Warren Johnson takes aim at another championship

PHOENIX, February 9, 2001 - Warren Johnson has a new racecar this year, and being one not afraid to speak his mind on any subject, the "Professor of Pro Stock" won't hesitate to tell you that he loves his Grand Am. Now with the 24-event NHRA ...

PHOENIX, February 9, 2001 - Warren Johnson has a new racecar this year, and being one not afraid to speak his mind on any subject, the "Professor of Pro Stock" won't hesitate to tell you that he loves his Grand Am. Now with the 24-event NHRA championship season in full swing, the five-time Winston Pro Stock champion (1992-93, 1995, 1998-99) is ready to put his GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac through the paces en route to what he hopes will be a sixth title when the points battle concludes in November.

The 57-year-old Johnson has a racing resume that ranks as one of the most impressive in the history of NHRA drag racing. Since 1975, he has won 81 national events, competed in 129 final rounds and started from the No. 1 qualifying position 122 times. Furthermore, Johnson has finished second in the points standings eight times (1976, 1984-86, 1988, 1991, 1996-97), won at least one national event every year since 1982 and five national events during seven of the last 10 seasons. He is third on the NHRA list for all-time victories behind John Force (92) and Bob Glidden (85).

The 17th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals presented by Pennzoil on February 16 -18 at Firebird International Raceway is the second race on the 24-event NHRA Winston championship tour. Qualifying highlights can be seen on ESPN2 on Saturday, February 17, beginning at 11 p.m. Eastern. Early-round coverage of final eliminations can be seen on ESPN on Sunday, February 18, beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern, with late coverage of eliminations beginning at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.

Early indications are that the Grand Am and Cavalier are going to be pretty good racecars. "Early on when we started the development project on these cars, and that's basically been over a year ago, we knew based off the exterior dimensions off the body envelope that initially they were going to be better than what we had. With some fine tuning on them based within NHRA rules they turned out a lot better than we thought."

How long have you been working on this project? "We started on the Grand Am actually a year-and-a-half ago, and then we got that in place after three trips to the wind tunnel to get it where we wanted or felt comfortable with it. Then basically we just matched the Cavalier to it aerodynamically."

Why are the Grand Am and Cavalier good racecars? "We're pushing less air. The frontal area is considerably less and then the general layout of the body contour aid in its aerodynamic efficiency. Overall, we punch a smaller hole in the air with a more aerodynamic shape. Those are the two factors that led to them both being excellent racecars, and then additionally to that the aerodynamic balance front to rear as far as downforce is concerned is extremely good."

So far, the conditions the cars have been run in have been pretty good -- for example testing and in Pomona, although the weather got warmer during the weekend. Where do you think the real test will come for these cars as we look farther in the season? "It's like anything that's new. We're excited about these cars right now because when you look at them from an aerodynamic standpoint they're better balanced than what we had to deal with before. We won a lot of races with the Firebirds and the Camaros and they were pretty decent racecars, these are just that much better. Now because there's a wheelbase change and an aerodynamic change as far as front to rear balance, they have a shorter overhang on the rear, and all of that leads into a lot of development time of which we've run the F-bodies for basically five or six years. We started out at one point and we ended up with a pretty decent racecar. Here we're starting with a better racecar, but it's physically different as far as its overall dimensions as far as overhang and so forth. That allows us to put ballast only in certain areas, so it's going to be a learning curve initially on these things. We're just at a better starting point than we were before."

Does that make it less difficult to make it an even better racecar? "It's just that it's physically different as far as the rear axle-to-bumper dimensions, so that means the ballast is eight to 10 inches farther forward in the back of the car. All of that is going to lead to slightly different setups than we would've used in say the Camaro, Firebird or even the Cutlass. There's going to be a learning curve, it's just that we have a more aerodynamic package to start with. Therefore it will take some developmental time, especially when the track conditions get warm. Obviously things are going to be different so there's going to be some learning curve involved in there, but the net result after it's all said and done is that we'll end up with better racecars."

From a preparation standpoint, do you feel you're ahead of the game more than you were this time last year? "Definitely. Last year we just ran into some unforeseen delivery problems. Life is nothing but a constant learning experience and we learned based off last year's experience to circumvent that with a different way of operating our race business. Overall, we're ahead of the game from where we were even though we have a learning curve with these racecars. But as far as power, engine parts, power level and so forth, we're definitely in better shape than we were last year. We just have an adjustment with these cars, but then again so does everybody else. I'm sure the Coughlins are going to go through it when they switch from the Cutlass to the Cavalier, and the Dodges when they switch from the Avengers to the Neons. It's because they're going to better racecars that they're going to do it. It's just that you have some additional work to do as far as making those racecars as good as what you came from even though you have a better aerodynamic package to start with."

Who are some of the other teams that will make a run at the title? "I fully expect this thing to go, basically, down to the wire with possibly four or five teams vying for the championship this year. Obviously Kurt and I are in better shape than we were last year. We've started off relatively well. The Dodges are in a much better position than they were last year. Now that we all have better aerodynamic packages as far as the GM cars are concerned you can expect Yates to be doing extremely well. Richie Stevens started off stronger than he did last year. You know there are a lot of teams out there that have the potential to finish well, whether they can do it over the long haul of the season is the real question. We have a 24-race schedule involved, there's a lot of racing, and a lot learning because of the new body style and chassis configuration we're involved with. It's a case of who decides to get to work and stay focussed."

From a fan standpoint it makes for a great show. But is it as exciting to the racer when the competition's that close? "You have to look at it both ways - what's good for the team and what's good for the sport. Sure, both Kurt and I would love to run away with the championship, but that wouldn't be good for the sport from the standpoint that the fans are not seeing the quality of racing that they're paying to see. From the fan's side of it I definitely want to see good, close racing, it just makes it harder on the teams as far as preparation."

With the compact schedule in the middle of the season, does that put someone like you, who does a lot of the work on his own engine program, at a disadvantage? "It does and it doesn't. We can respond to changes if they're required, or if we have a reliability problem we can respond to it faster because we're in charge of our own destiny and we have a complete engine facility. We don't farm anything out so that we can respond faster. At the same time we have to make sure that we're well prepared so that we're not shipping engines back and forth which adds to the expense. It's kind of a double-edged sword, but we'd rather do it this way because we feel that we're more in charge of our own destiny this way. Unfortunately when Kurt and I are gone, because we do all of the cylinder heads, intake manifolds, carburetors and that sort of thing, that cuts into our developmental program as opposed to those teams that have their own facility where they keep people employed who just stay there and work on their parts. But then they don't have the incentive to do as well as we do."

Would you favor more races on the schedule if the market would support it? "Only if there's a considerable increase in pay for the teams. Obviously that will add to our overhead because we're going to need additional tractor-trailers and additional crews. If there were two more races they would have to double the purses to make it cost effective for us to race. At the end of the year, if I'm not making a profit then I'd better not be doing this. The sponsor then has to look at it to determine if there's added value as far as exposure is concerned. It's all-encompassing when you start looking at more races. NHRA would probably have to add more staff and it could get extremely expensive. You look at the NASCAR side of it with 36 races, but then again they're dealing with $15 million budgets per team."

Do you like your title chances this year? "I feel that we're in better shape than most teams out there even though we're starting off with a new, unproven body-chassis configuration. But knowing where we are right now with the Grand Am and the Cavalier, and knowing where we left off with the Firebird and the Camaro, there's a learning curve -- but then again everyone else involved has one too. I've had numerous teams call me trying to figure out what is different about these cars. A majority of their knowledge in Pro Stock racing has been obtained with the F-body and these are considerably different. You can't run them the same and that's something we're all going to have to figure out. I don't think it's going to take as long as a lot of teams anticipate, yet you have to look at it from the other side. When the Dodges convert over to the Neons they're going to have that curve to deal with as well. Overall, I think we'll all be progressing at somewhat the same rate and I think given our parts situation this year as opposed to last year, we look at our team, both Kurt's and mine, as being in excellent position." -GM Racing Communications

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Series NHRA
Drivers Warren Johnson , John Force , Bob Glidden