Warren & Kurt Johnson Brainerd Q&A: The Johnsons Return to their Home State Sugar Hill, GA, August 6, 2008 -- The POWERade Drag Racing Series winds its way to the Land of 1,000 lakes this weekend, heading to Brainerd, MN for the Lucas Oil ...
Warren & Kurt Johnson Brainerd Q&A:
The Johnsons Return to their Home State
Sugar Hill, GA, August 6, 2008 -- The POWERade Drag Racing Series winds its way to the Land of 1,000 lakes this weekend, heading to Brainerd, MN for the Lucas Oil Nationals. For the father-and-son team of Warren and Kurt Johnson, the NHRA's annual trek to the North Star state also offers an opportunity to return to their home state, with both racers having been born in the town of Virginia, MN which is located in an area of the state known as the Iron Range.
As the Johnsons prepared the GM Performance Parts Pontiac GXP and ACDelco Chevrolet Cobalt for the trip to Brainerd International Raceway, they took time to answer a few questions about returning to Minnesota and Brainerd International Raceway (including the infamous Zoo), as well as their 2008 performance to date:
As Minnesota natives, what does it mean to you to come back to race in Brainerd every year?
WJ: Every year when we go to Brainerd, I get to see people I went to school with about 40 years ago, making it an enjoyable return to my roots, and I am truly grateful for my early existence there. However, growing up in Minnesota, the one thing you develop is a tremendous work ethic. As a result, we primarily see returning to Brainerd as just another race for our GM Performance Parts GXP team.
KJ: As Dad said, we treat it like any other race. It's always a good time, it's nice to see the relatives, in-laws and old friends, and Kathy and the kids usually join me, which makes it nice. However, the bottom line is that we go to Brainerd to win the race.
Warren, your racing career actually started in Minnesota -- talk about what it was like in the early days racing there.
WJ: One of the first tracks I went to and competed on was Minnesota Dragways, and that spoiled me as far as racetracks are concerned. It was really ahead of its time, with a concrete starting line and a complete Christmas Tree. In addition, both the spectator and all the pit areas and return were completely paved, something we don't necessarily see at tracks we race on today. John Foster and the group that ran that place were really on top of things when it came to having a state-of-the-art racetrack.
Kurt, although your driving career didn't start until well after you moved south, do you have any memories of racing in Minnesota with your dad?
KJ: You have to keep in mind that back then, I was the chief floor sweeper and parts cleaner, who also did a little machine work on occasion. I remember going with him to a couple Division 5 races in Brainerd, as well as the first national event in 1982, which was after we moved to Atlanta. Even though they've done some work on the racetrack since then, everything pretty much looks the same as I remember it.
Are there any regrets about moving south?
WJ: No, not really. It was strictly a case of logistics. Back in 1980, when we moved, the nation was going through its first energy crisis, and I was averaging 1,000 miles for every NHRA race I went to, which, coupled with the fact that we had a short racing season in Minnesota, made it inevitable that I was going to have to move if I was going to make racing my occupation. I wanted to move somewhere I would still have the four seasons as we did in Minnesota -- I just didn't want the extremes. My early life in Minnesota certainly spoiled me, because it was an interesting existence weather wise, but Georgia has logistically turned out to be a great location, because we are within a ten to fourteen hour drive from most races, and have numerous tracks in the area to test on.
KJ: It was a bit of a culture change moving to Georgia from Minnesota, and it can get a little humid here in the South, but I really don't have any regrets about moving. The winters are a little better here, which extends the amount of time we can test. After all, I'd rather be too hot than too cold.
Having said that, it's always nice to go back to Minnesota in August, because the weather is usually pretty nice, and they've gotten a good handle on the mosquitoes, making it a really nice place to race.
You've both had your share of successes racing in Brainerd, with seven wins and nine final round appearances between you -- what is it about BIR that suits your style?
WJ: I really don't know. The first time I ever went to Brainerd was back in the 70's when they ran their normal program, but we certainly didn't race there on a weekly basis. I think, being a multipurpose facility, they only had three or four races a year. However, throughout its existence, the track has been pretty decent, and whatever power we have had, we've been able to use on it.
KJ: I don't know why we've had such success there -- if I did, I'd probably bottle it and take a drink everywhere we race! (laughs) It's not that we try harder there than anywhere else, it's just that we seem to do well at that time of year. Hopefully, it's trend we'll continue this weekend with the ACDelco Cobalt.
Talk about the track at BIR -- what do you like about it, what don't you like, and how good is the surface there?
WJ: For some reason, we never seem to run as fast in Brainerd as our calculations show we should. Who knows, maybe we're better off that way (laughs). The management at BIR has been pretty attentive to the racing surface, repaving it a number of times over the years. Considering how harsh the winters are up there, for the most part it has been in pretty good shape over the years. I'd have to say they maintain that track as good as any one in the country. Parking can be a little cramped due to its design, but overall, it's a pretty good facility.
KJ: It's been fairly decent over the years. It certainly ranks among the most scenic places we go to during the year, and it's nice having the trees throughout the facility. I'd have to look at my notes from last year to see how the racing surface was, but if I remember correctly, it wasn't too bad. It's also more of a laid-back attitude there with the setting and the campers and the Zoo. However, that all ends when you pull into the water box.
What is your favorite racing memory at BIR?
WJ: Anytime I can win there.
KJ: It would definitely have to be the three wins. I remember having to change a motor before the first round in 2005, giving us a completely different set-up for race day. I also remember that win because we were in the winner's circle with Eric and John Medlen, which was pretty cool. In 2000, we made changes to the four-link after every run. I can't remember any specific details about winning in 1997, but it was obviously good enough.
Of course, no discussion about Brainerd is complete without talking about the Zoo -- you've both ventured over there in the last few years -- what is it like, especially considering your Minnesota roots?
WJ: First of all, the name is extremely appropriate, and some of the behavior you see in there could be the result of those long hard winters I spoke of previously. You see every variety of vehicle running around in the Zoo, including motorized picnic tables and deer stands, as well as the entire spectrum of human behavior. However, the people we have run into over the years in the Zoo have been absolutely tremendous, and I've had a great time over there. The only downside for the racers is that it's held on Saturday night, and we still have a race to run.
KJ: The number one thing to remember as a driver when you're heading into the Zoo is to bring plenty of Sharpies, because everyone wants your autograph! The easiest way to describe it is a sea of people all there to have a good time, with some of them probably never even seeing the races. Still, it's a chance to meet some neighbors and hang out with the fans, with everyone involved guaranteed to have fun.
You're obviously in different positions heading into these final few races before the start of the Countdown to One -- KJ, you're locked in, while Warren, you're working to get back into the Top Ten. How will you approach these three races?
WJ: My approach to these last three races will be same as it has been at every race this season -- we're going in to win. However, the way we prepare our GM Performance Parts GXP will have to change, because neither my or Kurt's ACDelco Cobalt is the quickest in the first sixty feet, which is the only place we seem to be off in performance. We also feel due to the lack of consistent and good sixty foot times the reaction time is also affected. We've been working on fixing it, but due to a lack of available testing time, our efforts have been somewhat limited.
KJ: I think we have a really good car right now, and it showed on Saturday in Sonoma, which allows us to basically leave it alone and just fine-tune it for the six races in the Countdown to One. I believe that should put us in a great position going into that final stretch.
Warren -- what do you think it will take to get back into the Top ten, and are you confident you will be able to do so? KJ -- is there anything you can or will do to help your Dad get in?
WJ: If I knew, I would have already fixed it -- does that pretty much cover it? We've been going over every note back to the 2001 season when we went to the carbon-fiber bodies on these cars to see what basic set-up worked and what didn't in terms of the first sixty feet and reaction time to see what we can come up with. We're always moving things around in these cars, and we've been taking a look at exactly how it might have affected the performance, seeing if there was a negative effect we hadn't thought of. As we dissected the data, there were a couple things that came up, and we hope to go out next week to test and see if we can rectify them.
KJ: I'm sure there a few things we could do if he listens (laughs). Obviously, he's going to have a car that goes from A to B on every run. If it does, we know it will be fast, that's for darn sure. I think if we work together, we can get him where he needs to be. He definitely needs more runs on Sunday.
Kurt, your dad already spoke about bettering his sixty-foot performance - are there any specific areas of your ACDelco Cobalt's program that you feel need to be addressed?
KJ: Well, we have a new crew member, Rob Charmellow, who joined us after the Western Swing and never been to the drag races. Justin (crew member Belfance) and I have to tune him up and get him ready for Brainerd.
If you could use just one word to summarize your outlook heading forward, what would it be?
KJ: World champion is two words.
Kurt Johnson/ACDelco Cobalt & Warren Johnson/ GM Performance Parts GXP
By the Numbers -- Lucas Oil Nationals edition:
5 -- Average starting position by both Kurt and Warren in their previous Brainerd starts.
6 - No. 1 qualifying performances by WJ & KJ at BIR (WJ: 5, KJ: 1 in 2003)
7 -- Combined career wins by Kurt and Warren at Brainerd International Raceway, with WJ's four victories tying him with Bruce Allen & Bob Glidden for the most by a Pro Stock competitor at the Minnesota quarter-mile.
9 -- Final round appearances by the Johnsons in the North Star State. (WJ: 5, KJ: 4)
12 -- Top half starts by KJ in 15 prior starts in Minnesota.
19 -- Top Four starts by WJ in 25 prior starts at Brainerd International Raceway.
24 -- Combined finishes of the semifinals or better by KJ & WJ in 40 previous BIR starts.
134 -- Combined national event wins by Warren (96) and Kurt (38) in a combined 220 final round appearances.
36 -- Different drivers WJ has faced in eliminations during his national event career at Brainerd International Raceway.
209.92 -- Career top speed for Kurt Johnson, which he set in Seattle three weeks ago.
215 -- Number of times WJ has set top speed at an NHRA national event (which is the most in NHRA history), including nine times in the first 15 races of 2008.