Growing Up Fast & Driving to Win In an era where the POWERade Drag Racing Series currently features numerous teams where fathers compete alongside their children, Pro Stock stalwarts Kurt and Warren Johnson remain the standard by which all...
Growing Up Fast & Driving to Win
In an era where the POWERade Drag Racing Series currently features numerous teams where fathers compete alongside their children, Pro Stock stalwarts Kurt and Warren Johnson remain the standard by which all others are measured with 132 national event wins, 216 final round appearances and 163 No. 1 qualifying performances.
As racers in the NHRA's professional categories took time to celebrate Father's Day and enjoy their final weekend before a grueling stretch of six races in as many weekends, the younger member of the "Sugar Hill Gang" looked back on growing up as the son of a Hall of Fame racer, as well as his ACDelco Cobalt team's prospects for the rest of the season:
Q: What was it like growing up in a racing family?
KJ: "I certainly didn't have a typical childhood. While most kids my age were playing baseball or football, we were racing. I was lucky to have lenient teachers, who let me do book reports and such to make up for the school I missed. Who knows, maybe they were happy to get rid of me! (laughs) Of course, back then, things were a little more flexible. If we tried to do that today, they'd probably throw the parents in jail for missing that much time in class.
"I'd have to say one of the best parts was the travel. Back then, I was usually eating my bowl of cereal on the dashboard of the truck as we headed to that week's race. I got to see a lot of the country, and went to a lot of races, learning the sport from the ground up. It was a good time."(Pictured: Kurt, Arlene and Warren Johnson in Tulsa, OK 1974)
Q: What is your first memory of drag racing with your father?
KJ: "Although I don't have a specific memory, my first experience was probably racing at Minnesota Dragways or Brainerd. I do remember that I had a very important job besides washing parts and sweeping floors. It was my responsibility to collect all the tools before we went racing.
"You see, back then we only had one set of tools, so the toolbox would go from the truck to the shop and back in the truck every time we went to the track. When we would get back from racing, the tools went back in the shop where over the next week they would get scattered. Therefore, it was my job to scour the place and make sure every tool was back in the box, and the box was in the truck before we left. You didn't want to be at the track in Rockford, IL looking for that 9/16" wrench knowing it was back at the shop by the valve grinder."
Q: Did you grow up thinking you were going to be a racer?
KJ: "Although I was never really pushed in that direction, I would have to say yes. I worked on dad's cars for so many years, learning everything I could about them, but in the back of mind there was always a question if I could drive. That was the biggest hurdle, but I finally got the opportunity. Of course, after a few crashes early in my career, I wasn't quite sure if I was cut out for this (laughs), but it's all come together for the good as we saw last Saturday in the King Demon."
Q: When you finally started driving, did you feel any extra pressure because you were Warren Johnson's son?
KJ: "No, not really, because the driving came quite naturally. It wasn't easy, but growing up in that environment, I was familiar with every aspect of it with the lone exception of letting the clutch out. The sound, the cars, the smoke, the facilities were all second nature to me, creating a comfort zone, with the driving part just being the next step in the progression, no matter who my father was or what he had accomplished."
Q: What's the most important racing lesson you've learned from your dad?
KJ: "He told me once that preparation is everything. In other words, you have to be ready for whatever will get thrown at you before you even get to the racetrack. That's probably the biggest thing he has ever told me. Of course, we've both been guilty of not listening to our own advice (laughs)."
Q: Is there anything that you have taught him about racing?
KJ: "Yeah, to let the clutch out first! (laughs) Seriously, I think he's benefited from our having different perspectives on racing. Sometimes that second set of eyes can see things you can't."
Q: What's it like racing your father? Is it different that racing anyone else?
KJ: "Although it really isn't any different that racing anybody else, it's tough because we both want to win, and, since we race out of the same shop, it's like we win and lose at the same time. Of course, when we meet in a final, then it's a win-win situation for our team.
"I know the fans get a kick out of it every time we race, enjoying the father-son aspect of it, and that's what really matters. Dad also seems to get pumped up when we race each other, but to me, it just another car in the other lane that I want to beat."
Q: Do you have a favorite memory of racing your father?
KJ: "I really don't have any favorites, but if I had to pick one, it would be the 1993 final in Atlanta (pictured). It was the first final of my career, and the first ever between a father and son. I remember Scott Geoffrion congratulating me after the semis, telling me to go get him, and how cool it felt. It was exciting to have both cars in the final and to race Dad for the first time. Even though he won the race, it was a great day for both of us."
Q: Who's the better racer?
KJ: "That's a loaded question. You'd probably have to go with experience and say he is. Of course, seeing as how I like being employed, and would like to stay that way, I'd say he is by far. Next question."
Q: You have three children (daughter Erin and sons Conner and Jarrett). Would you like to see any of them follow in your footsteps, and do you think any of them will?
KJ: "The biggest thing I want for them is to have fun at whatever they do, and to be financially secure. You have to keep in mind that I didn't drive a car until I was 29, so they have a lot to learn and plenty of time to make up their minds. Right now, it's too early to tell. Really the decision is up to them. If they want to go in that direction, I would certainly help them in whatever way possible, but I'm not going to push." (Left: Conner, Jarrett and Erin Johnson are pictured with their famous grandfather this year's International Motorsports Hall of Fame induction ceremony.)
Q: Rate your season so far.
KJ: "I'd have to say fair. We've definitely had our ups and downs from the win in Phoenix, and the King Demon last week to other races we'd just as soon forget. We've had some new people come on board, it's taken time to blend the various personalities and abilities. Terry Adams came in with a lot of experience and has been a big help. It's tough out there, and there are a lot of good cars, and overall, I think things will pick up from here on out. We're planning on putting our ACDelco Cobalt back in the winner's circle and being in the thick of it."
Q: How big was the King Demon Crown win for your team?
KJ: "It was both an exciting win and a big lift for the team. I remember how cool it was when they first announced this special Pro Stock race twenty years ago -- I think it called was the Mr. Gasket Challenge. We had the top eight cars competing with no points involved and to go out there and win when everyone is hopped up and trying their best is pretty special. It was good day for the ACDelco crew, and pumped everybody up.
Q: ACDelco introduced a new promotion for 2007 called the Drive to Win Sweepstakes, which is tied into your performance on the track. Have you felt any added pressure because of it?
KJ: "Not really, because we want to win every race we enter, so we naturally put pressure on ourselves. I do think it's pretty exciting that ACDelco came up with a contest tied into the race team, and we're planning to make quite a few people happy by winning some races."
Q: What is your outlook for the rest of the season?
KJ: "Our first priority is to put ourselves securely in the top eight by Reading and advance to the second round of the Countdown. We're in sixth place right now, but not secure by any means. There are at least 12 cars capable of being in those eight spots, so four really fast cars will not make the top eight. As tight as things are, we want to give ourselves a little cushion. It's a matter of going rounds and paying attention to every detail, doing what we do best.
"We've been strong lately, but can't seem to get past second round. Fortunately, our performance in the Demon showed that us we have a car capable of winning, so it's up to us to get the job done."
Q: Finally, what are your plans for Father's Day?
KJ: "It's our last weekend before the six-race stretch, so I'm going to spend time with the family, firing up the grill, hanging out at the pool with (wife) Kathy, (daughter) Erin, (sons) Conner and Jarrett, and having a good time.
"In closing, however, I'd like to wish my dad and all the dads a very happy and relaxing Father's Day. We certainly couldn't be here without them!"