When Warren Johnson and his son Kurt first came to the U.S. Nationals, they slept in a field across the street from the most hallowed ground in drag racing. Now 26 years later, the first family of Pro Stock has taken up permanent residence in the U.S. Nationals winner's circle. The father-and-son racing team has won the Pro Stock crown at Indy six consecutive years. A victory in this year's edition of the sport's biggest, oldest, richest, and most prestigious race would make it seven straight wins for the Johnson family.
Warren Johnson ended 12 years of frustration at Indianapolis Raceway Park when he notched his first U.S. Nationals victory in 1984, defeating arch-rival Bob Glidden in the final round. The silver-haired "Professor of Pro Stock" began his Indy hot streak in earnest in 1992, winning 16 straight rounds over a span of four years in Indianapolis. Johnson defeated final-round opponent Larry Morgan in 1992, Scott Geoffrion in 1993, Mark Pawuk in 1994, and Lewis Worden in 1995.
"I'm proud of winning the U.S. Nationals, but I'm even prouder of winning this race four times in a row," said Johnson, the 55-year-old owner/driver of the record-holding GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac. "Winning Indy four times in a row is like winning the lottery. The odds are almost insurmountable."
Warren's Indy winning streak came to an abrupt end in 1996 when a broken wheelie bar condemned him to a first-round loss. "Nothing's forever," Johnson observed philosophically.
That's when Kurt Johnson stepped up to defend the family honor. He defeated Rickie Smith in the final round in 1996 to claim his first U.S. Nationals crown. The following year he beat V. Gaines in the final to claim the Johnsons' unprecedented sixth consecutive U.S. Nationals crown.
"I've been coming to Indy for years, and this is the biggest win of them all," Kurt declared. "Everyone works all season for this race, and everybody's at their peak. To win here is a dream come true.
"Things were a little different when I first came to Indy," recalled the 35-year-old driver of the ACDelco Camaro Z28. "We towed Dad's race car on an open trailer and stayed in the campground across the street from the track."
The days of sleeping in a tent at the races are long gone for the Johnson family. Warren and Kurt now race out of a pair of well-stocked 18-wheelers, while Arlene Johnson's kitchen in the family motor home produces an endless supply of hot meals. Warren has won 69 NHRA national event titles -- second on the all-time NHRA winner's list -- and a trio of Pro Stock championships. Coming into the U.S. Nationals, W.J. is closing in on a fourth career title with a commanding 339-point lead over his closest pursuer in the Winston championship race.
Much has changed for Kurt Johnson since he first went to Indy as a wide-eyed 9-year-old. After serving an apprenticeship as parts washer, machinist, and crew chief for his father, Kurt began his own driving career in 1993, and advanced to the semi-final round in his racing debut in Indy. Since then, Kurt has won 11 national events in 23 final-round appearances. He is third in the championship standings coming into the U.S. Nationals, just 6 points out of second place.
"I'm going to do everything I can to win Indy three times in a row," declared Kurt, "and I think we have a shot at it. The track is always a challenge for Pro Stock cars. We've tested at Indianapolis Raceway Park to prepare for the Nationals. We learned what the new starting line pad does when it gets hot, and we got some valuable experience with a new clutch we're using."
Warren and Kurt Johnson are widely acknowledged as two of the hardest working racers in the sport. They have a job to do at the U.S. Nationals -- and that means that their competition is going to have to work overtime to keep the Johnsons out of the Indy winner's circle for the seventh straight year.