A Conversation with Drag Racing's Most Successful Pro Stock Driver After 26 years as a professional racer, it took Warren Johnson just 7.347 seconds to become the all-time leader in Pro Stock victories. Johnson made motorsports history on...
A Conversation with Drag Racing's Most Successful Pro Stock Driver
After 26 years as a professional racer, it took Warren Johnson just 7.347 seconds to become the all-time leader in Pro Stock victories. Johnson made motorsports history on July 22 when he scored his record-setting 86th career national event victory, defeating his son Kurt in the final round of the Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals in Denver.
Johnson, a.k.a. "W.J." and the "Professor of Pro Stock," is invariably thoughtful and occasionally controversial. In the following interview, Johnson reflects on his career and the changes he has witnessed in the sport. The 58-year-old driver of the GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac has won five Winston championships (1992-93, 1995, 1998-99) and finished second in the points standings eight times. He leads the Pro Stock class in final rounds (134), No. 1 qualifiers (124), low elapsed times (124), and top speeds (189).
Here is the world according to Warren:
You began your racing career relatively late in life at age 32. What were your thoughts in 1975 when you decided to become a professional drag racer?
WARREN JOHNSON: There weren't many professional drag racers for role models. I looked at what I wanted to do, what I liked to do, and the feasibility of making a living at it. When I put all the parameters together, it looked like I could make it work.
I thought I would try it for a year and see how it turned out. I figured, "Why jump in head first when you can wade in and see how deep the water is?" I may be a little crazy, but I'm not insane.
What was it like in the beginning when it was just you, your wife Arlene, your son Kurt, and the family dog?
WJ: Life was simpler then. As the saying goes, the longest journey starts with a single step. My plan was to start at the bottom and work my way up. We had no sponsorship money, absolutely nothing. In retrospect, I had no choice but to make it work.
What resources did you have when you turned pro?
WJ: I was racing out of a one-man shop. I had one car, one engine and one toolbox that I could carry easily because there weren't many tools in it. I still have some of the equipment from the original shop, and I still use it.
How did you rate your chance of success against champions like Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins and Bob Glidden?
WJ: Glidden was unknown at one time and so was Jenkins. They weren't overnight successes. The clichi that you have to pay your dues really means that you have to become educated to the point that you have a competitive program. You have to assess all of the factors, look at your strengths and weaknesses and build a program that's competitive.
What were your strong points?
WJ: A strong mechanical background and my understanding of what it takes to build competitive engines. I had to learn about chassis, clutches, suspensions and all the rest. I didn't have a mentor to show me the way.
When you finished second in the championship in 1976, was that a confirmation that you could compete at the highest level of drag racing?
WJ: I always believed that I could compete at the championship level. This isn't rocket science, it isn't sending a man to the moon. It's about racing for 1,320 feet. There's only so much that can happen in a quarter of a mile. Drag racing is an engineering exercise in its purest form - you either win or lose.
Is it a thrill for you to drive?
WJ: It never has been for me. Driving is just a part of the program. When I started in racing, I couldn't afford to hire a driver. Arlene didn't want to drive, Kurt was too young, the dog couldn't get a driver's license, so I was stuck with it!
I can understand why some racers like to drive - that's their adrenaline rush. I prefer the mechanical side of racing. If I can bend the dyno needle, I've had a good day at the office.
You took a sabbatical from NHRA racing in the late '70s to run match races and compete on the IHRA "Mountain Motor" circuit. Did that give you a head start when NHRA introduced the 500-cubic-inch formula in 1982?
WJ: The best driver training I had was on the Midwestern UDRA circuit because we often raced under less-than-ideal conditions. The IHRA program prepared me for what it takes to be competitive at the national level. You have to understand how to win; winning doesn't happen by accident. I learned how to race there. There wasn't as much pressure racing on the IHRA circuit because there was relatively little media and sponsor attention.
You were a member of the so-called "Gang of Four" that included Bob Glidden, Frank Iaconio and Lee Shepherd. The four of you monopolized the Pro Stock winner's circle in 1980-84. Why were these drivers so dominant?
WJ: We were all just trying to win races. While it was a great time for us as individuals, I don't think it was good for the category or for the competition. When a category is monopolized by a few racers, it certainly loses some of its appeal for both spectators and competitors.
What did it mean to your program when you got your first corporate sponsorship with Oldsmobile in 1983?
WJ: It meant I could start investing in equipment to become more self-sufficient as a race team. My approach has always been to do as much as possible in-house. This gives us faster turnaround and fewer quality control problems. We can also react quickly when we need to. At one point we even produced our own cars, but I got away from that because it was cheaper to buy chassis and then modify them.
In the '80s, you changed cars almost every year. Was that by choice or necessity?
WJ: In most instances I didn't have any choice in the body style I had to run. That's the obligation of having sponsors; sometimes decisions are made for marketing reasons. Obviously the '83 and '84 Hurst/Oldsmobiles were not ideal Pro Stock race cars. They were basically flying boxcars. Then I switched to the Calais, which had the same characteristics with a notchback rear window, a lot of drag and a lot of lift. Then I went to the Firenza, which was a great race car. When you're not in total control of your own destiny, you just have to accept these decisions and work harder.
What was your involvement with GM's drag racing engine program?
WJ: That was my real forte. I really wasn't too concerned with the body style I had to run. I figured that as long as I put enough power underneath the hood, the car would be competitive. Even with that flying boxcar, we were able to set the speed record. That was strictly the result of horsepower, not aerodynamics.
Is horsepower still the key?
WJ: It's still a part of the equation, but it's not as big a factor as it was in the past. We're at the point that getting the power to the track is more difficult. The clutch, suspension, shocks, springs, transmissions, rearends, timers, and everything else have a much more significant effect on overall performance than they did in the early '80s.
Which events in your career stand out?
WJ: Six wins at Indy, four of them consecutively. Setting the top speed at every race in 1999, which had never been done before. The first 200 mph Pro Stock run, and Kurt's first six-second Pro Stock run.
Really, the most important thing is to being able to enjoy what I'm doing. When some people lose a race, they get completely sideways. In my perspective, I lost for a reason. Either the driver or the team didn't perform. So the next step is to find out why and fix it. A race car is just an inanimate object. It responds to what you do to it. If you lose it's because you haven't turned the right dials or pressed the right buttons.
How did you develop your no-nonsense approach to racing?
WJ: The only way to make a business successful is to work at it. That's what we do, seven days a week. There are a lot of people who race for the fun of it. If they can afford to do that, more power to them. That ultimately makes my job easier because they're here today and gone tomorrow.
You didn't win an NHRA national event until 1982 and you had to wait ten more years to win your first NHRA championship. Did you think you might never be a champion?
WJ: When I started racing, I couldn't afford to win the championship. I could have bet the farm on one year's racing, but if I didn't win, I would have been out of business. I could have spent $200,000 or $300,000 extra to win the championship, but the championship wasn't worth that much money. My approach was to spend a little bit each year to get to the point that I could win it. When you can afford to win, you can afford to lose.
Do you have any favorite race cars?
WJ: I never get attached to any of them. A race car is just a piece of machinery, just a tool. I'm not sentimental about my cars. If something isn't the way I like it, I grab a torch and hammer. I'll cut a car apart as soon as I think there's something I need to change.
I have kept a couple of cars for historical reasons. The Firebird that made the first 200 mph Pro Stock run is in the NHRA Motorsports Museum, and my Cutlass that won 23 races is in the Talladega Motorsports Museum. I think I got a pretty good return on that particular investment.
How have you maintained your intensity through all these years?
WJ: I learned a long time ago how to pace myself. I can work more hours than most people, but I don't go into frenzies. I work at a uniform pace, and I don't burn myself out that way. I've worked without sleep for four days straight, and I did that because I had to get something done. Once I take on a project, I'm just stubborn enough to work my way through it.
Racing is enjoyable for me. Warren Johnson Enterprises is my hobby shop. I'm creating things, I'm doing something new every day. What I do may not be creative in the bigger context of society, but in the arena of racing, it is creative.
What do you foresee for the future of Pro Stock?
WJ: I think there is a place for a gasoline-burning category, an alcohol category and a nitro category. I don't believe there is just one category that can sustain drag racing because it's a rather unique sport. You'd have to get into the psyche of the spectators to really understand what interests them. There's a diverse crowd out there, so it's up to the sanctioning body to satisfy that appetite.
Do you enjoy being the "Professor"?
WJ: I've been called a lot worse! If a nickname helps the media and fans identify a driver, that's fine with me. I've never had the need for people to recognize Warren Johnson. Bottom line, I'm just a guy trying to make a living with a race car.
How much longer do you want to race?
WJ: I want to do it forever! Right now I enjoy what I'm doing, so I can't put a number on it.
What does the GM Goodwrench Service Plus sponsorship bring to your program?
WJ: First and foremost, their reputation for quality. The sponsorship dollars are what make this thing work, but for a sponsorship to work correctly, it has to be the right person with the right sponsor. The relationship has to be credible. There is a good fit between Warren Johnson and GM Goodwrench.
I've been with General Motors since 1983. I've certainly enjoyed it, and I certainly hope they've gotten good value for it. If sponsorship has produced the benefits they expected, then it's been a perfect marriage.
What is the most significant change you've seen in the sport?
WJ: The biggest change is accepting that this is the entertainment industry. It's not about going out on the weekend and racing your hot rod for self-gratification. We've come to the realization that the spectators in the stands are paying to be entertained.