Written by Jason Reiss
Photography by Steve Baur
Whenever you ask someone where they’re from, you’ll get a response about where they grew up, or where they currently live. If you ask Johnny “Drama” Maguda that question, you’re likely to get a simple answer: the drag strip. We’ll get into why his nickname is Drama later, but first, let’s learn a bit about why he’s considered by many to be the ultimate crewmember in the heads-up racing circles.
Originally a North Jersey boy—he hails from Parsippany, just a short trip across I-80 from The Big Apple—he’s currently based out of Florida, but is rarely there often enough to really call it home.
Drama worked for so many race teams in the big-dog world of outlaw-style racing that it’s impossible to choose one where he’s had the most success—from the likes of NMRA and X275 star Manny Buginga to Fiscus/Klugger Racing to Mills Racing and others. One thing is certain; Drama is the last crew guy to go to bed when maintenance and repairs are required for race-day prep.
However, his expertise does not stop at providing wrenching talents; Drama’s unique background allows him to understand the complexities of motivating a race car—and driver—into the winner’s circle on race day.
That background includes time spent behind the wheel of several different drag vehicles, but rather than spoil the fun, we’ll let him drop the details of what makes him so special. He’s high-energy and high-powered, driven by an intense desire to be the best of the best in any given situation.
LET’S START OFF BY ASKING WHERE YOU CAME FROM, BEFORE PEOPLE KNEW YOU FROM FISCUS/KLUGGER RACING.
I grew up driving a rear-engine dragster, but before that, I was in diapers at the racetrack. I went from driving a little Power Wheels at the racetrack to driving a Super Comp dragster. Then I got a sponsorship deal with Monster Energy and went into a small-tire car when I was racing out of R2B2 in Atlanta. It was crazy how it progressed, but I went from being Daddy’s little boy to living his dream, so to say.
WHOA, THAT’S QUITE THE PROGRESSION. LET’S BACK UP A LITTLE BIT. WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE INVOLVED IN THE NOPI DEAL FROM A DRIVER’S PERSPECTIVE?
I drove the Super Comp dragster when I was a kid, and I got out of that and into the import world, where I got involved in the NOPI Series. That’s how I got into the Pro Mod stuff. I met Roger Burgess and Chris Anderson [of R2B2 Motors], and they put me in the car. I went from running that to working on racecars 24/7.
That’s really where things started taking a turn for the better for me; I drove a Toyota Supra for AAP Motorsports/R2B2 Motors. Chris Anderson asked me to drive his car, and you know, I got a really good opportunity to get into that thing. We set some records and won some races, and I was number one in the running for the championship when NOPI crashed with two races to go. Running out of the shop, the owner recognized me and asked me to work on his Pro Mod. We had Top Fuel cars and Pro Mods out of there.
SO YOU WENT FROM DRIVING A CAR IN THE NOPI SERIES TO WRENCHING ON SOME OF THE BADDEST CARS IN THE WORLD?
I got brought into that deal by guys like Chuck Ford, Al Billes, and Bob Newberry. I learned from some of the best on this stuff. I think it was 2009… my right-hand man—Bobby Monicelli—had a heart attack in the shop and died in our arms. It was really emotional to get through that. We raced all the way down to the end in Vegas, and we had one round to go. Burton Auxier went red in front of us and all we had to do was win that round, and unfortunately my guy did the same. We lost the NHRA Pro Mod championship by one round. It was horrible; we worked so hard to get there. After that year, everything progressed. I went overseas to Europe and we raced the European Pro Mod series, and I got to meet a lot of really great people over there. I worked with Melanie Troxel, too, and Melanie was a hell of a driver with a Pro Mod. We did a lot of stuff overseas. That was fun. I jumped from car to car to car; people knew me as a hard worker. Before I knew it, I went from Pro Mod to Drag Radial to NMCA Pro Mod and bounced all around.
WHAT WAS YOUR RACING HISTORY BEFORE ANYONE ON THIS SIDE OF THE GAME EVEN KNEW WHO YOU WERE?
Absolutely. I was a front-wheel-drive import guy racing on the street and then met the right people. I was doing small-tire racing stuff before it was big, back in 2008, 2009, and 2010. I was driving, versus now where I work on them 24/7.
HOW DO YOU GO FROM DRIVING TO BEING A CAR CHIEF/CREW MEMBER?
The paycheck [laughs]. When I got the driving deal, I was getting paid and driving for the owner, so it was a cool deal. I got to drive and get paid doing what I love to do. It was fun and I’d go back to it tomorrow if someone paid me to do it. From there to being main crew chief or crew guy or whatever it took to be around racecars. That’s where I live my life, pretty much at the racetrack 24/7. It benefitted me more to work on them than trying to find a job just driving. It’s hard to find a job driving a racecar and getting paid to do it. Working on one, maintaining one, running a team and a crew, that’s a job, and a career. I was fortunately able to fall into that with the help of the people I encountered coming up from nothing; the talent I worked with from the beginning, the crew chiefs and tuners, I could go on for days on how many people taught me so much and got me to where I am now, working hard and living the dream, so to speak.
HOW DOES YOUR DRIVING EXPERIENCE HELP YOU DECIDE WHAT TO ADJUST ON THE CAR, BASED ON WHAT YOUR DRIVER IS TELLING YOU THE CAR IS DOING?
There are certain things a driver can tell you if you’re working with a good driver. “It’s shaking in the middle” or “going down the track it feels like the steering wheel is about to rip out of my hand” or “it feels like it’s vibrating in the burnout…” A driver that’s really good can give you a clue on what it might be doing. Being a driver previously, I have a clue what to look for, and it really helps because you can understand the perspective of the driver in the seat and know what he’s thinking. Being a part of both worlds really helps you be better on the car.
YOU’VE WORKED WITH FISCUS/KLUGGER RACING, FLETCHER COX, MANNY BUGINGA, RYAN MARTIN, AND SOME OF THE OTHER STREET OUTLAWS GUYS. HOW DO YOU WORK WITH SO MANY HIGH-PROFILE TEAMS?
I’ve worked with Ryan quite a bit. Not last year, but the two years prior to that we lost the championship each year by five points for No Prep Kings. I’ve done a little bit of everything. Right now, I’m working with Mills Racing; Kallee Mills is making the transition from 275 to big-tire, no-prep racing. DeWayne is doing No-Prep stuff and whatnot. It’s been crazy. Josh [Klugger] is talking about getting back into a car. At Lights Out 11, he got to fulfill his dream of driving a blower car behind the wheel of Chad Opaleski’s car. That was really cool when I got to be a part of that. I seem to stick my fingers in wherever I can, as long as I can be at the racetrack. I guess you could say it’s my crack. A lot of people do drugs; being at the racetrack is my drug.
YOU’RE A VISIBLE MEMBER OF THE RED HAT MAFIA WITH PRO LINE. WHAT’S THAT RELATIONSHIP LIKE?
It’s definitely high profile. I do a lot of work with Pro Line Racing and Racecraft and FuelTech; they’re my go-to guys. For the last couple of years, a big influence in my career has been working with Jamie Miller. He’s the leader of the Red Hat Mafia, and we’ve won a lot of races together. Every team that I’m successful with, Jamie is a gigantic part of that. I have to give a lot of credit to him; he’s taught me a lot and a lot of what I know about the turbo stuff is because of him. He’s very knowledgeable; I would say he’s one of the top tuners out there.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE NO PREP STUFF? HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO RUNNING WITH A BIG-NAME RVW TEAM?
All of these cars have this combination, and we go from the racetrack on a prepped surface to a No-Prep surface, and from a small-tire car to a big-tire car making roughly the same horsepower. On the No-Prep surface they are detuned, and it’s as legit as it gets on the street. They’re not playing games. These cars are fast and it’s dangerous. Yes, the camera crew is there and the street is rented from the township, but everything you see is legit. The police are there to close the roads, there’s an ambulance and safety crew in place in case there’s an accident, so everyone is protected, but all of the stuff around it is legit. The fighting, the crashing, the engines blowing, that’s all real. It’s a different ballgame; it’s a different animal. There’s a lot of money to be made over there. Do I like it as much? It’s a whole group of different characters and a different crowd of people. It’s less family oriented. The No-Prep scene is cutthroat. Everyone is out to get everyone. I enjoy Prep-style racing more because so many of us are so tight. At the end of the day, for the mighty dollar, No-Prep and No-Time racing is where it’s at. The atmosphere of going from one to the other is like day and night.
SHIFTING GEARS FOR A MOMENT… WHERE DOES DRAMA COME FROM?
Johnny Drama… good God. I gotta throw a name out there: Kevin Mutters, from R2B2, the company I used to work for when I drove. He was one of my coworkers, a phenomenal dude, and a man of many talents. He gave me that nickname because of all of the drama going on in life. Whatever the case may have been, whether there was girl drama, or a car blew up, or someone crashed, I always seemed to be at the scene of the crime. He gave me the nickname and it used to make me so mad. Eventually everyone picked up on it, and I just kind of go with it now. They don’t even call me Johnny anymore.
WHAT KIND OF SUCCESS HAVE YOU HAD WORKING WITH MANNY BUGINGA?
We just reset the X275 world record with Manny Buginga’s car. That is the fastest X275 car in the world. We did that at Lights Out 11, and since then we’ve been testing with it. We’ve tried all kinds of s*#t—that car’s nasty. We’re trying everything for every rule they could throw at it so when they change the rules we can switch it over in a couple of days and send it. We are already expecting the rules to be changed. He’s trying to do whatever he can to stay on top.
WHAT DRIVES YOU TO WANT TO BE A PART OF WINNING CULTURE?
At the end of the day, all I want to do is make whatever car I’m working with number one. It’s a team effort: the tuner has to tune it, I have to maintain it and bolt it together, the rest of the team has to do their jobs, the driver has to drive the damn thing, and we’ve all gotta be a bunch of badasses. I want to see it in the winner’s circle or win the championship. You have to come together as a team and a crew, and you have to push hard. As long as we’re winning the damn race, that’s all I give a s*#t about. I’m the guy that you’ll find out there at 5 in the morning trying to get the car back together. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it takes, I’m in.