WCYB TV 5 news anchor PJ Johnson earned drag racing bragging rights for regional journalists Wednesday at Bristol Dragway by racing to victory in the Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals Media Challenge. The event provided local media members with a hands-on preview of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event that will visit Bristol Dragway Father’s Day weekend, June 15-17.
The media competed in high-horsepower Chevrolet Impalas in the special event, and were assisted by NHRA Funny Car driver J.R. Todd and Pro Stock racer Alex Laughlin. Todd drives the DHL Toyota for Kalitta Motorsports and is a two-time winner this season and sits fifth in points. Laughlin is the event’s defending Pro Stock winner and is driver of the Fitzgerald USA Chevy Camaro.
To earn his first win in the Media Challenge, Johnson defeated WJHL videographer Doug Counts in a highly anticipated final between the Tri-Cities’ premier television stations. It is the second consecutive year that a journalist from WCYB has earned the victory as WCYB sports director Casey Goetz claimed the win last year.
In earlier rounds Johnson defeated WCYB teammates Brit Stack and Heather Williams and FasTrack Magazine’s Drew Heirwarter. Counts advanced to the final with wins over Rod Mullins of the Augusta (Va.) Free Press, WJHL sports director Kenny Hawkins, WCYB’s Mike Lucas.
In the Media Challenge final round, Johnson left the starting line first and never trailed Counts in the quarter-mile race. He used his quick reflexes to take the win in the semis against Williams when he posted his event-best reaction time of .052 of a second. The event featured a Pro tree, and a perfect reaction time is .000.
“I’m old, but not dead,” Johnson said with a smile. “It’s all about the reaction time and I was able to have some good ones today. Doug is a good racer and he beat me last year in an early round, so it was nice to be able to return the favor in the final round this year. It was a lot of fun and I’m happy to keep the NHRA Thunder Valley Media Challenge title at WCYB.”
Other journalists who competed in the 10-car field included Jeff Birchfield from the Johnson City Press, and Ricky Matthews from WCYB. Johnson and Counts were presented custom plaques for their efforts by Todd, Laughlin and Julie Bennett of Bristol Dragway/Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals is the 11th of 24 events on the NHRA circuit and will showcase the 330-mph thundering Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, along with 200-mph action in Pro Stock, Pro Mod and Top Fuel Harleys. Many of the area’s local racers will also compete in several of NHRA’s Sportsman categories. The race will be televised to a national audience on FS1, including qualifying shows on Friday (6 p.m.) and Saturday (9 p.m.) and a three-hour finals show on Sunday (7:30 p.m.).
Qualifying begins Friday, June 15 with pro sessions at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. The final two rounds of qualifying are set for Saturday, June 16, at 1 and 3:30 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for noon on Sunday, June 17.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, please call Bristol Dragway at (423) 989-6900. Tickets also are available online at www.bristoldragway.comand can be purchased in the Tri-Cities region at any Food City grocery store. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas on Sunday with a paid adult.
BMS PR/Photo PJ Johnson and Doug Counts celebrate with Bristol Dragway’s Julie Bennett
and NHRA drivers J.R. Todd and Alex Laughlin