WJ Returns to His Racing Roots in Brainerd GM Performance Parts GTO crew heads to legendary driver's home state Sugar Hill, Ga., August 8, 2007 -- This weekend, the NHRA makes its annual visit to the North Star State, heading to Brainerd,...
WJ Returns to His Racing Roots in Brainerd
GM Performance Parts GTO crew heads to legendary driver's home state
Sugar Hill, Ga., August 8, 2007 -- This weekend, the NHRA makes its annual visit to the North Star State, heading to Brainerd, MN for the Lucas Oil Nationals. In its 26 years on the POWERade Drag racing circuit, this event has grown to be one of drag racing's most popular events, with people traveling from across the Midwest and Canada to see the straight-line set in action and party in the infamous "Zoo", as the Brainerd International Raceway campground is known.
Having been born in nearby Virginia, MN, this race also doubles as a yearly homecoming for Pro Stock legend Warren Johnson, with the GM Performance Parts Pontiac GTO racer having participated in all 25 previous editions. However, his first Minnesota drag racing experience came well before that, setting the stage for the Hall of Fame career that was to follow.
"My first contact with drag racing came in the early 60's at Minnesota Dragways, first as a spectator and a couple years later as a participant," said Johnson. "I had a '57 Chevy with a 327 in it with two four-barrel carburetors that I would drive down to the track to compete in. Back then, the tracks were basically a strip of asphalt in the middle of a field, so Minnesota Dragways was way ahead of its time with a concrete starting line similar to what we use today, as well as paved areas for both the racers and the fans.
"In fact, when I started racing there in 1965, they had a rudimentary version of the starting line Christmas tree, which was actually two traffic signals suspended over each lane on a cable. The level of participation was tremendous, with car counts regularly exceeding 500 cars, including five or six Top Fuel Cars. I was also fortunate to have Twin Cities Dragway within 10-12 miles of my house, where I also raced on a regular basis. At the time, I believe it was the oldest operating track in the United States, having opened in 1949.
"Brainerd didn't come on the drag racing scene until a few years later, around 1969 or 1970, and I won a few races they had scheduled up there prior to getting a national event, mostly in the street eliminator category. They traditionally had few events throughout the course of the year which were always well attended by both competitors and spectators.
"Those were the tracks and cars on which I cut my racing teeth, learning how to tune and drive well before I ever went to a national event. My first actual organized race was a Division 5 points meet, where I was the runner-up to the legendary Lutz and Lundberg team, who at the time were the A Gas national record holders. Looking at where we have gone since then, I guess you could say that my Minnesota education has served me well."
Returning for this year's edition, "The Professor" will have little time to reminisce any further. With only two events remaining before the second stage of this year's Countdown to the Championship, Johnson and his Terry Adams-led crew find themselves in the midst of a tight battle for one of the remaining spots, with every qualifying session and elimination round growing in importance. Although the sport and his race car bear little resemblance to their predecessors, they will rely on their extensive experience on the Minnesota quarter-mile to help them succeed, calling on their vast library of tuning data to find the right combination to adapt their 1,400-horsepower "factory hot rod" to the challenging Brainerd track.
"I guess the easiest way to describe the differences between that '57 Chevy and our GM Performance Parts GTO is that our current car has half the height and twice the power, but in each case, you're always looking for ways to make it better," quipped Johnson. "We're closing the gap performance-wise, and have been improving over the last few races, but simply have to keep moving forward. With two races to go in this first stage, we want to do whatever it takes to guarantee our participation in round two. That puts Brainerd at the top of our hit list.
"We'll have a lot of friends and relatives stopping by the pits throughout the weekend to offer their support, and we look forward to seeing them there. I have to admit that after 40 years I may have forgotten their names, but I can usually recognize their voices. Fortunately, by now they pretty well know we have a job to do, and will spend time with them when we can. In any case, we certainly thank them for the support, and appreciate that they come out to see us. Naturally, it would be nice to win in front of them, but at this point, we want to win wherever we can, and since this happens to be the next stop on the schedule, it's in our sights."