Indy ORP: Warren Johnson preview

WJ is Approaching Indianapolis with a One Track Mind GM Performance Parts GXP crew focused on scoring 7th U.S. Nationals win Sugar Hill, Ga., August 26, 2008 -- Thirty-seven years ago, Warren Johnson came to Indianapolis as a rookie driver...

WJ is Approaching Indianapolis with a One Track Mind
GM Performance Parts GXP crew focused on scoring 7th U.S. Nationals win

Sugar Hill, Ga., August 26, 2008 -- Thirty-seven years ago, Warren Johnson came to Indianapolis as a rookie driver racing in his first NHRA Pro Stock event. Still a relative unknown, he drove a production-based Chevrolet Camaro he had built in the shop behind his house in Fridley, MN, qualifying 28th and falling to Don Grotheer in the first round. It was an inauspicious debut for a man who would play a key role in the evolution of the "factory hot rods", and make the record books almost his personal diary.

"That race was my first exposure to the big stage," recalled Johnson. "I had raced in a lot of smaller series prior to that, but nothing that had the crowds or level of competition I experienced at that race in Indianapolis. Although I don't remember a lot of specifics from that weekend, I do remember leaving there feeling that the big names of time put their pants on the same way I did, and that I was fully capable of racing for a living.

"Of course, the cars we raced backed then were completely unlike our current GM Performance Parts GXP. For example, I drove the Camaro I raced in Indy home from the dealership in Minnesota, stripped it down and turned it into a race car, selling the extra parts to help pay for the build. We've certainly come a long way since then."

As he returns to O'Reilly Raceway Park for this weekend's Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, his 33rd appearance at drag racing's biggest race, the initials WJ are now synonymous with the category, with virtually every car in competition reflecting one or more of his innovations. His 96 national event wins, 150 final rounds and 138 No. 1 qualifying performances are the standards by which all others are measured. However, as the six-time champion dons his helmet and straps into his state-of-the-art, purpose-built GM Performance Parts GXP, there is one aspect of the competition which remains unchanged from that inaugural race -- Johnson's unrelenting pursuit of victory.

"We're going to Indianapolis this weekend with the same objective as we had back in 1971, and that is to win the race," said Johnson. "Back then, I was coming off successes in the UDRA and such, and believed I could run competitively in the NHRA, so we went to Indiana with the mindset of going to work and finishing the job, and lo and behold, a few years later we were able to get it done.

"It's no different this year. Our GM Performance Parts GXP has shown the ability to run with the very best in our category, and as long as we can minimize any errors, we should be in good shape. For example, in 12 of our last 20 runs, our data acquisition system failed, crippling our ability to dial in the set-up. Since the last race, we scrapped it, replacing it with a entirely new system. We also found other issues that prevented us from properly adjusting to the conditions that we have since addressed. If Hurricane Fay ever leaves, we'll try to make a couple test runs to make sure everything is working properly before heading to ORP. Other than that, we should be in excellent shape."

After not realizing the significance of this race during his first visit, Johnson went on to have his share of successes at the "Big Go", with six wins in eight final round appearances, eight No. 1 qualifying performances and ten finishes of the semifinals or better. Although this year's event carries the added significance of being the final race before the start of the NHRA's championship playoff, the Countdown to One, the entire team's focus is on making a return to the U.S. Nationals winner's circle.

"Ironically, I didn't realize the magnitude of that first U.S. Nationals simply because I had not been a part of the NHRA scene to that point," said Johnson. "I had read about it in National Dragster, but since the coverage took as many pages as a regular race, I thought it was just another event. Of course, once you're a part of the series, you realize just how significant it really is.

"This is the race where everyone brings their "A" game, with some people saving all year long just for this event. Indy doesn't just get included with the other races on the schedule -- it stands out on its own. At one point, you actually earned bonus points for your performance at the U.S. Nationals, which, considering there were a lot fewer races on the schedule was quite significant. Even now, although the points are the same as any other race, the winner's purse is slightly higher. The easiest way to describe it is saying it's our Daytona 500.

"I realize there are other factors in play this weekend, but the GM Performance Parts GXP crew's focus will be solely on doing whatever is necessary to win the race, letting everything else take care or itself. We'll see where we are on Monday night and move forward from there. We've been fortunate enough to clean house several time in the past at the U.S. Nationals, and I couldn't think of a more opportune time for us to do it once again."

-credit: j2r

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Series NHRA
Drivers Warren Johnson