INDIANAPOLIS (August 24, 2000) - Nestled on the banks of the Des Plaines River in northeastern Illinois, the community of Joliet prides itself on being the "City of Champions." And rightfully so. Among the great athletes who at one time or ...
INDIANAPOLIS (August 24, 2000) - Nestled on the banks of the Des Plaines River in northeastern Illinois, the community of Joliet prides itself on being the "City of Champions." And rightfully so. Among the great athletes who at one time or another have called the Will County seat their home are former Notre Dame All-American offensive lineman and 1986 Chicago Bears Super Bowl champion Tom Thayer, former Purdue All-American running back and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer Mike Alstott and 1996 Women's Olympic basketball gold medal winner Kathy Boswell. John Lawson is another Joliet native working diligently to become a champion himself someday, but in many ways, the Lucas Oil Pontiac Firebird driver already is. "God willing and with the support of our friends and sponsors, we're out here taking it a step at a time - crawling before we walk, and walking before we run. It's coming around." Racing for Lawson began as a family affair and something that brought John, his older brother, and father closer together. "We were always out playing with cars, and having an automotive business kind of led us in to it," explained Lawson. "My dad (Russ Lawson) started an automotive repair shop here in Joliet back in the late fifties. My dad and brother (Jim Lawson) were both gear heads and the enthusiasm for cars kind of got passed down the bloodline. I've probably wanted to race since I was a small kid. "When I was five years old I was already racing go-karts. When I was 14 I had a 12-second GTO, and back then 12 seconds was pretty quick. Mostly dad and Jim drove the car, but every now and then I got to sneak a pass in. We'd take it up to Oswego or over to U.S. 30 Dragstrip to put a few laps on it. You could go to tracks like that which were just great, and race and have a great time. It seems like we've been doing that forever." Lawson started racing in the Midwest Funny Car Association in 1988. By 1993 he had won his first championship and then followed that with a runner-up season in 1994. At the end of 1995, Lawson bought an Alcohol Funny Car from Bob Newberry, raced throughout the 1996 Federal Mogul campaign and finally hit stride by winning the Pontiac Excitement Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, in only his 11th event in the class. "That was our first real break and things started going in our direction after that," Lawson said. "We had a good car to start with and had a lot of good help contributing to the success of our program. Newberry let us run with him the last four or five races of our first year to help us get an idea of what to expect. That's pretty much what got us rolling. "We always had high hopes, we just didn't know exactly what would happen. We've always wanted to be able to do this and run with the big guys. Then when we won that first national event in Columbus we realized that it could actually be done. What was amazing to us is that we were running competitively with guys that had been doing this a long time that weren't winning. We were fortunate, happy, and with a good crew and a little luck, sometimes things pay off." As a Federal Mogul Funny Car competitor, Lawson finished third in Division 3 in 1995, second in 1996-97, and again in 1999. The pinnacle of his FMFC career came in 1998 at the inaugural Route 66 Nationals at his home track in Joliet. Lawson won the race but his Pontiac Firebird Funny Car was destroyed in a catastrophic fire after crossing the finish line. "It may sound stupid but it was all worth it," Lawson said. "Being the inaugural event at Joliet in front of everybody, with all the pressure in the world, to pull that off and win against all those big names was really special. We lost the car, but thank God for Fred Simmonds and Pontiac. We got another car right away and were able to race later in the month in St. Louis. We won at Dallas that same year, but I still get goose bumps talking about the win at Joliet. We went out there just praying to qualify. You want to do well when you race at your home track. My son-in-law, Ron Wendland, was tuning the car for us that weekend and he had that Firebird flying." Now Lawson has taken the next step to the professional category. He made his debut earlier this season at the 2000 Mac Tools Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. Racing an abbreviated schedule this year, Lawson hopes to make the jump to full-time racer. A little success on the racetrack will speed that process along, and with Mark Oswald turning the screws as crew chief, a win may be just around the corner. "We're leaving that open right now," Lawson said. "We're going to try to race at the first eight races next year and hopefully we can do something to where our sponsors can get some good exposure out of it. Being a small team like we are, my entire team consists of volunteers that do this out of their own pocket. It's hard for them to get time off from work, and they end up using all of their vacation time to help us out. I couldn't find a better group of guys to work on the car. If the first eight races work out well, then Lucas Oil will be able to go a little farther with us. Their hearts are in racing and they've done so much for our program. We want our sponsors to know that we're dead serious about doing this the right way. "We feel lucky just to have Mark (Oswald). We didn't even know he was interested until Rob Standard of Rydin Decal told us. We got together and realized just how fantastic he was. He's just an outstanding person. He's had quite a few offers here lately, but he's still hanging with us and is on board for next year. I sleep better at night knowing that. Mark's just tremendous." The 46th annual U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park on August 30 - September 4 is the 17th race on the 23-event NHRA championship tour. NHRA Heat can be seen on ESPN2 on Thursday, August 31, starting at 6 p.m. Eastern. Same-day coverage of the Big Bud Shootout for Funny Cars will be telecast on TNN on Sunday, September 3, beginning at 4 p.m. Eastern. First-round coverage of final eliminations will be broadcast on TNN starting at 12 p.m. Eastern with final-round coverage beginning at 5 p.m. "So far we're pretty happy and racing at Indianapolis is another dream come true. Especially to be in the class we are and to be able to run with these guys. Hopefully we can get our shoe in the door and qualify again. Truthfully, we're just going to be happy to be there because anything can happen, and believe me, miracles do happen."
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