NEXT RACES: Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals, July 13-16, Denver TV: ESPN2, July 16, 11:30 p.m. (ET) Prolong Super Lubricants Northwest Nationals, July 28-30, Seattle TV: ESPN2, July 30, 7:00 p.m. (ET) PROFESSOR JOHNSON'S MIDTERM REPORT...
Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals, July 13-16, Denver TV: ESPN2, July 16, 11:30 p.m. (ET) Prolong Super Lubricants Northwest Nationals, July 28-30, Seattle TV: ESPN2, July 30, 7:00 p.m. (ET)
PROFESSOR JOHNSON'S MIDTERM REPORT CARD
The Sears Craftsman Nationals at Gateway International Raceway traditionally marks the midpoint of the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. This year's midseason report warrants an asterisk, however, with only 11 of 23 scheduled races entered in the record book to date. Although qualifying was completed for the Mopar Parts Nationals in Englishtown, N.J., on May 20, rain forced postponement of final eliminations until September 9.
Despite the fine print, the Independence Day holiday is a convenient dividing line between the first and second halves of the season. "Professor" Warren Johnson reflected on his team's performance to date and handed out his midterm report card.
"I'd say we deserve a C- for the first half," said Johnson, who obviously grades on a very steep curve. "We were down on power at the start of the season due to a vendor supply problem. Neither Kurt nor I have been able to achieve the consistency we had last year. All you can say is we didn't have our act together."
Notwithstanding Johnson's harsh judgment, the results show that the GM Goodwrench Service Plus team already has four final-round appearances; only Jeg Coughlin Jr. has been in more Pro Stock final rounds this season. Johnson tops the Pro Stock statistics with four No. 1 qualifying efforts, four Low Elapsed Times, and four Top Speeds.
Offsetting W.J.'s four final rounds are his four first-round losses. He stands third in the points race behind Coughlin and Ron Krisher - his lowest ranking since March 1999.
"Last week I checked the payroll to make sure that some guy named Murphy wasn't on it," Johnson joked. "Anything that can go wrong has gone wrong this year.
"We're gathering information for next season while we're also trying to win races this year. It just hasn't worked in our favor. Last year we had things go our way and that resulted in winning rounds and races. This year they haven't gone our way. Over a lifetime, it all balances out.
"We've devoted considerable time and energy to our chassis and tire development programs," Warren noted. "I was hoping that our Hoosier tire program would come around faster than it has. That's still our ace in the hole, and we're very close to getting the tire we want.
"On the other hand, I'm pleased with the progress of our chassis program. Since we reworked Kurt's car, he has made two dozen straight runs. Converting his car to a double frame rail made a significant improvement in overall chassis stiffness, and I'm inclined to incorporate a similar design in the new car I will race in 2001.
"We are also working on an entirely new cylinder head design for next year," Warren revealed. "I'm optimistic that we can start making chips on our CNC machining center in a month or so and do some track testing with the new heads before next season."
THE KING OF THE MOUNTAIN
Heeding the time-honored advice of Horace Greeley, the NHRA tour will go west for the three-race "Western Swing" through Colorado, Washington, and California. The westward migration begins at the Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals in Denver on July 14-16.
If there is truly no substitute for experience, then Johnson is a good bet to add to his 80 career NHRA victories with another title at Bandimere Speedway. W.J. has raced on "Thunder Mountain" since the mid-'70s.
Many of Johnson's rivals for the Pro Stock crown were toddlers when Warren campaigned his unsponsored Camaro on NHRA's West Central Division circuit that included high-altitude tracks in Denver and Pueblo, Colo. W.J. excelled in the rare air, winning a record 13 consecutive divisional races in 1975-78.
Despite his formidable record, Johnson downplays his decades of racing experience in Denver. "The race cars and the technology have changed so dramatically over the years that most of what I learned back then no longer applies," Warren conceded. "Perhaps I can zero in on the correct tune-up a little quicker than drivers who haven't raced frequently at high altitude, but that's about the extent of my advantage."
Johnson has competed in every edition of the Mile-High Nationals since the race became a fixture on the NHRA championship tour in 1983. In 16 starts at Bandimere Speedway, he's won twice (1984 and 1991), scored five runner-up finishes, and qualified on the Pro Stock "pole" five times. Warren's son Kurt added a victory in 1995 and a runner-up finish in 1997 to the Johnson family's portfolio.
RACING IN RARE AIR
"A Pro Stock race car runs approximately three tenths of a second slower at Bandimere Speedway than it does a sea level," Johnson noted. "You simply don't have enough power on tap to get into handling and traction problems, so the objective is to make the car run down the race track as smoothly as possible."
In the early days of Pro Stock, the aerodynamics of production-bodied race cars were a mystery. Now in this era of wind tunnel testing, savvy racers like W.J. are very aware of aerodynamic characteristics.
"My Firebird has less aerodynamic drag at Denver than it does at sea level because the air is less dense," Johnson explained. "The thin air also means that it has less downforce. Fortunately the lack of downforce is not an issue because we don't have a surplus of horsepower to spin the tires. I think that you could probably take off the rear spoiler at Bandimere Speedway without any problem.
"In fact, the air is so thin that when I pull the parachute, nothing happens!" Johnson quipped.
W.J.'S SILVER ANNIVERSARY: THE WAY IT WAS
Bandimere Speedway is now one of the jewels of the NHRA tour, but Johnson remembers when the track was not quite so polished. "When I first raced in Denver, the pits were located below the race track," Johnson recalled. "You had to drive your race car up a steep hill to get to the staging lanes - there wasn't a golf cart or scooter with enough power to tow a car up that grade. When the wind blew, the dust went everywhere. The facility has obviously come a long way since then."
Bandimere Speedway was the site of two intramural final rounds for Warren Johnson. In 1991 W.J. defeated his erstwhile teammate Scott Geoffrion in the final, 7.64 to 7.76. The race was the first final round in NHRA history to feature two cars from the same shop. Following Geoffrion's move to the Mopar camp the following season as the replacement for suspended Pro Stock champion Darrell Alderman, the two drivers became fierce rivals.
The following year Warren faced Don Beverley in the final round. Beverley, driving W.J.'s Team II Oldsmobile, was the decided underdog, but he strapped a 7.73-to-7.72 holeshot victory on W.J.
"I hope this will quiet some people," Beverley declared after the race. "Maybe now other Pro Stock people will believe me when I say that when Warren and I race, we're really racing."
THE EMERALD CITY
Two weeks after the Mile-High Nationals, NHRA teams will descend to sea level and reconvene at Seattle International Raceway for the Prolong Super Lubricants Northwest Nationals on July 28-30. The contrast between the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and the shore of Puget Sound could not be more striking - or more significant for Pro Stock powerplants.
The Seattle track is surrounded by a sea of green with millions of trees pumping out oxygen. Cool temperatures and an exceptional starting line virtually guarantee fast times at SIR.
"Without a doubt, Seattle's concrete starting pad is the best in the country," Johnson declared. "The contractor who laid that concrete did a phenomenal job. Unfortunately he must have lost the recipe because no one has been able to duplicate it since!
"Seattle is really two race tracks," Warren explained. "You can make good time in the first eighth-mile, and after that you just hang on going over the bumps. The asphalt at the top end of the track has weathered to the point that the tires only have about 50 percent contact with the surface. The engines run a lot of rpm at the finish line because the rear tires are spinning even at 200 mph."
In 16 starts at SIR, Johnson has scored four victories and two runner-up finishes. He reached his milestone 25th national event victory at SIR in 1991, defeating Darrell Alderman in the final. In 1995 he notched his 50th national event title in Seattle with a final-round victory over archrival Bob Glidden.
Warren's son Kurt is also partial to SIR. He won his first national event title among the evergreens in 1993, defeating W.J. in the semi-final round and Mark Pawuk in the final. He was runner-up in 1996 and 1998, and won last year's event with a final-round victory over Jim Yates.
Warren and his son Kurt have made nine final-round appearances in the last 12 races at SIR. That's a record in the Emerald City that would turn any racer green with envy.
THE WAY IT WAS, PART II
Johnson raced at SIR in the mid-'70s when the event formerly known as the Fallnationals was contested in late September. The Northwest's notoriously wet autumn weather ultimately prevailed and the race disappeared from the NHRA schedule for a decade. It returned in 1988 as part of the summertime Western Swing.
"Actually the conditions in Seattle in July aren't much different than they were when we raced in the fall," Johnson notes. "The cars run fast there regardless of what month it says on the calendar." <pre> LAST RACES:
Pontiac Excitement Nationals, June 18, Columbus, Ohio Qualified: No. 1 at 6.935/197.54 mph Finished: Lost to Mark Pawuk in second round.
Sears Craftsman Nationals, June 24, Madison, Ill. Qualified: No. 7 at 6.980/197.80 mph Finished: Lost to Greg Anderson in semi-final round.
POINTS RACE: (After 11 of 23 events) Driver Wins Points 1. Jeg Coughlin Jr. 6 973 2. Ron Krisher 2 763 3. Warren Johnson 1 726 4. Mark Pawuk 1 634 5. Troy Coughlin 0 614 6. Kurt Johnson 0 583