WARREN JOHNSON MADE AN EARLY STATEMENT IN THE EARLY DAYS OF NHRA RACING AT BRAINERD INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY BRAINERD, Minn. (Aug. 5) - Warren Johnson remembers the early to mid-1980s as "a really exciting time" around Brainerd ...
WARREN JOHNSON MADE AN EARLY STATEMENT IN THE EARLY DAYS OF NHRA RACING AT BRAINERD INTERNATIONAL RACEWAY
BRAINERD, Minn. (Aug. 5) - Warren Johnson remembers the early to mid-1980s as "a really exciting time" around Brainerd International Raceway, there was probably few more exciting weekends than the one he gave fans in his native state on Aug. 19, 1984.
On that weekend, WJ roared to the 11th of his now-record 96 victories by outdueling the fastest gun of the day, the late Lee Shepherd.
He's hoping for some more of that magic Aug. 10-13 at the Silver Anniversary Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at BIR. He's looking for his first event win here since 1996. It would be his fifth title here, and give him the career record for victories at this track.
Back then, he knew it was a momentary victory against the sport's top gun.
"At that point in time he was the class of the field," Johnson said. "You could tell how relaxed he was in the car driving. That was when he was having his most fun."
Johnson had already earned his membership in the legendary "Gang of Four" that dominated NHRA Pro Stock drag racing in the early 1980s. From June 1979 to April 1985 the "Gang" of Shepherd, Bob Glidden, WJ and Frank Iaconio won 64 consecutive NHRA national titles.
But it was Shepherd, driving for Rehrer-Morrison, who was the top dog, winning four straight points championships and 26 national event titles.
Johnson finished third in 1982, fourth in 1983 and second to Shepherd in 1984.
WJ managed to beat him seven times during that span, but he said it usually went something like this:
"I left on him at Englishtown a few weeks before Brainered, and I did it again to him at BIR," Johnson said. "That's how I usually had to beat him. Running Shepherd was a case of survival, because he was usually running quicker than I was."
Shepherd's career was tragically cut short in March 1985 when he was killed in a testing accident in Oklahoma. He was replaced by Bruce Allen, who like Johnson would go on to win four races at Brainerd (they share the mark with 10-time NHRA Pro Stock champ Bob Glidden).
But WJ stepped finally scored his first points championship in 1992, and has been the gold standard ever since.
"This is the guy you always compare yourself to, because he's been the best," said the reigning NHRA champ, Greg Anderson, who started out as WJ's crew chief before becoming a driver. "You get excited every time you see him next to you on the line, because you want to see how you compare."
WJ still remembers the excitement of the crowd that first winning Sunday at Brainerd, and looks forward to seeing that same excitement again with the news that it has been sold to a local couple, Jed and Kristi Copham of Forest Lake.
"When the track first opened (as Donnybrook Speedway in the 1968) it was a pretty popular place. And in the mid-1980s there was an awful lot of enthusiasm," he said. "The enthusiasm kind of went out of the sport for a long while. But when they built the new grandstands here a few years ago, they filled up right away. That was a good sign.
"I understand the new owners are in their 30s, they're racers and that tells me they have a lot of enthusiasm and passion for the sport," WJ said. "I hope that enthusiasm can help get this facility to the point where it's really as successful as it should be."
He's also hoping to find some "typical" Minnesota August weather waiting for him when he arrives next week.
"It was 105 in Denver, and 103 in Seattle," he said. "A weekend at 85 would seem almost frigid. Just so it gets cool enough to calm down the mosquitos and I'll be delighted."
A trip to Victory Circle would be equally delightful for WJ, and his hometown fans.