Kurt Johnson isn't a kid any more. The 36-year-old driver of the ACDelco Pro Stock Camaro will begin his eighth season on the NHRA circuit as a seasoned veteran. The rambunctious youngster who once used the Pro Stock pits as his personal ...
Kurt Johnson isn't a kid any more. The 36-year-old driver of the ACDelco Pro Stock Camaro will begin his eighth season on the NHRA circuit as a seasoned veteran. The rambunctious youngster who once used the Pro Stock pits as his personal playground and the freewheeling teenager who field-stripped transmissions for his father's race car are now faded memories. After three straight third-place finishes in the championship race, Kurt Johnson is ready to step up - and ready to step out of the giant shadow cast by his father, five-time champion Warren Johnson.
Kurt will be satisfied with nothing less than his own championship trophy. "My plan is to take the points lead and not let go of it," he declares. "We have the power under the hood, the sponsors behind our program, and the experience we need to win the championship.
"Every season the competition in Pro Stock gets more fierce, and 2000 will be the toughest year yet," Kurt asserts. "I'm just going to have to rise to the occasion."
Kurt's drag racing odyssey began when he and his father first stepped into the Pro Stock arena in 1971 with a primitive Camaro they had built in a cramped garage behind the family home in Minnesota. His 30-year journey will resume at the season-opening NHRA AutoZone Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., on February 3-6.
Kurt earned a reputation as a free spirit in his early days on the circuit. He was quick as a driver - he posted the sport's first 6-second Pro Stock elapsed time in 1994 - but he was also inconsistent. Now with a family to support, sponsors to represent, and a future to build, Kurt Johnson is a different person.
"I've learned patience," he confides. "I've learned how to make decisions calmly. That's the key to winning."
K.J. certainly knows how to win. He scored three victories in his rookie season, finishing as runner-up to his father in the 1993 championship race. He's stood in the NHRA winner's circle 15 times, including three visits in 1999. Now he intends to temper his youthful exuberance with a newfound maturity.
"There is a tremendous amount of information to process on a race weekend," he explains. "If the car isn't performing, it's easy to panic and make bad decisions. You have to keep a level head. I want to be like the football coach who sits calmly in the skybox during a bowl game with his notebook and a view of the entire playing field."
Kurt inherited his analytical approach to racing from his father, the dispassionate "Professor of Pro Stock." But he also recognizes the human dimensions of drag racing.
"It's a roller coaster sport, and sometimes I show my emotions," he admits. "It's hard not to. Making the right calls at the right time is crucial. I just have to concentrate on the race at hand, and force myself to forget about what happened last week or last year. We should know how to set up our race car to go down any track under any situation.
"Tuning is going to make the difference between winners and losers," Kurt predicts. "Horsepower's not a problem for our team - but the more power you have, the harder it is to make consistent runs because you're closer to the edge."
Kurt also inherited his father's self-reliance, relishing his multiple roles as driver, engine builder, and decision maker. "You can't hire someone who will do everything exactly the way you want it done and make the tough calls for you," he explains. "I'm used to doing it myself.
"I believe I can drive with the best of them," he continues. "When you worry about your driving, you get bad reaction times. It's like walking on a tightrope - if you're thinking about falling, you probably will. Some drivers blame the clutch, the car, or the track for a bad reaction time; I blame the driver. It's up to me to get off the starting line first."
Johnson used his considerable driving and wrenching skills to score two wins, a runner-up, and three semi-final finishes in the first six races last year. He led the points race for four months until a dispiriting mid-season slump doomed his championship run.
"We'll approach the new season just like we started last year - aggressive but steady," Kurt remarks. "We've picked up power over the winter and changed the car's weight distribution to make it more consistent. We have a combination we can work with."
Johnson is quietly confident about his chances to win the elusive Pro Stock title at last. Asked to rate his competition, he politely declines. "I really don't worry about them," he explains. "As long as we're prepared, they should be worrying about us. We should set the standard."
Kurt regards his paternal teammate as his most formidable rival. "Dad and I have the same parts, and we should be as quick on the track. If we both do our jobs, we should meet in the final round on race day."
Kurt Johnson, the rockin' and rollin' second-generation racer, has grown up. "It would be great to win every race," says K.J. the optimist - "but that just doesn't happen," acknowledges Johnson the realist.
With his engaging enthusiasm tempered by hard-earned experience, Kurt Johnson may finally be ready to add his own championship trophy to the Johnson family's collection.
KURT JOHNSON FAST FACTS
Owner/Driver: Kurt Johnson Team: Kurt Racing, Inc., Sugar Hill, Ga. Race Car: ACDelco Pro Stock Camaro Z28 Residence: Lawrenceville, Georgia Date of Birth: March 23, 1963 Birthplace: Virginia, Minnesota Family: Married; wife Kathy (date of birth 10/18/61), son Conner Emory (11/4/96), daughter Erin Elizabeth (6/30/98); father Warren, mother Arlene NHRA national event victories: 15 Final round appearances: 30 Runner-up finishes: 15 Number One qualifiers: 15 Top Speeds: 4 Rounds Won: 214
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS (Through 1999 Season) * 1993 NHRA Rookie of the Year * First Pro Stock driver to break 6-second barrier and first member of Holley 6-Second Pro Stock Club (6.988 e.t., Englishtown, N.J., 5/20/94) * Third member of Speed-Pro 200 mph Club (200.13 mph, Gainesville, Fla., 3/14/98) * Member of Slick 50 World Record Club (6.988-seconds, Englishtown, N.J., 5/20/94) * Two-time Pro Stock Challenge winner (1994, 1998) * Two-time U.S. Nationals champion (1996, 1997)