checker Schuck's Kragen NHRA Nationals at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix, Ariz.
Roy brushes the incident off as a mere speed bump on the road to success.
"It didn't slow me down," Roy said. "They cleaned my pipe out, and I was right back out there (at the track)."
When asked if Allen told him to take some time off after that, Roy laughed, "No. He told me to get over it and get back to work."
If anything, the incident made the bond between father and son even stronger.
"I think it strengthened our desire to see this thing through together," Allen said. "We realized that we weren't going to be here forever."
"We worked smarter after that. We were more relentless. It was one of those defining moments for our race team. It changed everything."
track to stardom
Whatever changes the team made, they soon translated to success on the track.
Allen went on to qualify for the inaugural NHRA Pro Stock Countdown to the Championship postseason that 2007 season, and he ended up finishing fourth in the final standings.
In 2009, Allen posted multiple victories in a single season for the first time. He won the No. 1 qualifier in the final four races of the 2010 season, and advanced past the first round in 21 of 23 events.
But 2012 is when it all came together for Johnson & Johnson Racing.
Allen won seven races in 2012, including the season-finale at Pomona, which clinched the series championship.
"I think my dad's determination to overcome what happened to him five years ago inspired us all," Allen said after winning the championship.
"We thought he was a goner, but fortunately he made it through that, and ever since then it's been a fun ride for us all."
a shot at redemption
The Johnson & Johnson Racing Team comes to Bristol this week with its eye on redemption.
At his home track last year, Allen lost to Mike Edwards by the closest final-round margin in NHRA history.
The race ended in a virtual dead heat, with the recorded margin of victory showing .0000 of a second.
"I was not horribly disappointed losing last year," Johnson said. "It was certainly a little disappointing, but it was an exciting finish for the fans and teams alike. You can't be disappointed about that."
"We were just on the wrong side of the bullet there. It was a great race and we knew it."
Allen expects another highly-competitve weekend at Thunder Valley again this year.
He currently sits third in the current Pro Stock points standings - three points behind teammate Jeg Coughlin and 155 behind Edwards.
Allen won races at Gainesville, Fla., and Las Vegas earlier this year, and has finished runner-up in the past two events on the schedule.
For Allen, the biggest disappointment about last year's race is that he was unable to win at his home track for his father on Father's Day, and for all his friends and family that were in attendance.
"Father's Day has always been a special day for our family," Allen said. "To be able to have my father at Bristol and try to win that race is a special incentive."
"It would mean getting an annoying monkey off our back. We almost got it done for the family, friends, and employees last year, and there is no doubt it would be special for everyone, including the hometown fans."
What would it mean to Roy if the team could win at Bristol this weekend?
"It would just be another dream come true," he said. "Another thing we could mark off our bucket list."
"I'm sure (Allen) and I would both break down over it. You don't work your whole life for a dream and not have some emotions."
A Special Bond
For the Johnsons, every weekend is kind of like Father's Day.
Allen and Roy spend the majority of the year traveling the country, doing what they love to do, and sharing a special bond that not every father and son enjoy.
"Some people don't get to see their father four days out of the year," Allen said. "Here I get to see my dad at least four days a week, usually more."
And that's what this journey to the top of the NHRA world has been about to the two - family.
Allen may not have liked racing growing up, but he respected what his father did just enough to pick up some of the tricks of the trade along the way.
"My dad was a heck of a race car driver," Allen said. "But he is just a great dad. Looking back, those times we shared together at the track will always be very special to me."
Roy added with a grin: "He grew up watching me drive, and I think I was pretty good at it."
"But I guess he listened to what I said to do, what not to do, and he just went with that when he started driving."
The respect Roy has for his son is equally strong.
"Allen just had some of those natural gifts that have made him a great race car driver. First of all, he was a great athlete, so that helped with his coordination and body reflexes. He also has a cool head, which is one of the most important things when something goes wrong."
"He was a good kid growing up, a smart kid."
And so Allen and Roy come home to Bristol this weekend, continuing to live their dream together. They will celebrate Father's Day just as they have almost every year for as long as either one can remember - at the track.
And that's just fine by both of them.
"Forty-four years ago I started all this, and it's been 17 years getting here with my son," Roy said late last year. "It's been a lot of fussing and arguing, but we made it."
"I'm glad they didn't leave my lights out (back in 2007) so we could enjoy this moment together."
Roy always wanted to race Pro Stock, but wasn't able to because of financial limitations. That's a big part of what has kept Allen so determined over the years - to help his dad live out his dream.
"To be able to give my father what he wanted all his life - that's one of the reasons we are where we are today," Allen said. "It's been a challenge, but we did it together."
"What more could a father and son ask for?"