There are many ways for a driver to secure a top ride in stock car racing. Talent, money and opportunistic timing are among them. Or one can take the path of T.J. Johnson, landing the ride while dating the car owner's daughter.
Johnson drives the "Trank Tank" Late Model that the team, owned by Gordon Trank, campaigns on the NASCAR and Mid-Atlantic Asphalt Racing Alliance (MAARA) Late Model circuits.
The 30-year-old South Wales resident is a talented driver who has won two career titles in two divisions. The team aims to do well in the MAARA Fuccillo Auto Park Huge 100 this Saturday at Holland NASCAR Motorsports Complex.
In 2001, following a hiatus in his driving career, Johnson began to drive Trank's car while dating Trank's daughter, Samantha. The "Trank Tank" is one of the best-known and longest-running cars in local racing. Drivers such as Mike Wrobel, Rodney Arndt and Mark "Bushy" Bliss all have won behind the wheel of this machine.
Johnson has done well in winning races, including the 2005 Lancaster Raceway Park Late Model championship. Both the racing and romance have clicked as Johnson still has his ride, and he and Samantha were married in 2003. Last fall the couple welcomed their first child, daughter Kylee.
"I'm looking forward to the Huge 100," said Johnson, Holland's 1998 NASCAR Pro Modified champion. "I like the longer races such as those 100 laps or more. I think there will be plenty of competition at Holland Saturday. I expect over 30 cars there. Our car is never ever really dominant but it is always competitive.
"Of all the places we travel to, I think I've got a good chance to do well at Holland because I know that track so well. I've driven a lot there and when I was growing up I might have missed a total of six weeks going there."
This is the first race of the season at Holland for the Late Models, which has been relegated to part-time status there this season. Cost is a large factor.
"If you look at our Late Model teams in this area, I think nine out of every 10 teams are owned by car owners who have their own businesses," Johnson said. "There are not too many drivers who can afford these cars on their own anymore. I haven't owned my own race cars since 1998, and I know that I couldn't foot the bill myself today like I did a few years ago."
After winning his Holland title in 1998, Johnson moved to North Carolina to work for Jimmy Spencer's NASCAR Busch Series team. He returned to this area a few months later. In 2001, he reappeared behind the wheel again racing Rich Pocobello's NASCAR Pro Truck at Holland. Johnson competed in six races, winning once.
His first race for Trank was at Holland in the 2001 Budweiser 100. He finished fifth in NASCAR Late Model points at Holland in 2002 and won a race there the next season. In 2005, he won three consecutive midseason races at Lancaster on his way to that track's title. Currently he competes each week at Lake Erie Speedway.
One may wonder how the team operates when the car owner is also your father-in-law.
"Gordon does a good job of wearing his different hats," said Johnson. "He knows when to be the father-in-law and be a family man and he separates that from what he must do as a car owner when we are at the shop or at the track. He also is able to concentrate on his real estate and insurance businesses. He expects me to perform to the best of my ability no matter who I am."
*Lancaster Raceway Park has a huge weekend of its own this weekend. Sege Fidanza, Tom McGrath, Bill Putney, Bobby Holmes and Erick Rudolph are some of the local stars who will vie for a win against the traveling talent in the Sunoco Race of Champions Modified Tour Firecracker 75 Saturday night at the track. This is the first race for the Modifieds at Lancaster since early May.
*Fidanza has been competing each Friday evening at Spencer Speedway since the Modifieds no longer campaign at Lancaster on a weekly basis.
*The Alcohol Funny Car of local standout Vince Rastelli will challenge three other invaders during the four-car Alcohol Funny Car Shootout on Friday at Lancaster. The event will highlight Lancaster's weekly IHRA drag racing program.
*Hamburg native Tim Jones, despite a broken shock, won the Lucas Oil 358 Modified Shootout Series event last Saturday at Genesee Speedway.