Bristol: GM - Kurt Johnson interview

BRISTOL, Tenn., April 22, 2003 - In the last three NHRA national events, Chevy Cavalier ace Kurt Johnson has made tremendous gains in the POWERade Pro Stock points standings by posting two victories in three final-round appearances. Before the...

BRISTOL, Tenn., April 22, 2003 - In the last three NHRA national events, Chevy Cavalier ace Kurt Johnson has made tremendous gains in the POWERade Pro Stock points standings by posting two victories in three final-round appearances. Before the start of his recent run on the table, Johnson was in sixth place in the standings, but now he finds himself at the front of the pack with an 18-point lead over second-place Greg Anderson. The last time Johnson was at the top of the standings this late in the season was in 1999 when he led the category from Feb. 28 - May 25.

At the series' most recent event in Houston, the 40-year-old Atlanta-area resident piloted his ACDelco Chevy Cavalier to a national-record top speed of 205.57 mph en route to his 25th career victory. In addition to his national record setting run, Johnson's Chevrolet has posted new track-record top speeds at the last four races. He is also the only driver left this year in the Pro Stock category to advance to round two at every event. Johnson is 11 -1 since debuting the new '03 Cavalier last month at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.

The development of the 2003 Chevrolet Cavalier.

"It goes back to last November. Dad put that whole project together along with Mark Kirkman and Five Star. They developed the front end, built the whole thing, and we got the new pieces while we were racing in Phoenix. We mounted it to the car, put it in the wind tunnel, looked at the numbers, tested it at Atlanta and then ran it at Gainesville. Originally when we did the Grand Am/Cavalier project we took it to the wind tunnel and figured out where it needed to be. Looking at some of the Winston Cup data, you can tell where you need to make your gains or where you have too much downforce. The aerodynamics on these cars are pretty good right off the bat because of their size - they make great drag-race cars! The gains we're making though are kind of like our engines - we're not gaining as much as we'd like to."

How has the 2003 Cavalier front-end been a benefit to your performance?

"It definitely has a better balance to it. Don't get me wrong, we put it on during testing at Atlanta and only picked up a .001 of a second the last eighth mile. It's better, but it's not night and day. It's not two or three hundredths and two miles per hour, but it's definitely an improvement because it drives better. We're pleased because anytime you can make a gain in this sport, you've made headway. You just don't see the big gains like you used to in this class, like we had when we went from the Camaro to the Cavalier. That was a huge improvement in performance - over a mile-per-hour in speed. The Cavalier is a much better handling racecar. It goes wherever you point it."

Is there a technological transfer from Winston Cup Racing to NHRA Pro Stock?

"Absolutely. We're not out there for 500 miles, but any little gain you can pick up helps. We're looking at .0001 (ten-thousandths) of a second now, and the margin it takes to turn on the win light keeps getting smaller and smaller."

You improved in every eliminator round in Houston even though the conditions worsened.

"Actually, I think the car just wanted to win. We fine tuned it to what the track gave us and it just loved it. It was hard to believe because during the last qualifying round we just shook our brains out. I was standing in the shower Sunday morning trying to figure out what to do and it finally came to me. It took about three or four hours of thinking it through, we came up with a setup and in the first round Sunday morning that ACDelco Chevrolet was just as smooth as can be. That had me excited for the rest of the day. We had a hard time though getting the car to react off the line - it only wanted to go .050s and .060s in that right-hand lane. We had the clutch backed down so far that it was tough to get good reaction times. I felt that I was on top of it as good as I was at Gainesville when I was going .013s and .014s in the semifinals and final, but the numbers weren't coming up. The car performed flawlessly though in Houston and that's what got us the win lights."

Was it a difficult adjustment going to Houston after racing the week prior in Las Vegas?

"The air conditions were different, but it's just fun going racing right now - going to different tracks and seeing what you can do. The power is so close right now, the cars and the equipment, that everybody has underneath them is top notch. It's a blast just to see how fast you can go out there in qualifying and on Sunday afternoon. Everybody's throwing shots at you - it's hardball. You can hit a home run and somebody comes right behind you and hits a home run. Other times you look like you don't even belong on the farm team. You miss it just a little bit and you look like a beginner."

Does the close competition make it more enjoyable for the racers?

"It gives us ulcers. It also brings out the best because, like I said, everybody has great equipment and great power, now it's just a matter of getting down the racetrack better than everybody else and that comes down to a lot of experience. I've been driving now for 10 years and it seems that you learn something new, everyday, every run. I look at stuff from two or three years ago and ask myself, 'why did I do that? Why do I make different decisions today than I did yesterday?' Things keep changing and that's what makes it fun."

What do you expect from Bristol Dragway?

"It's Thunder Mountain. It's a unique place to race. We've raced there since 1979 when dad won the IHRA championship. It can be fairly fast with the nighttime conditions, there are a lot of trees there, the air's good, the track's good. Or it can be Death Valley - hot, sunny, not even a chance to get in on Saturday morning. That's what happened last year. Yates went 6.91 (No. 2 qualifier) on Saturday and the bump was 6.91. It can be either, or, we'll just have to see what it's like."

Any advantages the following week at Atlanta Dragway?

"We have a slight advantage by testing there. The track's always a little bit different when you have as many cars as we'll have out there for the race. When you're testing you're running under the same conditions all the time, and you're adjusting and fine-tuning for that. Whereas, when we go out there for the race, there's a different compound of rubber on the starting line, different track preparation, everything's a little bit different. We'll just attack it as another race. This place will be packed on Friday night. It was packed last year with a good race crowd. With NASCAR and everything that's going on down here, it seems that Atlanta Dragway and our fans are part of that southern motorsports tradition - we like our racing and our sunshine."

Can you maintain your recent high level of performance?

"We're just going to continue doing what's been working for us. If we need to change, and things aren't going right, then we'll make a change. We're not going to keep doing the same thing just because it worked once. We'll adjust with whatever the racetrack and the air conditions throw at us. Like going from Las Vegas to Houston. The air changed considerably and we didn't make it down the track on our first run. We were forced to make changes for the second run, came back, ran the 6.72 and were pleased. Sometimes you're forced to make adjustments because you can't just sit around and hope things work out."

How do you combine long-term preparation with short-term goals?

"We're looking toward next year already. We have to make plans for new cars and stuff like that, but as far keeping the performance where it needs to be, we're planning two, three, four races ahead. As far as long-term goals, you have to have a good eight or nine months as well. It takes a little bit of both worlds. Unfortunately, on some of our long-term objectives, we won't know if we made the right decisions until nine months goes by. But we have a great team at the track with Kevin Horst and Joe Cottle, and a tremendous group back at the shop that provides us with great horsepower and terrific racecars. We'll just take it day by day right now, and when we go to the races, we'll take it run by run and hope things work out."

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Kurt Johnson , Greg Anderson