Unlike most 16-year-olds who are eager and nervous to get their driver’s license, Johnna Dunn turned 16 and opted to get her NHRA Super Comp license before her regular driver’s license. A move like that just demonstrates the degree to which racing runs in her veins.
After all, Johnna is the granddaughter of Jim Dunn, and many of her family members are involved in this industry and the sport of drag racing as part of Jim Dunn Racing, an NHRA Top Fuel Funny Car team. As such, Johnna jokes that she didn’t really get the opportunity to decline the motorsports side of the family. She was at racetracks as a baby and thrown into the world of racing since day one.
“I was definitely going into the family business,” Johnna Dunn says. “It worked out though, because I love it and I get to do it with my family every weekend. It’s our bonding time away from home.”
At a young age, Johnna contributed to the race team by washing parts, prepping tires, polishing rims, making sandwiches, and other little jobs. More recently, she started working with the clutch, which is a very crucial role on an NHRA drag racing team.
“I built my way up just like any other crew guy out there,” she points out. “Out of all the teams out there, you have a couple families that race together, like the Force family. But what makes my family a little bit unique out there is that it truly is a family sport for me. My grandfather, he not only owns the team, but he tunes the car and builds the motors. My father works alongside me doing the clutch, and my grandmother, she’s 87 years old and she mixes the nitro for the Funny Car. My uncle, Mike Dunn, he used to be the announcer, and my other uncle, James, is our truck driver and our cylinder head specialist. It truly is a family sport and we treat the other guys on the team like family too.”
Of course, the heaviest influence on Johnna’s racing career has been from her grandpa, or papa, as she calls him – Jim Dunn. Many will know him as Big Jim Dunn.
“They do call him Big Jim Dunn and that’s definitely for a reason,” Johnna says. “Back in the day, he was kind of scary to a lot of people. He’s very intimidating, and still to this day he’s intimidating – even at 88 years old. A lot of people won’t come around and won’t mess with him. He’s been doing this his entire life. He’s a retired LA County fireman and on his off days and off weekends, he was down in Bakersfield racing. He is one of the true pioneers of the sport. He was there when it was 100 fans in the stands to now being sold out. He’s seen NHRA evolve and transform over the years, which is really cool.”
Whether the intimidation factor is cranked up or not, Jim Dunn has certainly passed along a ton of knowledge to Johnna. At the top of the list is being true to the sport and ensuring a focus on winning races.
“He’s always told me to be true to the sport,” she says. “The fans are a great aspect of the sport, and they let us do what we love to do, but we’re there to race, so you’ve got to focus on the car. That’s first and foremost and you’ve got to be true to what you’re doing out there and be true to yourself. He also told me when you get in the limelight, people want to change and mold you. Don’t fall for that. He’s a really good example of that because he’ll say what he wants to say. I’ve adapted to that as well.”
Today, Jim Dunn Racing competes in Top Fuel Funny Car. As such, Johnna has been helping the team as a clutch specialist and she’s been getting more and more seat time as a driver too. Between the two roles, Johnna says it’s all fun to be a part of.
“I like working on the car more,” she admits. “I like working with the team. I like working alongside my father and alongside my grandpa (papa). When we’re doing the clutch, the clutch specialist and the tuner, they work hand in hand. I’m constantly going in the trailer, crunching the numbers, looking at the computer and we just communicate a lot with that aspect of it. It’s really cool to see how the communication works. We put it into the car and then for it to haul butt down the track and see it work, gives you that fist pump feeling. That part is cool to me.
“The driving aspect of it is a totally different feeling. I did Super Comp when I turned 16. That gives you an adrenaline rush, but I like working alongside the family more. I’m actually in the process of training to get licensed in the Funny Car class. I’m very petite. I’m very tiny, so there’s a lot of personal training that I need to do myself for that because the G-force alone is enough to knock you out.
“I’ve warmed up the car a couple times, which gives you a feel for it. You have to learn to feel how the car moves with your butt. When you’re sitting in that seat, you need to feel if a hole drops or if the car is pulling to the left because of that. You’ve really got to focus and feel. I’m still in the process of training for all that.”
While Johnna’s role on the team is as a clutch specialist, she does get opportunities to work on the engine side of things as well when the team is back at the shop.
“During the race weekend, the clutch is my primary focus,” she says. “When I’m at home and I go to the race car shop, my grandpa and I actually build every motor. He doesn’t let the guys really build the motors on a race weekend – only if we absolutely have to. That’s part of his love for the sport, so he builds every motor himself at the shop beforehand before we go to the race weekend. Not a lot of people know that.”
According to Johnna, the Jim Dunn Racing team utilizes a standard block, which is the same for Top Fuel and Funny Car. The biggest difference is the headers. Top Fuel uses shorter headers and Funny Car has a longer, more laidback header.
As Johnna continues to get more involved with different aspects of the race car, the engine and the sport in general, she says she appreciates that more and more women are finding a passion for racing, and that at a young age she can be an influence to other women as well. However, being a woman in a male-dominated sport has advantages and disadvantages.
“A couple of disadvantages would just be the upper body strength,” she says. “When you’re torquing that flywheel on the clutch, it’s 175-180 ft.-lbs. That’s almost twice as much as I weigh, which is insane. When I do it, I put my foot on the chassis and I’m giving everything that I have to torque it. The same with the tires. I used to put the tires on the Funny Car and take them off. That tire is heavy, so you’ve got to position yourself and know your body to be able to take it off.
“Some advantages to being a woman in the sport would be that there’s not very many and there’s not many mechanics out there who are women. I believe it’s only me and Kaylynn Simmons who are the mechanics out there. Other than that, you have the drivers like Britney Force, Alexis DeJoria, Leah Pruett. I think when you are a female out there in a male-dominated area you have a lot more people who look up to you and focus on you. It’s a lot more tension and weight on your shoulders.”
While Johnna can look up to many of her own family members, and certainly her grandpa, she also views many women in motorsports as role models too.
“I look up to all of them,” she says. “I grew up out there. Ashley Force actually used to watch me and babysit me when I was little. It’s really a family-oriented sport, even though we compete against each other, we are a true family out there. Leah Pruett, her and I are really good friends. We hang out on the weekends together and I’ll go to dinner with her and her new husband, Tony. I’ll also hang out with Erica Enders and Courtney Enders on the weekends and go out to dinner and stuff. I definitely look up to all of them, but we’re more friends and family type of thing.”
As a competitive person, Johnna continues to gain more experience as part of the Funny Car team and in her own driving. As such, she has a lot to look forward to in 2022 and beyond.
“This NHRA 2022 season, we’re going in as a number 10 car in Funny Car, which is a huge milestone for Jim Dunn Racing because we have not been in the top 10 in over 20 years,” she says. “This is a really big deal for us. This is kind of our shot to make a comeback and prove that we do belong in the top 10. During this off season, we have put in a ton of hours at the race car shop. Everything is brand new. We ordered a ton of parts. We’ve changed a few systems in the tune-up aspect of it, but I’m excited for us to go some rounds, honestly.
“My goal for this year and for my family is to get my license in the Funny Car. We’ll probably do that by the end of the season. I’ll be in the seat a couple more times, warming it up here and there, whether it’s for qualifying or for race day. I already got fitted for my fire suit and got a helmet, so everything is checked off on the safety aspect of it. But, for the training aspect, I’m going to hit the gym a lot and have that right diet and then just get more seat time.”
Johnna turns just 25 this year, so she still has the entire drag racing world in front of her with plenty of opportunities to make her own name within Jim Dunn Racing. And, it’s been that mentality that has allowed her to pass on advice to other youngsters looking to break into this sport.
“A lot of the younger people come up to me at the track and ask me how they can get involved, especially younger females because it’s just a hard area to get into if you don’t know somebody,” Dunn says. “There are a couple schools out there such as Lincoln Tech and UNOH, which are all great programs to get into. However, you don’t necessarily have to go through one of those programs, which a lot of people don’t know. The racing teams are looking for experience, so as long as you bring experience and maybe a CDL, it adds to your resume. You need great communication skills and you have to be able to work as a team. Put your name out there, bring some resumes, pass them out, introduce yourself, and don’t be shy because this is not a shy sport. That will help you’ll get noticed.”
For now, it seems Johnna Dunn is gearing up for her moment to get noticed in the upper echelon of NHRA, and once she has a Funny Car license, there’s no doubt there will be little anyone can do to stand in her way.