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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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,
* * *
©1996-2011 by Gordon