Competitive drag racer, charity organizer, and Ms. September are all names and titles that Tonya Johnson can rightfully claim.
The Farmington native, who is featured in this year's Car Chix calendar, has been interested in cars her whole life and anything with a gas engine is her forte, as long as it’s fast.
As a little girl, Johnson raced dirt bikes and four-wheelers all the while dreaming of the day when she would get her license and her own set of wheels.
Johnson says she was always more of a tomboy than a girly girl growing up. At a young age when other girls were collecting Barbies, Johnson collected Hot Wheels, which she had given specific names and designated spots in the car case she would tote around everywhere she went.
She couldn't wait to get behind the wheel of her first real car. That dream came true when she got a Ford Mustang, and she was in love. The horsepower and adrenaline generated by the Mustang’s revving engine fulfilled her dream and satisfied a long-held passion.
However, it was in that Mustang that Johnson would experience a life-altering event that would shape her destiny and start her on a journey that she could have never imagined.
Shortly after graduating from high school, while behind the wheel of her dream car, she was in a very serious accident.
Badly injured, she was told by doctors that she would likely never walk again. With that dire prognosis, she underwent a year of physical, occupational and speech therapy, relearning how to walk, talk and function again. With a strong will, and faith in God, Johnson defied the odds and proved the doctors wrong.
Toward the end of her recovery, Johnson met the man who would become her husband. Keith was also an auto enthusiast and the two were a perfect match. He was the president of their car club and the pair immersed themselves in everything automotive. They regularly attended car shows, races, and other motor sports outings together.
Over the course of 17 years, both Johnson and her husband played complementary roles at the racing events.
“I was always the one in the background doing the fundraisers and doing the 50/50 tickets. I did a lot of auto cross, where you go in between the cones, but I did more to set up the tracks rather than the racing,” she explained.
She was a supportive cheerleader to her husband, who was an avid racer participating in countless racing events in his black and yellow Dodge Stealth race car he had nicknamed "Bumblebee."
In 2009, Johnson's world was once again turned upside down when her husband lost an 18-month battle with cancer. Life was never the same after Keith's passing, but Johnson found herself even more determined to live life to the fullest for herself and for her sons. She was determined to not wait for life to just be over and then realize that she had never truly lived.
After Keith's passing she was hesitant about attending an annual gathering of the car club that the couple had belonged to.
“I was kind of sad about going and taking my boys. They were really young at the time. I didn't want to take them at first, but then I thought we needed to go because of Dad. I thought if we're going to do this, we were going to have a blast with it. I said 'I'm going to race instead of being in the backseat driver role.'"
It was this same mentality Johnson had when entering the Car Chix calendar contest.
“I thought if I win this, great. If I don't do it though, it would always be in the back of my mind that I should have,” she said.
Just from me doing that contest and networking with so many other females and other people of the sport, so many blessings have been brought to my life. God knew the plan for me. He knew each step ... and (each step) always opens another door to something else.”
This strength of will and positive thinking put Johnson on a quest for her very own race car. With the purchase of a 3000GT, which she named Black Widow, the thrill of the race track had a tight grip on her once again. She found comfort in the focus she experienced while racing. Always looking forward, not thinking about the dangers and just simply focusing on the outcome.
She explained the euphoric feeling, saying, “When the tree lights up, I am in a different world ... an escape from reality.”
She participated in several races over the next few years and eventually entered the Car Chix competition. The Bonne Terre Drag Strip became her home track.
Johnson is not only passionate about racing, but is also an active humanitarian. She’s the vice president of the board of directors for a charity organization known as Visions of Hope, which helps people with autism in a variety of ways. She also founded and organizes the Autos for Autism fundraising event in April each year.
Her current race car sports the logo for Autos for Autism on the hood scoop. “It has truly been an honor to mix a passion for multiple loves in my life ... people and cars,” she explained.
Johnson now races “Betsy,” a 1986 Foxbody Mustang with a 427 small block Windsor engine transferring power to the wheels through a Powerglide transmission (the Powerglide transmission was first introduced by General Motors, but several aftermarket companies now produce adapters or otherwise modified units to fit Fords) and a Ford 9-inch rear end.
Her crew chief, Rodney Poe, and sponsor, Jason Carter keep her car moving fast down the drag strip.
When she decided to race in the first event after the loss of her husband, Johnson said, she would have never have thought at the time she’d eventually wind up racing in a big tire Mustang. “But everything just kind of progresses as you do it."
"This year racing solo has reinforced, even more, what I already knew ... ‘car people’ are some of the most passionate people I have ever met.”
The racing world has always been where Johnson has felt most at home. The friendships that she's built over the years and the extended family she's gained in the car clubs and at events have, without a doubt, helped transform impossible roadblocks into giant stepping stones for a drag racer with a passion for cars, people, and life that is truly inspiring.