Looking Back, Looking Ahead Inspiration can strike at any time and at any place. For Pro Stock driver Kurt Johnson, the moment came in an airport waiting room in the Bahamas. "My wife and I took a short vacation after the end of the season, ...
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Inspiration can strike at any time and at any place. For Pro Stock driver Kurt Johnson, the moment came in an airport waiting room in the Bahamas.
"My wife and I took a short vacation after the end of the season, and I was reading a newspaper in the airport," Johnson recalled. "I saw an ACDelco advertisement that congratulated Jeff Gordon on winning his fourth NASCAR championship after he struggled to a ninth-place finish just one year earlier.
"Then it hit me: If Gordon can go from ninth to first in one year, then so can I. That's my goal for 2002."
Thus inspired by his racing muse, the 38-year-old driver of the ACDelco Cavalier took a look back at 2001 -- the championship season that didn't happen.
Most racers would have been thrilled to have a year like the one that Kurt Johnson experienced. He won the season-opening Winternationals, appeared in two final rounds, set the national elapsed time and speed records, turned the fastest speed at eight events, set four track speed records, and finished ninth in the championship standings -- the ninth top-10 finish of his nine-year career.
But Kurt is the son of six-time Pro Stock champion Warren "The Professor" Johnson, and he grades himself on a very steep curve. In the Johnson household, excellence is expected.
In his school days, Kurt had to maintain an "A" average as a prerequisite for going to the races. He never missed the mark -- and he never missed a race. Johnson applies that same exacting standard to his racing operation.
"You try your best, and at the end of the day you wonder, how can we work so hard and not do as well as we should have?" Kurt said. "Maybe we had some bad luck along the way, but we need to make our own luck by being better prepared, being more consistent, and being in control of our destiny.
"Pro Stock is an extremely competitive class right now," he continued. "We need a performance advantage. The only way we're going to get one is to work harder and smarter than the competition."
When K.J. dominated the first race of the season, he was tabbed by many as a potential champion. He won 11 rounds in the first six events and was solidly in second place (behind his father) in the championship race. But as the weather got warmer, K.J.'s hot streak cooled. Back-to-back DNQs in Topeka and Chicago and nine first-round losses effectively ended his championship dream. When he failed to qualify for the season finale in Pomona, he was denied a chance to defend the Auto Club NHRA Finals title that he won in 2000.
"We're still trying to figure out whether our performance fell off or everyone else's picked up," Kurt conceded. "We changed to a new engine dyno in April, and maybe it's giving us bad information. Our horsepower numbers are better than they've ever been, but we're not running the back half of race track as fast as we should."
Johnson still relishes the highlights of the past season: "Winning the Winternationals with our brand-new Cavalier, setting the national records in Chicago, and seeing Dad win his 86th national event and his sixth championship -- those were all important to me," Kurt said. "The day we set both the elapsed time and top speed records was really a tribute to the ACDelco team. The road crew came up with the right suspension and chassis setup to get the car down the track quickly, and the guys at the shop gave me the power to run big speed."
One lesson that Kurt learned from the Professor is not to dwell on the past. He is already looking ahead to 2002, when he will have a pair of new ACDelco Cavaliers in his racing stable. Johnson's team is putting the finishing touches on a new Don Ness-built double-rail chassis, and Jerry Haas is constructing a second Cavalier to K.J.'s specifications.
"I'm excited about my new cars -- as excited as I was about getting my first Cavalier," Kurt reported. "The Haas car is a hybrid that combines what we learned from this year's design with what we knew from my last Camaro. That car won six races in 2000, so we have good data on chassis setups. I think we will be a step ahead next season."
While the team prepares a brace of new race cars, Kurt will continue to refine the GM Drag Race Competition Engines that power both his and his father's machines.
"We have several new engine combinations that we will test over the winter," he reported. "You don't find 15 or 20 horsepower these days; it's one or two at a time. But over a couple of months, they add up."
Kurt Johnson has been involved in racing since he was old enough to pick up a wrench. He has celebrated championships with his family and he has endured winless seasons. But with the unalloyed optimism that is the trademark of real racers, he is looking forward to quicker elapsed times, faster speeds, more victories -- and perhaps that elusive first championship in 2002.