CAVE SPRING–Dustin Johnson and Blake Alexander, two graduates of Roanoke County Public Schools, have found careers in the highly competitive field of auto racing.
The pair spoke to the Motorsports/Welding class at Burton Center for Arts and Technology (BCAT) on November 20, sharing firsthand what it takes to make it nowadays in the motorsports industry, and more specifically in the drag-racing sector of the sport.
Dustin Johnson graduated from Northside High School and Burton Center in 2003 and has been working for John Force Racing, one of the biggest names in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). He is a clutch specialist on the Courtney Force race team.
Blake Alexander graduated from Hidden Valley High School and will receive his degree this month from Radford University in public relations and communication. He drives a NHRA Funny Car for his own company, Blake Alexander Racing, having worked his way up from junior dragsters starting as a young boy.
While NASCAR-style racing is better known in our area, Johnson and Alexander have chosen to become involved with the NHRA, which is distinctly different than stock car racing.
NASCAR races generally involve cars which resemble a family vehicle in appearance driving around oval tracks for an afternoon at speeds near 200 mph with one winner at the end of the day.
In NHRA drag racing, drivers compete two at a time, racing side by side down 1,000-foot tracks at speeds in excess of 330 mph in competitions that finish in as fast as four seconds. A drag race is basically an acceleration contest that begins from a standing start with a series of tournament style eliminations. The losing racer in each contest is eliminated and the winning racers progress until only one remains in each division. There are many races in many different divisions over the course of the day and many winners.
Johnson and Alexander both work in the Funny Car division of the NHRA. Funny Cars were so named because of their odd appearance. Each features a front-mounted engine, a closed cockpit and an elongated one-piece body. The oversized rear wheels are moved forward on the chassis to improve weight transfer under acceleration and to increase traction.
While the average on-the-road vehicle may operate at 150 horsepower and NASCAR stock cars run at 800 horsepower, NHRA dragsters reach 8,000 horsepower with a force of 6 G’s and shake the ground at a Richter scale of 3.0.
Dragsters get their power from a fuel mixture of nitromethane (85-90%) and methanol (10-15%) and generally burn 15 gallons of fuel in one run. After each race, the engine is completely torn down and rebuilt in under 75 minutes.
Johnson and Alexander were welcomed to BCAT by instructor Chris Overfelt, and asked to share their experiences with students in the program who might be interested in similar careers.
Johnson credited his hands-on classes in welding, machine shop, and auto body at Burton with getting him a start in the business, although he spent some time working at a paint store right out of high school as he waited for his opportunity to arrive.
“It’s all about determination and going after your goals,” said Johnson. “I had a hobby that turned into a profession, but I had to focus on racing, not on partying.”
In 2008, Johnson got his opening through a friend with Matt Hagan racing in Radford, then moved on to teams in Charlotte and Georgia, before landing with John Force racing in Indiana.
“It all starts here in school, learning to be clean, organized, and professional,” said Johnson. “That’s what teams look for.”
Alexander, who grew up around the racing world, worked for a sprinkler installation company after graduating from Hidden Valley, at one time a “shovel specialist”. His grandfather worked at a drag race school, and Alexander had driven at local tracks. He chose to go on to college, which would allow him more time for racing and the opportunity to travel.
Alexander advised the students that even if they are interested in driving race cars, it is essential to know what goes on under the hood, to have a basic knowledge of the engine, in order to help the crew know what is going on.
He, like Johnson, also emphasized the importance of a good work ethic.
“It’s important to work hard, to be organized, to be punctual,” said Alexander.
Johnson emphasized to students the importance of being a team player and “having each other’s backs”. Members of the crew must constantly check behind one another, not just in the interests of winning, but to keep the driver safe.
“You have to remember also that tons of people want your job,” said Johnson.
“Do it right the first time,” said Alexander. “Checking and rechecking lowers stress on everybody.”
Alexander spoke of the high cost of NHRA racing where it can cost $10,000 to drive 1,000 feet. He spends a great deal of his time working to line up sponsors for his car, and the competition to snag a sponsor is intense.
“It’s all about marketing yourself, diversifying your skills, and making yourself stand out,” said Alexander. “You have to show sponsors that they will get a good return on their investment.”
In fact, funding the team takes up more of his time than actual racing, and he searches for ways to economize. Car tires typically cost $1400 per set, so often his team breaks in new tires for the better financed teams.
Both men emphasized that students need to believe in themselves and their goals.
“People tried to discourage me from my goal, but five years later I was working for the biggest name in drag racing,” said Johnson.
“When people try to discourage you, ask yourself ‘Why not me?’” said Alexander. “Not long ago, I had $300 and a car with 160,000 miles on it. Now I am on the way to reaching my goal. I started out working in the warehouse for my sponsor; now I’m driving a race car.”
Johnson and Alexander were also frank about the down side of life on the race circuit, including the fact that you don’t get to spend much time at home during race season and generally live out of a suitcase.
“Racing is fun, but it takes up your whole life,” said Alexander.
Johnson is part of a crew of nine men, each one with a specific assignment. His team operates on a budget of around $3 million each season. They travel with nine tractor-trailers, four Explorers, a van, a bus, two trucks, and a car. When his job at the track is finished, there is still plenty of other work to be done. Crew members are required to have CDL licenses to help move equipment from track to track.
“Drag racing is fun, but you’re also working on the track where the temperature is over 100 degrees, and it’s smelly, oily, and dirty,” said Johnson.” Tons of people want your job and the competition is cutthroat. It’s fun working on a race car, but the other stuff you have to do to get to work on the car sometimes isn’t.”
Still, both men feel fortunate to have found work in the motorsports industry at relatively young ages and to have made it to the biggest stage of drag racing with the NHRA.