Kurt Johnson -- With more than a decade of accomplishments achieved behind the wheel of one of the family's high-powered NHRA Pro Stock entries, Kurt Johnson is in position to obtain a goal that he set for himself when he started racing in 1993:...
Kurt Johnson -- With more than a decade of accomplishments achieved behind the wheel of one of the family's high-powered NHRA Pro Stock entries, Kurt Johnson is in position to obtain a goal that he set for himself when he started racing in 1993: win an NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Pro Stock championship.
It's something that his father, noted "Professor of Pro Stock," Warren Johnson, has accomplished six times. The younger Johnson has come close on two occasions, finishing second in 1993 and 2000. This season Johnson has left the starting line in his ACDelco Chevy Cavalier with three victories in four final round appearances in the first seven races, and currently leads the NHRA POWERade points chase in his category heading into the K&N Filters NHRA SuperNationals presented by Pep Boys, May 15-18, at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J.
By claiming his 26th career victory in late April at Bristol, Tenn., the Lawrenceville, Ga. driver tied the late Lee Shepherd for fifth on the NHRA Pro Stock all-time win list. While his resume lists notable achievements like being named the 1993 NHRA Rookie of the Year; First driver to break the 7-second barrier; Holder of the national speed record at 205.57 mph; and two-time winner of the lucrative King Demon Crown, a special bonus event for quick Pro Stock competitors, he remains intently focused on winning that elusive POWERade championship and thinks this may be his year. In this Q&A, Johnson talks about just how competitive NHRA Pro Stock racing has become, and how close his team is to logging the first 6.6-second run down the quarter-mile.
Q: After finishing outside the top five the last two seasons, you've really been strong this season. What has brought about the turnaround in your program?
Johnson: It all started to come together for the team in the second-half of last season. We figured a few things out and picked up the performance in the last six races and should have won a couple more times. We won at Pomona (Calif., Auto Club NHRA Finals), but really I should have won at Reading (Pa.) and Las Vegas too. We came out conservatively this season, but the main thing was that we just left everything alone. It has worked so far.
Q: Is this the best race car that you've ever driven?
Johnson: This is by far the best overall package I've ever had. From the car to the crew and everything in between, it just clicks. The team chemistry is the best I've had and it's showing in our performance. As drivers, we always love the cars that win races. So in that case, yeah, it's a great car. We can't wait to replace the race cars that can't seem to find their way to winner's circle.
Q: In your first season in the sport, 1993, you finished second in the point standings. Were you thinking at that point that driving a Pro Stock car was an easy gig?
Johnson: It seemed kind of easy that year. We had a big performance advantage over most of the teams back then. I was very fortunate to come into a situation where the race program was developing good horsepower and all the pieces were in place. It was still a bit of a learning experience because I crashed the car three times. I tore some stuff up, that's for sure. But I worked really hard on the driving end of it and went to some racing schools. I had never driven anything competitively until that first season in Pro Stock.
Q: After having great success during your first season, are you surprised that you are still chasing the goal of winning the championship 10 years later?
Johnson: I don't look at it that way. You work hard and compete and let the chips fall where they may. It just hasn't been my time yet. Maybe it will be my time this year. I figure if I can win some more races where I haven't won in the past, like Gainesville and Bristol, that will go a long way towards the championship. I was also runner-up at Las Vegas, where I hadn't been in a final before. It all adds up.
Q: This season at Houston Raceway Park you set the national speed record at 205.57 mph. Did you think that number was attainable this season?
Johnson: It was just a case of all the conditions coming together and the race track was really good. We ran 204 at Pomona (Calif., K&N Filters Winternationals), which is a track that runs slightly downhill, so I knew if we got the right conditions at Gainesville or Houston we might be able to take advantage of it. To be honest we were a little surprised. I didn't expect to see 205 this season, but at Houston everything came together and a few 205s popped up on the board.
Q: After the last two seasons where there were as many as 15 winners for 23 races, why are there only three drivers with trophies in 2003?
Johnson: The fact that we've only had three winners in seven races this year is just as weird as having 15 different winners in 2001 and 13 winners last year. It's just a freak of nature. It really shouldn't happen. There's a lot of really good cars out there and it's only a matter of time before a few other drivers start winning some races. Believe me, anyone that's qualified in the top 16 can win on Sunday. That's what makes Pro Stock racing so exciting--its unpredictable nature.
Q: With as many as 35 teams battling for 16 starting spots on Sunday, is the competition as tough in NHRA Pro Stock as in any other form of motorsport?
Johnson: Qualifying is the big deal. Once you get into the field, then you can start thinking about racing. I've had a few ulcers thinking about those Friday night qualifying sessions. It can be brutal if you don't pull off a solid run in the Friday evening session. It can send you home on Saturday if you don't. It really amazes me that the category continues to grow with new teams coming in, especially with the economy the way it is right now. Some of the guys in Pro Stock just love being a part of it. It's their golf game or fishing trip. This is our primary business, so we tend to look at it a little differently.
Q: Your father Warren once qualified for 303 consecutive races over a 15-year span. Jeg Coughlin currently has the longest ongoing qualifying streak in Pro Stock at 20 consecutive races. What does that say about the level of competition in the category?
Johnson: It's really unbelievable. That just shows you how tough it is out there. There's just so much talent out there right now that you simply can't make a mistake at the wrong time.
Q: Did you always know that you wanted to race professionally?
Johnson: I feel really fortunate to be in the position that I'm in right now. I am glad that I am driving our second team car rather than some hired driver. It's what I've always wanted to do. In the mid-'80s we didn't have the budget to put together a second car, but that was always the plan. It was always in the back of my mind -- I wanted to race. That's why I am so thankful that we have such great support from the folks at ACDelco and GM. Without them, we wouldn't be able to do this.
Q: Now that you've gone 205 mph and were the first to break the 7-second barrier, how far away are you from clocking the first 6.6-second run?
Johnson: About .021 of a second (national record is 6.720 seconds, held by Warren Johnson). If we get the right conditions, I think it could happen. It's hard to say when. It could happen at Englishtown (N.J.) next weekend, or it might not happen until one year from now. It all depends on the atmospheric conditions and how well we set up the car for all of the variables.
Q: Speaking of Englishtown, are you looking forward to having the opportunity to win some bonus bucks in the King Demon Crown?
Johnson: Any time you can race for some extra cash, it's a great race. It's a competitive event because you've got the eight cars that were the most consistent from the last year running for $50,000. It's the best of the best putting it all on the line. I've been fortunate enough to win that race two times (1994 and 1998) and I'd like to do it again this year. I think we have a car that's capable of doing it.
Q: You will face defending series champ Jeg Coughlin in the first round. Do you have a special strategy going in?
Johnson: You have to see what kind of hand you're dealt for that first round. I know who my opponent is going to be, Jeg (Coughlin), but you really have to wait and see what the track is going to be like and what the conditions are like before you start talking strategy. It really doesn't bother me who I have to race, because in that race you expect all three of those rounds to be tough if you're fortunate enough to make it to the final. I've raced Jeg many times before. He's a good driver, so you know what you're up against going in.
Q: Where does the K&N Filters SuperNationals rank on your list of NHRA national events?
Johnson: It's one of my favorite events because the track is always good and the conditions are usually just right to go fast. It's an important event for the Pro Stock teams because of the (King Demon Crown) and the fans there are really into it and supportive of Pro Stock. I've had some success there over the years by winning the (King Demon Crown) and I was runner-up there in 1993. I've been the No. 1 qualifier there a couple of times (1994 and 1998). It's the track where I ran the first six (second run). There's some memories there. Still, it is a place that I have not won a race. I would really like to win that one.
Q: What is the toughest part of running a race team?
Johnson: It's always tough to keep good, loyal employees. It's really hard to find the right people. Let's just say there's a few teams out there now that are competitive that got their start in Sugar Hill, Ga. There has been a lot of educating going on over the years at our shop.
Q: These days not only do you need to have a fast car, but you need to have fast reflexes too. How much do you work on your reaction times?
Johnson: I work on it a lot. It's a very important part of race preparation. You have to work on the race car, but you also have to focus on driver preparation too. Obviously there are some drivers out there who can work on cutting good lights more than others, because they aren't required to work on the car. I have to spend a lot of my time working on the car, but I still get in some work on the practice tree. There was a time when you could win all day long on Sunday by posting .030-.040 reaction times. I got beat in Atlanta with an .035 light and Greg Anderson got beat with a .036. Those are good lights that you would take all day long if you could get them. The category has become so competitive that you can't depend on those kind of reaction times anymore. You are seeing all these .010-.020 lights and it's really cut-throat. You have to go in there with the mindset of trying to cut a near-perfect light just to make sure you don't get beat with a holeshot. We're definitely planning to tighten it up in that area for the rest of the season.
Q: Who is your biggest rival?
Johnson: I consider anybody that's in the other lane as my biggest rival at the time. They can all put a .010 light on you. In my opinion, there are no easy races, they're all tough.
Q: How would you rate yourself as a driver these days?
Johnson: I haven't tore anything up lately and I believe my sponsor still loves me. I feel like I've developed into a pretty decent driver with some hard work and learning from mistakes, but that goes back to all of the experiences I've had in the last 10 years. In this game, you can't beat experience.
Q: How important is your streak of winning one race every season since you turned pro?
Johnson: It's a nice record to have. It shows consistency and that you're serious about what you do. I was glad to win at Pomona last year to keep the streak going. Let's just say that was an important win.
Q: Other than winning a championship, you've done just about everything that defines a great career. What stands out to you as your biggest achievement?
Johnson: Those are all important achievements to me, but winning a championship is the ultimate goal. It's what you work hard and put in all the hours for. I hope I am getting a little closer to that goal. Hey, I am out front right now and I am not planning on looking back.