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PRESSURE IS ON WARREN JOHNSON IN PRO STOCK AT READING
MOHNTON, Pa. -- It's crunch time for Warren Johnson.
Johnson trails point leader Jim Yates by 129 points -- more than one race -- with just four races remaining in the 1996 season. Time is running out if he wants to win his second consecutive NHRA Winston Pro Stock championship, and he knows it.
"We can still win the championship," Johnson said. "We'll have to qualify opposite Yates on the ladder and take him out in the early rounds."
Johnson, from Duluth, Ga., faces almost a must- win situation at the 12th annual, $1,515,050 Pioneer Electronics Keystone Nationals, Sept. 12-15 at picturesque Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa. The race is the 16th event in the 19-event, $27-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series in 1996.
The chase for the championship took an abrupt turn at the U.S. Nationals earlier this month at Indianapolis. Johnson entered that event with five victories in the last nine races in the GM Performance Parts Pontiac Firebird. He was just 88 points behind Yates and had big momentum.
But a freak parts failure at Indy changed all that. A weld broke on his right wheelie bar during a first-round matchup against Jerry Eckman, sending his car skyward. Johnson had to shut off, giving the win to Eckman. Yates advanced to the semifinals before losing to Johnson's son, Kurt Johnson.
"There's not a lot of load on the wheelie bars, but the problem is that the welds fatigue because of the severe vibration they're subjected to during burnouts and tire shake," Johnson said. "Nothing conceived by the human mind and made by human hands is ever perfect."
But Johnson has nearly a perfect record of advancing to the final at Maple Grove this decade. He has raced in the final every year since 1991, with victories in 1991, 1992 and 1995.
PIONEER ELECTRONICS KEYSTONE NATIONALS PRO STOCK NOTEBOOK
--Back in business: Team Mopar will return to Pro Stock in 1997 with Dale Eicke as owner and engine builder. Darrell Alderman and Scott Geoffrion will remain as drivers.
The new team will debut at the season-opening Chief Auto Parts Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.
"This is a great opportunity for Eicke Racing," said Eicke, 46, from Granville, Ohio. "I have been in the business for 30 years and worked with a lot of great racers. But owning my own team has always been a goal and getting the chance to work with Mopar and two superb drivers makes it even better.
"I feel we have an excellent chance to be a factor next year."
Eicke previously was a partner in a successful engine-building business with Pro Stock driver and engine wizard Steve Schmidt. The duo began development this season of Chrysler engines used by Pro Stock driver Allen Johnson.
"We think we have a head start on Dodge cylinder-head design with some of our previous work, and we're especially excited about the Chrysler engineering support that we're going to get."
The Wayne County Speed Shop team had fielded Team Mopar Dodges for Alderman and Geoffrion since 1992, but that team disbanded in July after struggling for nearly 14 months after vandals entered its shop in May 1995 and destroyed all of the team's racing engines.
Alderman won Winston championships for Wayne County in 1990, 1991 and 1994.
--Overdue: The long Pontiac drought in Pro Stock at the Pioneer Electronics Keystone Nationals is due to end this year.
Don Beverley won at Maple Grove in a Pontiac Firebird in 1986, the only Pontiac victory in Pro Stock in the 11-year history of this event.
But there's a good chance that a Pontiac will break through this year. Many top drivers switched from Oldsmobile to Pontiac this season, as Oldsmobile withdrew from drag racing after 1995 and Pontiac became the Official Car of NHRA.
Only one non-Pontiac driver has won this season in Pro Stock. Mike Edwards drove the Winnebago Oldsmobile Cutlass to victory in the Slick 50 Nationals presented by Western Auto in March at Houston and the Northwest Nationals in August at Seattle.
--Family ties: A member of the Johnson family has won the NHRA U.S. Nationals the last five years.
Kurt Johnson won this year in the Delco Freedom Battery Pontiac Firebird, and his father, Warren Johnson, won four straight from 1992-95.
--Hurley stepping up: Hurley Blakeney, who last year became the first Competition racer to record a 200-mph run in a doorslammer with his AA/AT Ford Thunderbird, is having a new Ford Probe built that will first compete in Comp eliminator and later Pro Stock.
"Kim Smith, who built my Thunderbird, is building the car, and he will be the initial driver when we run it in BB/AT," Blakeney said. "It will have a 295-cid twin-turbocharged Ford engine built by Ken Duttweiler, who built the motor for my Thunderbird."
Duttweiler is also working on a Ford 500-cid engine that Blakeney, from Chester, Vt., will use when he makes his debut in Pro Stock racing.
--Rampy back in Pro Stock: Three-time NHRA Winston sportsman champion David Rampy returned to Pro Stock for the first time since 1994 at the U.S. Nationals.
Rampy did not qualify in the Winnebago Pontiac owned by Harold Stout.
"In the time we have been gone from the class, Pro Stock as a whole has tightened up and is more competitive than ever," Rampy said.
Rampy finished 10th in the NHRA Winston Pro Stock point standings in 1993. He finished runner-up to Larry Morgan at the 1993 Sears Craftsman Nationals at Topeka, Kan., in the only final round of his Pro Stock career.
The move to Pro Stock cost the versatile Rampy his ride in a Super Comp dragster. NHRA rules state that a driver can compete in only two categories. So Rampy decided to continue racing in a Super Gas roadster while racing in Pro Stock.
"It used to be draining to run in Pro Stock and sportsman," Rampy said. "But since I quit Pro Stock in 1994, I've been running two cars almost every weekend. It makes for a long mental weekend, but I wish it was twice as bad on Sunday, because that means we qualified."
--Schedule: Pro qualifying starts at 3 p.m. Sept. 13 and is followed by a night-qualifying session at 7 p.m. Qualifying ends with sessions at noon and 4 p.m. Sept. 14, with final eliminations starting at 11 a.m. Sept. 15. Sportsman competition starts at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 12.
--Tickets: Tickets are available for the Pioneer Electronics Keystone Nationals. Call Maple Grove Raceway at (610) 856-7812 for ticket information. Tickets also can be purchased at Ticketmaster outlets. To order tickets by phone from Ticketmaster, call (215) 336-2000.
--On TV: The Nashville Network (TNN) will televise 60 minutes of live final-round competition from the Pioneer Electronics Keystone Nationals at 5 p.m. (EDT) Sept. 15.
--On the Web: The NHRA home page on the World Wide Web at http://www.goracing.com/nhra/ offers more information about NHRA Winston Drag Racing, including qualifying and eliminations results, news, point standings, statistics, driver biographies and video clips.
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