Johnson on

NHRA drivers juggle marriage, competition

In the 4? seconds it takes a nitromethane-fueled race car to reach 330 mph and cover a quarter-mile, the acceleration will slosh a driver's brain around in his skull and suck the breath from his lungs.

Melanie Troxel, the Top Fuel points leader, and husband Tommy Johnson Jr., a Funny Car competitor, met at a track 20 years ago.

So imagine what those forces can do when coupled with the ultra-competitive personalities of two people who must battle to stay in the good graces of team owners and sponsors, who have delicate egos and who can never completely escape their sport because they live in the same house as husband and wife.

"It was real easy at first," said Tommy Johnson Jr., the Funny Car half of the National Hot Rod Association's quickest couple.

But like any successful marriage, it's not always easy, something Johnson and his wife, Top Fuel leader Melanie Troxel, discovered this spring.

"She won the first race, I won the second race and life is great," Johnson continued Friday as he and his wife prepared to qualify for the Carquest Nationals this weekend at Route 66 Raceway. "Then the next couple of races, our team struggled and hers continued to have success and people started harassing me . . . giving me a bad time about it in a joking way.

"After a while, you've heard it so much, you think, 'All right. That's getting a little old.' You let it get to you, you get in a bad mood about it, and there'll be times I'd take it out on her . . . be short with her or whatever.

"We've got to stop and recognize it, say, 'Wait a minute. Sorry. You had nothing to do with that. It's not your fault, but it's getting to me.' "

Both Johnson, 38, and Troxel, 33, grew up around racing and met at the track 20 years ago, giving the couple a common background that helps them understand each other's travails.

But neither was quite prepared for how their relationship would change with Troxel's emergence this season. She scored her first victory in the season opener and has led the Top Fuel points year on the strength of two victories and seven final-round appearances in nine events.

"Maybe the hardest part for him is that he's having success; he's having a good year, and he's won a race, and he kind of feels it pales in comparison to the year we're having," Troxel said of Johnson, who ranks seventh in points and is capable of contending every week. "He gets kind of lost in that, but it's been an adjustment.

"I'd imagine all married couples are constantly learning about the marriage and the relationship and adjusting. The things we're adjusting to are just a little different from what most new married couples are dealing with."

When Johnson and Troxel married 2? years ago, he was the more successful, with two Top Fuel victories and three in Funny car and fresh off his first top-10 finish in Funny Car competition with Don Prudhomme Racing. She, on the other hand, was between rides, and was actually out of the seat for two full years before joining Don Schumacher Racing last summer.

Those were tough days compared to these, and both can draw on the experience to help them deal with their competitive nature.

"If you're the one having a really good weekend, you don't want to kind of rub that in to the person that's not having a good weekend, and on the other hand, if you're having a bad weekend, you don't want to bring down the other one that's having a good weekend," Troxel said.

"We know what each other is going through, we understand the commitments involved with it, and we completely support each other. That more than makes up for anything that might be tough about having a relationship at the racetrack."

Actually, Johnson and Troxel are a bit of an odd couple. She thinks technically and even in conversation comes off as the more analytical of the two. He is emotional, quick with a joke and describes his style as "seat of the pants."

Each is stubborn enough that they had to divide household projects because they realized that they were too set in their ways to work together productively. Still, at home, they're together nearly 24/7.

On the road, it's different. Considering that they travel together and work at the same place, Troxel and Johnson see precious little of each other on race weekends.

They leave their motor coach in the morning and head off in different directions with different schedules with rival teams. They talk racing some but are careful to avoid sharing secrets about their cars. They watch each other occasionally but try not to be distracted.

They think of winning, and - although they don't talk of it much - they look forward to the day they win on the same Sunday and the year they both win a championship.

And, as cutthroat as they are, Johnson and Troxel can't avoid comparing statistics once in a while. She recorded a personal best with a pass of 4.458 seconds last year in Dallas, but he hit 331.45 mph last fall at Route 66.

"He makes sure he reminds me all the time," Troxel said, "he's still the faster of the two of us as a couple."
Source: By Dave Kallmann, E-Mail,

Related Issue: Women in Racing Directory, Women in Racing, Women Racers, More Women in Racing, Notable Women

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