"The Professor" Looks Back on His 28 Years at Indy In 1971, a young Minnesotan named Warren Johnson quietly made his NHRA Pro Stock debut at the U.S. Nationals, qualifying his Camaro 28th in the 32-car field, and eventually falling to Don...
"The Professor" Looks Back on His 28 Years at Indy
In 1971, a young Minnesotan named Warren Johnson quietly made his NHRA Pro Stock debut at the U.S. Nationals, qualifying his Camaro 28th in the 32-car field, and eventually falling to Don Grotheer in the first round. Thirty-three years later, Johnson returns to Indianapolis Raceway Park as one of the legends of the POWERade Drag Racing Series, with six championships and 92 national event wins to his credit.
As "The Professor of Pro Stock" prepared his GM Performance Parts Grand Am for his 29th appearance at the NHRA's biggest race, he took time to reflect back on his stellar career at the race affectionately known as "The Big Go", as well as his chances for winning this year's 50th edition:
#@Q: What makes the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals so special?
Warren Johnson: First of all, it's located in Indianapolis, which is acknowledged as the motorsports capital of the world. It has been the home of the Indianapolis 500 since Ray Harroun took the first checkered flag in 1911, and this year it is where we will celebrate the 50th running of the U.S. Nationals. More than any other city, Indianapolis is synonymous with racing.
In addition, the timing of the race being held on Labor Day weekend, as well as the unusual format of three days of qualifying followed by final eliminations on Monday help to distinguish it from the other races. Factor in one of the largest fields we will see all year, and it all combines to make the U.S. Nationals the biggest event on the NHRA schedule, and the one race every driver and team wants to win.
#@Q: Talk about making your Pro Stock debut at the 1971 U.S. Nationals
WJ: In 1971, I was still trying to decide if I wanted to pursue a full-time career in motorsports. Since there were only about eight national events on the schedule at that time, I figured I might as well see what their biggest race was like, so I entered the U.S. Nationals to test the waters and see if there was a future in it for me.
Since that first venture was more in the form of entertainment than business, we weren't concerned about having the luxurious accommodations of the full-time pros. Besides, we didn't want to waste any money since we were really trying to evaluate the feasibility of racing for a living, so we camped out in tents.
There was a group of racers that had come down from Minnesota, and we had our own little area in the campground. It may not have been a five-star resort, but we made the best of it. After all, everyone has to start somewhere.
#@Q: What was that first Pro Stock car like?
WJ: I drove a 1970 Camaro at my first U.S. Nationals. It was the second one delivered in the state of Minnesota. I picked it up at a dealership in Virginia, MN, drove it straight to the shop in Fridley, tore it apart and built what I thought was a race car. I offset almost the entire cost of the car by selling the parts that I took off, including the drivetrain.
Needless to say, it was pretty rudimentary compared to the top cars of the time. Pro Stock was in its infancy, and we didn't really build what I would consider a real race car until a year or two later. Even so, that first car served its purpose. We qualified and raced Don Grotheer in the first round - not too bad for a country bumpkin!
#@Q: Talk about your first U.S. Nationals win
WJ: My first Indianapolis win came in 1984, when I was driving the "Flying Boxcar" - a 1984 Olds Cutlass. That was one race car that everyone who was interested in racing in Pro Stock should have been required to drive. It had absolutely no down force in the rear, which made it feel like you were driving in the rain every time down the track.
It was a pretty exciting moment for our race team, because the U.S. Nationals was already acknowledged as the biggest race on the NHRA schedule, and to win it was the beginning of it all. I beat Bob Glidden in the final, who was in his heyday at the time, and being able to beat on what was considered his home track only added to the special nature of the moment.
#@Q: Do you have a favorite U.S. Nationals round win?
WJ: If I had to single one round out as the most special, it would have to be my win by one thousandth of a second over Scott Geoffrion in the 1993 final. It came at the height of our rivalry with the Dodge boys, as well as at the biggest drag race of the year.
We were fairly certain their cars had some questionable performance enhancements at that time, and to beat them by a thousandth was absolutely perfect. I'm fairly certain that defeat ground on them for quite some time, which only added to our enjoyment.
#@Q: Talk about your favorite U.S. Nationals race
WJ: My most memorable U.S. Nationals moment encompasses all the wins. Period. Everyone wants to remember the first one, but every one of my six wins was just as important. In fact, after scoring the first win, the rest of them seemed harder to get.
But if forced to choose just one, it would have to be when we won with the GM Goodwrench/Superman car in 1999. When you consider the circumstances, namely that it was the biggest race of the year, and we were part of a once in a lifetime promotion with DC comics, that win has to rank up near the top among my most memorable wins anywhere.
Ironically, our weekend included a very Clark Kent-like experience where I changed out of my fire suit in the team van on the way to the airport. I had broken a valve off in the cylinder head of my best engine during my first qualifying pass on Friday night, so I flew home and fixed it. Although that seems extreme, I basically did what I had to in order to win. The way I look at it, you're expected to win, they just don't tell you how, so I took it upon myself, and fortunately, everything fell into place.
#@Q: Compare your 1970 Camaro to your 2004 GM PP Grand Am
WJ: That 1970 Camaro was as technologically advanced as a Model T when compared to our current GM Performance Parts Grand Am. Basically, the Camaro would be the equivalent of today's Super Stockers.
Of course, you have to consider how these cars have evolved over the past thirty years. As the performance level in Pro Stock escalated, so did the level of sophistication of the race car. Those first Pro Stock cars, such as that Camaro, were nothing more than modified production cars with bigger engines, which by comparison is really crude to the sophisticated, purpose-built machines we use today. However, in both cases, we built a car based on what the rules would allow.
#@Q: What is your biggest disappointment at Indy?
WJ: Losing to Mike Edwards in the final round in 1998. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, but at that point in time, the track had not yet received its most recent resurfacing, and we neglected to factor in that we needed to switch to the right hand lane late in the day. We had Mike covered in performance, and I left on him, but we shook the tires and got loose in second gear, and that's all she wrote.
However, in retrospect, that came just after Mike had lost his team owner and good friend John Kight, and he dedicated that win to him, so maybe it was all right after all.
#@Q: Is a driver's resume complete without a U.S. Nationals title?
WJ: Certainly not. A drag racer's resume is never recognized as being complete without winning the U.S. Nationals. It's reminiscent of the situation in NASCAR, where people have won championships, but do not consider their career whole without a win in the Daytona 500. In order to have the total package, you have to have the U.S. Nationals "Wally" in your trophy case, and I'm fortunate enough to have six.
#@Q: What is the biggest difference between the U.S. Nationals in 1971 and 2005?
WJ: Personally, I was in awe at my first U.S. Nationals at the spectacle of NHRA drag racing. This year, however, I will arrive at Indianapolis Raceway Park realizing this is the biggest race on our schedule, but approaching it the same as I would any of the other 22 events on the circuit.
As far as the NHRA is concerned, I would have to say the advancements in safety, both in the cars and the race track, is the most significant difference. Even though the speeds in all categories are significantly faster than what they were in 1971, I believe we are actually safer now than we were 30 years ago.
#@Q: Who was your toughest opponent over your career at Indy?
WJ: I would have to say Bob Glidden. Indianapolis Raceway Park was his home track, where he did a lot of testing, which gave him a home court advantage. In addition, when I raced against him at the U.S. Nationals he was in his prime. If you were able to beat him there, it was a major accomplishment.
#@Q: What is your outlook for the 50th U.S. Nationals?
WJ: I expect to do pretty well. We've had a little time to work on our GM Performance Parts Grand Am, which has allowed us to shore up any weak spots we may have had. We'll know for certain when we let the clutch out on our first qualifying run, but I'm confident we will be in the mix throughout the weekend.
#@Q: What would winning the 50th U.S. Nationals mean to you?
WJ: Certainly, any time you are able to win Indy, it's special, and this year would not be any different. However, to be able to add the 50th U.S. Nationals to our wins at the 30th, 40th and 45th editions certainly sounds enchanting. After all, it seems appropriate that we have the complete set, and we have our sights set on accomplishing just that this weekend.
<pre> Warren Johnson's U.S. Nationals line score:
Races Wins Finals No. 1 qualifiers Rounds Won Rounds Lost Pct. 28 6 8 8 41 22 .651
Warren Johnson and the GM Performance Parts Racing Team
Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Fast Facts:
o Warren Johnson made his Pro Stock debut at the 1971 U.S. Nationals, where he qualified 28th (in a starting field of 32), but lost to Don Grotheer in the first round.
o This will be WJ's 29th U.S. Nationals, which is only one less than the Pro Stock's division's history at Indianapolis Raceway Park. The "factory hot rods" made their Indy debut in 1970.
o WJ has six U.S. Nationals wins in eight final round appearances, which is the most among all active NHRA professional drivers, and third all-time behind Bob Glidden's nine and Don Garlits' eight wins.
o WJ won the U.S. Nationals in 1984, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1999, and was the runner-up in 1988 and 1998.
o WJ won the 30th, 40th and 45th edition of the U.S. Nationals.
o Throughout his career, WJ has posted a 41-22 elimination round record at the U.S. Nationals, for a .651 win percentage.
o In his 28 previous races, Warren has eight No. 1 qualifying performances, and has only four starts outside the top five.