A Racer’s Perseverance | Performance Racing Industry
A Racer’s Perseverance
By Meredith Kaplan Burns on February 18, 2015

Quickest pass in NHRA history.
Top qualifying position.
Event win.
And all without a sponsor.

That about sums up the accomplishments of the Alan Johnson Racing (AJR) team earlier this month at the 55th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, California.

But the full story dates back to the conclusion of the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season in November, when AJR was feeling pretty confident after completing another strong year with drivers Shawn Langdon, who finished fourth in Top Fuel, and Khalid alBalooshi, who finished eighth. Driving for the team, Langdon had won the Top Fuel title in 2013.

However, just one month shy of this season’s opening race in Pomona, Alan Johnson gathered his team and informed them that sponsor Qatar Racing Club had just pulled its funding out of all North American racing activities, including support for the team. As a result, the two-car team known for the past six years as Al-Anabi Racing was downsized to one car, with Langdon as the sole driver; 40 percent of its employees were laid off; purchasing of new parts and equipment was placed on hold; and plans to test in Florida the following week with other drag racing teams were squashed.

While the situation may have appeared bleak, this is racing. And racers find ways to persevere where others don’t.

Alan Johnson remained undeterred.

“I think it’s fortunate that budget-wise we were always in a good position,” he told us. “Because we lost our funding, it wasn’t going to create bankruptcy or anything like that. It is just inconvenient, unfortunate. It’s a fact of life, and there is nothing we can do to change it, so we are going to focus on going forward.”

He added that the circumstances had done little to change how his team would approach races, particularly the first race of the 2015 NHRA Top Fuel season. “Our decision was to race the first two events—Pomona and Phoenix. Our mentality is, ‘We are not going to go to the race track unless we think we have a chance of winning.’ That is the reason why we are in this business: to win races. So, when we decided to go ahead to Pomona, we basically continued the same formula that we had started at the end of last year.”

Specifically, the team built a new car, and made some changes to the clutch and the engine.

After departing from the team’s shop in Brownsburg, Indiana, they stopped off at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for a few test runs, then on to Pomona.

As a result, Johnson said, “It all worked great. We had expected it to work. The crew did a fantastic job, and so did the driver, and we came out winners.”

Johnson is personally bankrolling the team for the first two races of the season. And while AJR didn’t have a sponsor at Pomona, they found a marketing partner outside of the sport in Guy Fieri.

The celebrity chef known for several restaurants and popular Food Network television shows, including Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, is personal friends with AJR general manager and former Top Fuel driver Brandon Bernstein.

According to Johnson, Fieri visited the team last year at the NHRA event in Sonoma and quickly took to the sport. Fieri was in Pomona to experience the thrill of Langdon’s most recent win.

As a marketing partner, Fieri’s Knuckle Sandwich brand was emblazoned on Langdon’s car, and it will be there again at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park this weekend. Fieri will work with the team to add value to the AJR brand and help attract more mainstream-type sponsors, Johnson said.

After its success in Pomona, one might assume sponsors would be knocking on the team’s door. “If sponsorships were solely based on performance, I think we would have them lined up, ready to go,” said Johnson. “But, unfortunately, that is not the case.”

While Johnson noted that creating those newsworthy moments in Pomona did bring greater media exposure to the team’s brand, “it’s not the sole attraction that a sponsor sees. And the fact that we started searching [for a sponsor] in January, versus April or June for the following year, has really added to the difficulty of finding funding. Our economy isn’t exactly 100 percent right now anyway, and then throw in the fact that we started way late trying to secure funding—it is going to be an uphill battle.”

As the team prepares to fire up its race engine in Chandler, Arizona, this weekend, Johnson reiterated the team’s plans “are like we would approach any race. We are going to go there and we are going to try to win.”

But, he added, if the team cannot secure funding in time for the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida, next month, “We will have to shut the team down.”

It’s hard to imagine, especially since AJR has won three of the past five NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel World Championships with drivers Shawn Langdon (2013), Del Worsham (2011) and Larry Dixon (2010), as well as three World Titles with Gary Scelzi (1997, 1998 and 2000). Including his five World Championships as Tony Schumacher’s crew chief (2004–2008), Johnson owns 11 NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel World Championships. Overall, Johnson has 15 NHRA National Championships to his credit, including Top Fuel and alcohol dragster.

“If we are lucky enough to find funding within the next few weeks, we are going to race a complete season,” he stressed, “and, I would put my money on us to win a championship.”

Indeed, even as the team fights for its survival, don’t count out Alan Johnson Racing and Shawn Langdon as a top contender when the series returns to Pomona at season’s end.

About the Author
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Meredith Kaplan Burns is the Managing Editor of Performance Racing Industry magazine.
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