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April 18, 2014

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Family Bond Takes Johnson & Johnson To Pinnacle

Originally published: 2012-11-30 10:35:27
Last modified: 2012-11-30 10:36:24
 


BY DARREN REESE

SPORTS EDITOR

Back in the early 1980s, Roy Johnson had to make a tough parenting decision.

His son, Allen, was struggling in college, raising two kids and couldn't keep his focus on either due to a drag racing hobby.

Roy needed some extra cash so he decided to solve both problems and sell the race car.

Allen was furious. Roy made a deal with his son.

"I told him when he got his degree and got his own money then I would help him race," Roy remembered. "I was thinking he would never give it another thought. But he came back (to the sport) and here we are."

Where they are is at the pinnacle of the national drag racing circuit.

With Allen as the driver and Roy as the engine builder, Johnson & Johnson racing recently captured the 2012 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Pro Stock world championship.

For the father-son combo from Greeneville, it was the realization of a dream several decades in the making.

GOING BACK TO WHERE IT ALL STARTED

When Allen stood on the stage in the Grand Ballroom of the Hollywood and Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif., earlier this month and was introduced as the 2012 NHRA Pro Stock Series champion, he couldn't help but be flooded with emotion.

After all, this was the culmination of a dream that started long before Allen could have ever dreamed it up.

That's because before Allen got hooked on the racing thing, his father was paving the way.

Roy began his racing career back in the early 1960s. Like his son later in life, Roy, too, had ambitions of one day becoming a Pro Stock champion. There was only one problem - back then, Roy didn't have the money it took to compete at that level.

The highest level he ever made it to was Super Stock.

A young Allen didn't share his father's love of racing at first. But after many weekends of playing in the dirt at English Mountain Dragway in Newport, it finally started to grow on him.

"I'll admit, I hated racing," Allen said. "I played football and all that stuff as a kid."

"But then, I just started to like it for some reason."

As Allen got older, he and his father competed as a two-car super stock operation. It was a family affair, with Allen's mother, Revonda, driving the truck.

"Dad let her drive it until she wrecked it," Allen quipped.

Then came that fateful moment when Roy told his oldest son they were going to shut it down so that Allen would concentrate on getting a college degree.

"Basically he run me off and said get an

education," Allen laughed.

Roy remembers it a different way.

"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."

It wasn't long before Allen came back from East Tennessee State University with an accounting degree in tote. The next several years, he got "lucky in business" as he puts it, and was ready to see if his dad would keep up his end of the bargain.

GROWING PAINS

The year was 1996. Allen had some money. He also had his dad onboard.

One thing the father-son duo lacked, though, was the knowledge of what it took to compete on the Pro Stock circuit.

Neither had raced at such a high level and the growing pains were evident the first few seasons.

"Those first four or five years I think we qualified for about five races," Allen remembered. "It was a very tough learning curve for me as a driver and for dad building engines."

"Here we were trying to catch up with people that had been doing this for 30 years."

The two were trying to make it on their own back then. Allen was the driver and clutch guy, Roy was the crew chief and engine builder.

The first year or two was a money pit. They tested a lot and failed to qualify for races.

"I look back on it and just how hard we were working day and night 17 years ago," Roy said. "We didn't know what we were doing at first. We were trying to climb a mountain without really knowing how to get up it."

"I knew how to put a motor together, but did I really know what it took to be competitive in this sport? No."

Three years after Allen's first career Pro Stock start, things finally started to look up.

He recorded his first win at Richmond in 1999 and went on to finish in the top 10 of the year-end standings.

The successes didn't snowball right away, though. The next two wins came in three-year intervals (2002 and 2005).

A WAKE-UP CALL

In a sport that is known for its death-defying speeds, Allen's biggest scare didn't occur in a race car, but it did happen at the track.

In 2007, at an NHRA event in Phoenix, Roy suffered a near-fatal heart attack.

"I had my lights go out and they shocked me back to life," he describes it.

The moment shook the whole family. But it also coincided with the start of Allen's eventual rise to superstardom.

He went on to qualify for the inaugural NHRA Pro Stock Countdown to the Championship postseason that year, and he ended up finishing fourth.

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 2010, and advanced past the first round in 21 of 23 events that season.

This season, the team finally put it all together and learned what it took to be consistently dominant week in and week out. Allen won seven events 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. "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."

The Johnson & Johnson racing team was particularly dominant in the second half of this season. After losing at his home track of Bristol back in June - in a virtual dead heat, nonetheless - Allen won five races, including three in the Countdown to the Championship.

"I think the second half of the year was probably the culmination of the efforts of the first part of the year," Allen explained. "It actually got easier. We were doing a better job. All the hard work, the testing, the beating our heads against the wall for the first three or four races, we knew what it took."

"It got to where we expected to be the number one car every run down the track - and we were."

A FAMILY AFFAIR

With 23 events on the 2012 NHRA schedule, not to mention countless hours of testing and working in the shop, it has been imperative that Allen and Roy have been backed by an understanding family, a first-class crew, and supportive sponsors.

That's why Allen describes the Pro Stock championship as a "family success story."

Revonda and Allen's wife, Pam, are on the road with the team every week coast to coast. Allen constantly thanks his Greeneville "family" for the loyal following and constant well wishes, and his employees at Greeneville Oil and Petroleum for supporting his dream chasing.

The Johnsons have maintained their local roots no matter where the racing successes have taken them. They still run their operation out of Roy's automotive shop in town.

The pit crew consists of eight individuals, including crew chief Mark Ingersoll and team engineer Jim Yates.

"This is not an individual accomplishment," Allen said. "I have the luxury of an amazing team."

Ingersoll has been with the Johnsons since 2001. Yates, a former Pro Stock champion in his own right, just came on board in recent years. He brought a new dimension to the team that had been sorely needed.

"There was a hole there," Allen noted. "(Jim) gave us what we lacked. Jim is an engineer, and he is very good at planning and data manipulation. He was able to look at things more from an engineering perspective. Before him, we were basing a lot of our decisions on instincts alone."

Allen considers his sponsor, Dodge Mopar, family, as well. Allen's 2012 championship marked the first NHRA title for Dodge since 1994.

"It's Mopar's 75th anniversary," Allen noted. "So to be able win a championship for them, it's huge."

"The Mopar fans are some of the most loyal fans in the country, so I'm thrilled and happy to do this for them."

LIVING IN THE MOMENT

Back under the bright lights on that Hollywood stage two weeks ago, Allen couldn't help but tear up.

Roy, too, understood the magnitude of the moment.

"I couldn't help getting a little emotional," Roy said. "Forty-four years ago I started all this, and it's been 17 years getting here with my son. (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."

It was a bittersweet moment for one particular member of the crew, as well. Ingersoll lost his father earlier this year. In the midst of the celebration, he couldn't help but think about his dad.

"I would have liked to have shared this with him, like Allen and Roy are able to do," Ingersoll said. "But to do this with my racing family is very special."

"Everyone has worked super hard for this."

And that's really what the past 17 years have been about, down at that little ole shop in Greeneville, Tennessee - family.

"It's a family success," Allen said. "It's what our family has worked for, it's what we've dreamed of. It's just a success for our entire family, crew, everyone involved."

"Being able to do this with my dad, my mom, my wife, every single weekend, it's just phenomenal. There is a bond there that can't be explained. Sure, my dad and I have had our heated moments over the years, but even then, it just makes our bond that much stronger."

And the NHRA world got a glimpse of that bond at the season-ending banquet.

As Allen gave his championship speech, he called Roy up on stage. With tears in both their eyes, the son turned to his dad and said, 'Dad, we've finally realized our dream'."

 
For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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