Greg Anderson It wasn't too long ago when Greg Anderson went to speak with his boss of 12 years, Warren Johnson. He told Johnson that he was going to make a run at this "driving thing" and if he couldn't pull it off, Anderson would be back,...
It wasn't too long ago when Greg Anderson went to speak with his boss of 12 years, Warren Johnson. He told Johnson that he was going to make a run at this "driving thing" and if he couldn't pull it off, Anderson would be back, asking for a job again. That "driving thing" has worked out for Anderson so far. Don't expect him on the doorstep of Johnson's shop anytime in the future. In the first full year of Pro Stock competition, Anderson has earned two wins in six final rounds behind the wheel of his Vegas Construction Chevy Cavalier. He has been in the top three of the Pro Stock standings since the spring race in Chicago, even venturing to the top of the standings after Brainerd. Going into the ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, Anderson is in third place, 196 points away from leader Jeg Coughlin. In this Q&A session, Anderson talks about what it is like to now be a driver, what it was like tuning for Johnson and why he doesn't want to talk about his past anymore.
Q: You only went to half of the events in 2001. What do you think about your first full season as a driver?
Anderson: I think we are all pleasantly surprised. We all had high expectations. I think we have outlived our expectations for this season. We are ahead of schedule. We really didn't expect to realistically challenge for a championship until next year or maybe even the year after. We did really think we could finish in the top five, but running for a championship was beyond our expectations. Did we think we could honestly run for a championship this year? No. But when it became a possibility, we didn't want to waste the opportunity. It's like professional football. When you make the playoffs you want to make the best of it because you don't know if you are going to be back next season.
Q: In less than two years you have had more success than some Pro Stock teams have had in five or even 10 years. Why is that?
Anderson: It's true, but I don't know exactly why. I guess part of it is due to the fact that I had a good teacher in Warren (Johnson). I hate to keep bragging about how much I learned there or how good it was for me, because he sure doesn't treat me nicely. But the bottom line is that it was a good place to learn and it probably was the best place I could be and I learned more there than I could have anywhere else. It is not necessarily him that taught me everything. We learned together. We learned as we went because we had a lot of opportunities there and a lot of resources. It was the best place that a person could be to learn all about this game out here. I stayed there 12 years, I stayed there longer than anyone else did. Some of those years were tough. But it was still the best place to learn and have open range on being able to try new things. I can't think of anywhere else out here that you could do that. It accelerated the learning curve. It's not just me, I have two guys in Mike Stryker and Pat Barrett who also worked with him. We've been around racing all of our lives. All of us have learned how to win. We are all winners and we really don't want anything less. We're not really expected to win because we are a new team and we don't have the financing that Warren and a couple of other teams have, we don't have factory support, so it is against the odds that we can be competitive. When you have quality people, like we have got with these guys, you can do some good.
Q: Warren Johnson won his sixth championship last year, but some would argue that the program has taken a hit since you left. Would you agree with that?
Anderson: I am not trying to brag that I did such a good job over there. But the bottom line is that you have to surround yourself with good people and if you treat them right, then they won't leave you. It's that simple. If I had gotten a couple of things I asked for, I wouldn't have left. If Warren had treated some other people better, they wouldn't have left either.
Q: Did you learn anything about how to be a driver when you were with Warren Johnson's program?
Anderson: No, not really. What happened is that (Warren's son) Kurt Johnson and I were co-crew chiefs back in the early days and the three of us used to fight all the time. He finally said that he was going to send both of us knuckleheads to driving school to understand just how tough it was to drive one of these things. He didn't think we had any idea and he said it wasn't easy. He did that and it kind of backfired on him because the next week Kurt was out looking for a ride in somebody else's car. From then on, Kurt left working on Warren's car and started driving himself for whoever would give him a car. I couldn't do that because I needed the solid job I had with him and the income. I had to put it on hold. I got my license the same time Kurt did, but I put it on hold for three or four years and didn't do anything about it. In the meantime, I asked him to let me do some of the testing in his cars. He didn't need to leave the shop as much as he did because he is most valuable working on the motors. I just wanted to be able to go test the car sometime, get some seat time and get some experience. That way, when he decided to retire, in two, three, four years, or whenever he decides to get out of the chair, he would at least consider me as the replacement driver. If I got no experience, he would never consider me. That is what I asked for. He kept promising he would do that and that went on for two or three years. I finally came to the conclusion it would never happen. That's when I told him I had to leave and try the driving thing on my own. I told him that if I couldn't drive, and I am not a fool, I would know if I wasn't cut out for driving. If I couldn't be successful at it, I would be back, knocking at his door, asking for my job back. That is how it went down. The driving thing started out a little rough and it wasn't because I couldn't drive, we just didn't have the equipment to operate with. We had a low budget. I was doing everything myself, drive the truck, drive the race car, tune the race car. It wasn't a great situation. I learned enough to know that I could do it and I just needed to stick it out and find a full-time deal. I thought I could do it. I wonder if he remembers that day in his office when I told him that if I couldn't do it, I would be back. I think I can do it and I won't be back on his door step.
Q: You got the license in 1995. Did you think it would take more than five years before you started driving?
Anderson: I am a patient guy anyway, but I didn't have choice but to wait. Kurt was always going to be supported by his father. I had to have the income. I had to have a job, so I couldn't take a risk like Kurt did. I just held out as long as I could, until I got a driving job with someone else.
Q: How did you get involved with drag racing in the first place?
Anderson: My father raced, he was a division racer from Minnesota. He ran modified eliminator, which became comp eliminator. He raced all the time and I can remember when I was 10 years old going through the staging lanes carrying water buckets to put in the car to cool the car between rounds. I got started with my father. As years went by, he couldn't race the national tour or anything like that. He had a full-time job. He was away from the family a lot and my mother really didn't appreciate him being away from the family so much so he decided to give it up and spend more time with the family. At the time he did that, he was a real good personal friend with a man by the name of John Hagen, who used to race in Pro Stock in Minneapolis, where Warren was at the time. They were the two main Pro Stock guys in Division 5. My dad knew John Hagen real well and I got a job with John Hagen, working on his car. I basically was his crew chief for four or five years before he was killed racing at Brainerd. He crashed at Brainerd and was killed in 1983. They didn't have guard rails along the race track then, and he got squirrelly in the middle of the track, got off the track, cut the grass, and he flipped and flipped and flipped. He was killed instantly. He was like a second father to me. He was good friends with my dad and I spent as much time at his house as I did my dad's house. I got to know Warren and Kurt racing against them when I was with John. When that happened, I went back to the town I grew up in and I went back to work with my dad at his car dealership for two or three years. Then, in 1986, I was at the Brainerd race just watching the race. Kurt and Warren saw me there and asked if I wanted to get back into it. They flew me down to Georgia, by that time they had moved the shop. I looked over the operation. Before John was killed, we were racing out of his pocket. We had no budget and we were racing against Warren. We were racing against (Bob) Glidden and other programs that had budgets and support and we were probably the fourth-quickest car out there. I knew then that if I ever got back into it, it would only be with one of those top three teams. There is no way the other guys could compete against the big budgets. I learned that way back then. When the opportunity came to work with Warren, I took it and that was at the end of 1986. I went to Pomona and that is how I learned to drive a truck. Kurt and I got in the truck and headed to California from Georgia. He drove the first three or fours hours, got out and said, 'Here you go'. That's how I learned how to drive the truck. We were all like night and day, the three of us. After three or four years of this, Warren decided that the three of us needed to be separated a little bit. That's when he decided to leave Kurt in the shop and Warren and I went racing. Kurt was in the shop full-time for an entire year. Ever since then, Warren started doing so well, because the three of us weren't arguing as much. That's all it was. Ever since then, Kurt has never worked on his dad's car.
Q: Was it tough to get back into racing after John Hagen died? Or did you always plan on going back to racing?
Anderson: Yes and no. I definitely was not going to do it without being a part of the top teams. As far as not ever doing it again, no, I definitely wanted to do it, but I didn't want to do it part-time or half-assed because you just get your butt kicked out there. It was a good opportunity and I am thankful that I did it. I keep telling everyone that I owe Warren a lot. But I am telling you the way he treats me now I don't know why I say anything at all. I tell everyone how much I learned from Warren, but he learned a ton from me too.
Q: What is the biggest difference you face now having to juggle driving and tuning responsibilities?
Anderson: It's hard to say. I don't have as many responsibilities as before (with the car) but there are a lot of things I do now I never had to, like autograph signings and that kind of stuff. Before, I just worked on the car. But I hired Stryker and Barrett because I knew they were just as capable as I was on working on the car. There are very few people out there that I consider capable of doing this. If you look out in the Pro Stock class, there are probably only six or seven really good crew chiefs. This is a tough job to do. That's not a lot when you have a field of 40. I hired two that I knew were the top guys. I don't have to worry about the car because I know they are going to work on the car and they are going to do just as good of a job if not better than I could do. That's a big relief. I don't want to get to the point where I don't do anything with the car. I don't want to just sit in the lounge and sign autographs all day. I like working on the car. When I am back at the shop, I work on motors all day long and these guys work on the car. It's still a lot of work; I work seven days a week, about 12 hours a day. I don't want it to get to where I don't do that because it is still fun to me. I like working on the car.
Q: Is driving the car what you expected? Are you enjoying the change?
Anderson: It's weird. It's neat and I like it a lot, but I would not do it if I didn't think I could succeed. That's why I did it. I thought I could go and win races. It's more than the thrill of driving because the thrill becomes old hat after a while. The thrill is winning, and that's the truth. Getting the win-light on Sunday is the best. Warren always said he never got a kick out of driving the car. I now believe him because he doesn't get a kick out of driving, he just likes winning. He likes seeing the bulb turn on the guard rail on Sundays.
Q: What do you do when you are not working on the motors or racing at the track?
Anderson: I work on engines at the shop. My wife is ready to strangle me because I never come home. I have a 4-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter and I don't see them as much as I want to or should. That is bad and that has to change. It's like I said before, I don't really want to get to the point where I don't work on the car, but I have to spend more time at home because the family suffers. The sad part is that if somebody weren't doing this work every hour of every day, I wouldn't be where I am. If I just went home everyday and let good enough be good enough, then we wouldn't win races. It has to be like that, but I have to get to the point where other people can do the work so I can go home every once in a while. It's hard on the family and I have a great family and this is too hard on them. They come to all of the races in the summer, but the kids are back in school, so they don't come to as many fall events. It's good to see them at the track. They come to the shop, but they don't stay too long. Kids don't want to be around the greasy shops long.
Q: What do you do for fun? Anything?
Anderson: Ever since I came down from Minnesota to go work for Warren, I haven't done anything. I used to play hockey and softball three times a week. I golfed a few days a week. But now I don't do any of that because I can't. You just don't have time. I took my little boy to the golf course (before the Memphis race) because he had never been and we had a blast. It was a great time and I never get to do those things anymore. I can't play softball anymore because the team can't rely on me to play every Tuesday and Thursday. I do miss that, but I still know that if I wasn't working all those hours I would be at this level.
Q: How long do you plan on drag racing?
Anderson: I want to do it as long as I can. I can't think of anything else I would rather do. It is very time consuming and it is tough on the family, but I don't think I will do anything different. What I am going to have to do someday is designate people to do the work. I have never done that, but I need to learn how. I will always be in drag racing whether it is a car owner or going back to working on someone's car. I am making plans on getting to the point where I can step back a little. We are building a new shop and I am hiring some new people. Hopefully in the next year I will be able to do that. I keep telling my wife to hang in there and be patient. It's just like starting a new business where you have to spend a lot of time with it or it will fail. You have to get it up and going before you can step away. That is where I am right now. I have three or four people in the shop that are building motors, but they are not yet to the point where they don't need me around. Someday they won't. Right now they still do.
Q: When you were out of the top 10 of the Pro Stock standings, could you have imagined making a big jump, going all the way to the top at one point?
Anderson: Not at all. I could have imagined making a jump into the top five maybe, but that's it. It was tough at the beginning of the year because we had a new team, new truck, new trailer, new people, and new car. We basically have three crew chiefs that could run any team out here, we are all very stubborn and know a lot and we all clashed at the beginning of the year. Everyone thought they were smarter than the others were. We're not, we are all equally good. After Gainesville, our team owner Ken Black came to us and sat us all down. We didn't do it, he sat us down. He told us that we weren't getting along, we didn't like each other and most importantly, we weren't working well together. He told us to just get over it or else go our separate ways right then. We didn't qualify at Gainesville and then we had that team meeting. We figured out that we were all equally just as good as the others and we needed to quit being so childish and start working together. Since then, we have gotten along better and we don't get into each other's faces. Now we win as a team and we lose as a team and that is how it should be. Since then we have really moved forward. It's still not perfect and we are still working on it. Obviously there are a lot of egos in racing and it can be tough to put that aside. It's as good as it can be right now and we are still working on it. We want to win.
Q: What defines an NHRA Pro Stock champion and do you think you could be a champion?
Anderson: Well, I guess what would define a Pro Stock champion is someone who can win any race he goes to and be happy about it. Sometimes with Warren he would win and it wouldn't be a big deal. He'd blow it off as just another win. You can't be like that, you have to be happy and enjoy what you are doing. You have to be happy when you win. What I am really learning now is that you have to find a way to be happy even when you lose. When we were with Warren, it was the end of the world when he lost. You were always expected to win. I think to be a true champion you have to learn how to lose gracefully too. I think I am getting better at that, but I am not where I need to be yet. That's what it takes to be a champion, winning and losing with grace. You have to be a good sport. The bottom line is that we are doing what we love to do. It's a job, whatever you want to call it, but we love to do it. It's exactly what we want to do to have fun, but we are getting paid to do it.
Q: Have you spent much time thinking about contending for a championship so early in your driving career?
Anderson: Probably not as much as I should. When I started this driving gig, I never thought I could win a championship. I thought I could go out and win some races, but never really thought I could win a championship. I never thought because I never thought I would have the resources that some of the other teams have, and I don't yet. It's kind of funny because I really enjoy winning races. I don't know yet what it would be like to win a championship or what that would be for me and the team. I've been there when Warren won them, but I was just a crew member working on the car. That was expected. We were expected to win. If I win it now I guess it will be a whole different deal. Right now, because I haven't won it, I don't know what it means or how important it is. The most important thing right now is just winning races. I do know that if you win races and you get more points than anyone else does, eventually you will win a championship. Our goal is to win races. That's fun to me. Maybe that is why it is so important for Jeg Coughlin and Jim Yates to win the championship right now. They have both won one in the past, and they know what it means to them. They are after the title. I don't yet know what it really means, so I am after winning races.
Q: What do you need to do in the last two races of the 2002 season?
Anderson: Win. We need to go out there and win races. I need to be as aggressive as I can possibly be. I don't want to play conservative ball. Forget that. I am going to be aggressive. The way Pro Stock is anymore, you can't win unless you are aggressive. There are too many good drivers and too many good cars out there. Last year it was brutal, and that it the way it is going to be. There are so many quality teams and drivers, no one is going to win every week. The competition right now is fantastic for the fans. But it is absolutely gut-wrenching for the drivers.
Q: What is the best thing about the 2002 season so far?
Anderson: Probably the best thing is also the worst thing. My truck driver, Bill Smith, worked for George Marnell for a couple of years and when I worked with Marnell last year Bill and I worked together again. Bill worked for Warren a few years ago when I was there. I've known Bill for a while. He was a super, super guy. Bill helped put this opportunity together for me. He was the one who put this whole deal together. He was a good friend of Ken Black and is the one that convinced Ken Black to do this and hire me to do this. He gave me this opportunity and Bill was going to drive the truck for me. Bill had a heart attack and died in Las Vegas right before Pomona. He went into the hospital to have a gal-bladder stone removed and he ended up having a heart attack in the hospital and died. The best thing about this year is somehow, I know Bill is watching. He was a father figure to me and even though he is not here, and I wished he were, he put this together. Hopefully he is proud of what we are doing. If we were out here, not doing well, then I would have nothing to offer back to him, nothing to thank him with. I just really wish he was with us, but I need to still thank him. I have his hard card in my car. That has been in my car all year. I miss him in a lot of ways. It was a terrible way to start the season because he was just a wonderful person and to lose him was devastating. Everyone liked Bill. He was a very kind, caring person. He was the elder statesman and he always looked out for me. Everybody loved the guy, including me.