ATLANTA (May 6, 1999) He's called the "Professor of Pro Stock" because of his analytical approach to racing, but fans and competitors of four-time Winston champion (1992-93, 1995, 1998) Warren Johnson also know that most of his success can be...
ATLANTA (May 6, 1999) He's called the "Professor of Pro Stock" because of his analytical approach to racing, but fans and competitors of four-time Winston champion (1992-93, 1995, 1998) Warren Johnson also know that most of his success can be attributed to an incessant determination to stay at the pinnacle of his sport.
For over 20 years, the Minnesota native and current Georgia resident has applied his trade on the NHRA Drag Racing circuit. Prior to the start of this season, Johnson had rung up a total of 72 wins in 114 rounds of competition. But in the last two months, Johnson and his GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac Firebird have added to that illustrious total picking up victories at the Mac Tools Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., on March 21, and the Castrol Nationals in Dallas, Tex., on April 25. Those victories have him tied with John Force for second place on the NHRA's list for all-time wins by a professional driver behind former Pro Stock-great Bob Glidden (85 wins).
After a two-year absence from the champion's podium, the 55-year-old Pro Stock veteran left havoc in his wake last season with an outstanding campaign that saw Johnson reclaim the Winston title. Over the course of the 22-event season, he charged to his fourth championship winning nine races in 12 final rounds and capturing an incredible 13 top-qualifying spots. This year, he and son Kurt are battling once again for that much-wanted Winston title.
Johnson was featured on the NHRA teleconference prior to the 19th annual NHRA Advance Auto Parts Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Ga., on May 13 -16. He is a three-time winner of this event (1986, 1988, 1993) and has been runner-up three times (1990-91, 1994).
For what you do as a race car driver, could you have asked for a better weekend performance-wise for the two team cars at Richmond? "We probably haven't had better atmospheric conditions than that for as long as I can really remember. We just did a bad job of adapting to the race track. There wasn't really anything wrong with it per se, we just didn't couple the abundance of power we had because of the atmospheric conditions to the race track. You know, we're trying to get all of that horsepower down to the ground through something that's made of string and rubber. Goodyear's done a great job with tires over the years, but we're right at the point where we're starting to overpower them again."
When you look back over the years, isn't Atlanta one of the toughest tracks for a Pro Stock car in just about every area of performance you can look for? "That's pretty much spot on. It's just starting to warm up here in the south now and that starts detracting from the amount of power we can make. The racetrack, for some reason or another, has not always been the best as far as overall traction is concerned, and not necessarily just for the Pro Stock cars--for just about every other category as well. Whether that's because of the type of asphalt that was laid or how it was put down, or whatever it was, there's obviously been some sort of performance disadvantage from the track surface. It's my understanding that they're going to address that this week with some scraping and grinding operations, and that may bring it back to the level we need for optimum performance."
How bad do you want to win this one? "I want to win everyone of them. But we do a lot of testing on this track because it's just 40 miles from the shop, so we get out there sometimes maybe three times a week. Admittedly the track surface is not going to be the same at a national event that it is when we test there, but at least we have a feel for where the bumps are and so forth so that we can adjust our gearing and that sort of thing."
Even though Atlanta Dragway is your home track, aren't you the hometown favorite at every race you go to? "If I am it's probably because I've been around for so long. I've raced at just about every one of NHRA's venues for a little over 20 years now. The fans are what make any form of motorsports and without them we all fully realize that we don't have a sport. You have to devote as much time as you possibly can to the fans and we try to do that as a team. Maybe that has some effect on our popularity at some of the tracks."
What does it feel like to be the guy everyone is shooting for every year and how do you keep the constant motivation to succeed? "It's very simple. I hate to lose at anything I'm working at, and because I derive my livelihood from this sport, I really have no choice but to be as successful as I possibly can. That aspect is from the business side of it. For this to be a successful business, the race team has to be successful and that includes the people that you have. In NASCAR, you always hear them talk about how important chemistry is. That's absolutely true in any form of motorsports. Everybody has to work together to the point where they don't even have to say anything while they're working. They know full well what their job is and everybody else has confidence that they're going to do their part of it so when they do their own part, it all blends together. That's the chemistry you're looking for."
What are some of the characteristics of Atlanta Dragway? "This track is a little short on concrete as far as the starting line. I think we have about 270 feet of concrete and there are a few bumps in the left hand lane that tend to upset the suspended cars just a little bit. We don't have the luxury of the downforce of the fuel cars so we have to really tiptoe over those bumps making sure that we don't have gear changes on them. We have four gear changes in these cars, and all four are in by just after the eighth mile, so we have to time those gear changes so that they're not on the bumps. We have to take and utilize to our maximum ability what starting line is there because a majority of our elapsed time is gained in the first 300 feet. You really have to work at that part on this particular racetrack. Couple that with the fact that as we're approaching summer, it's getting a little bit warmer, we don't have a whole lot of horsepower and so we really have to use it as efficiently as possible."
How do you feel about racing John Force for Bob Glidden's all-time win record? "I don't think John and I really ever think about Glidden's record. We're thinking about the task at hand, and that's winning as many races as possible in the effort of trying to win the championship. If that record ever falls, and it's conceivable that it may, so be it. But then I think we both look at it realistically that if one of us is fortunate enough to exceed that record, then the one that ends up with the most wins, sooner or later someone will come along and eclipse that record. That's why records are records, they're only made to be broken."
Is it the love of winning or the hatred of losing that keeps you going? "I think it's the hatred of losing. When you lose, that means you've done something wrong and I try to be as analytically correct as possible when we race. If you've done something wrong, or overlooked something, or you didn't give enough attention to detail in certain areas, whatever the case may be, there's a flaw in your program. That's the part that I really don't like."
Are you enjoying getting back to changing gears this year? "I think its added a little bit more character to the class. There's a certain degree of difficulty there that the spectators envision because you're manually shifting instead of just pushing a button. I think it brings the realm of being more of a real driver's vehicle into perspective as far as the spectators are concerned. That's been one aspect of the truck class that's been so appealing is the fact that they are shifting a five-speed transmission. The spectators picked up on that right away and that added to some of the popularity of the category."
How does it feel to be chasing Kurt (Johnson) for the points lead? "That's a double-edged sword really. He's part and parcel of this program because we both work out of the same shop, we both enjoy sponsorship from General Motors and SPO, and we're both trying to win races. It's really a cooperative effort between both teams because I do all the cylinder heads, intake manifolds, carburetors and the top side of the engine. Kurt supervises and manages all of the bottom of the short blocks and the assembly end of it, and then does all the dyno tuning on the engine dynamometer. We both work in the effort of making both of these cars as competitive as possible because everything we earn on this thing goes into one pot. If Kurt is fortunate enough to win, then he just gets a bigger percentage of it. That's really the only difference."
So the main goal is to have one of you win the championship? "Absolutely! As long as one of us wins is the bottom line. The fact that we have only four qualifying passes at a national event is why I started this two-car team approach back in 1991. With tracks changing at that time, putting in more concrete on the starting line, and changing the composition of the asphalt on the rest of the racetrack, we just didn't really have enough data to race successfully under changing atmospheric and weather conditions. The more runs that you can access data from, the better off you are. The only real way of doing that is to have two cars out there and having access to all of the data. So you're basically doubling up on your knowledge of what it takes to race successfully. You can make different changes to the two cars to see their cause and effect, and hopefully come up with the right scenario and setup for race day on Sunday."
Have you ever had what you would consider to be a perfect run? "No, there's never been really an absolutely perfect run. Perfect is only the amount of area you are willing to except. When you look at it, there are so many variables there that you have to consider, like whether you shifted at the right time, or was the suspension and shock valving correct, so that you can look at the rate of acceleration on the g-meter. We've had runs that were really pretty close, and maybe we're looking for flaws, I don't know, but there're always areas where there can be a slight improvement. When I say slight improvement, we may be only talking about a thousandth or two thousandths of a second, but there's still room for improvement."
What should the NHRA be doing to promote Pro Stock racing and drag racing in general? I think from the competitors standpoint the NHRA has to do everything possible to promote the categories that the spectators view as being the most popular--whatever that may be. The spectators are the customers and they are the ones that the NHRA has to satisfy. The competitors are only providing the entertainment and the NHRA is only providing the venue for that entertainment. They really need to have a thumb on the pulse of the spectator to find out what they want and how they want it. There are so many categories in drag racing, and that's probably one of the appealing aspects of the sport is that there is something for everybody. The NHRA just has to find out in what proportion that needs to be presented and how the program is to be presented. Television is really a hard format for drag racing to be viewed on because it's a sensation where you have to touch it, feel it and hear it. It's been a tough nut to crack to bring it to the same level of intensity and feeling that you have at the racetrack. That's one of the challenges that NHRA faces is to find out what that formula is to bring it into the television arena so that is does have the same appeal as being there in person. That's one thing that NASCAR has done extremely well. They've actually made it more appealing to watch on television than to go there in person. You can see all the action on any part of the track because the television coverage is so good."
What's the next big step Pro Stock needs to take? "I think we've addressed the aerodynamic issue well enough because the EPA has dictated that automobiles need to be more fuel efficient. The factories have really worked on their end to reduce the parasitic drag off of these cars and that's really helped all forms of motorsports. I think the next thing we need to do is look at something mechanical to keep the appeal as far as the spectators are concerned. That could possibly be fuel injection or something of that nature so that it has more of a technical aspect to it that they would be intrigued with."
Does someone like Allen Johnson winning in a Dodge give more variety to the class? "Absolutely! I've always been an advocate of that. We don't want all Pontiac Firebirds, like I drive, or Camaros, like Kurt drives out there. We need some Fords, some Buicks, some Mercurys, what have you. We need as many nameplates out there as possible because that brings a bigger fan base and more fan appeal. Not everybody drives a Pontiac, or a Camaro or a Dodge. So we need more nameplates out there and anything that can be done to help that is better for the sport. I realize that involves a lot of factory participation because it requires aero work that needs to be done and so forth, and it has to be the proper vehicle and image that the factory is looking to promote. You obviously don't want a luxury car out there as a Pro Stock race car. You want something that's more of a sporty performance image."
Would you be in favor of going to a larger field - say a 32-car field? "If that fits in to what the spectators want then it's something that should be addressed. Because we're really restricted on time to bring all of these categories into final eliminations in one day, that would involve, if we expanded any one particular category, probably starting with a round of eliminations on Saturday or something of that nature. When you have an excess of competitors in a category you still have to keep them involved so that they will stay there. Otherwise you'll have the same situation that you have in the alcohol categories where you're only getting less than a half a field of entrants at a race because they've become so disillusioned with trying to compete. I see that happening in a number of categories and that's an issue the NHRA as a sanctioning body has to address."
Would it be more difficult and create more work for Pro Stock teams? "That could be good or bad depending on how qualifying and racing are structured. You'll have more track time, so more track time is more exposure and when you have more exposure, that helps from the sponsor's side of it. There are a lot of different facets of having more cars out there. Like I said before, it all depends on what the consumer or the spectator wants.