Richmond awaits Warren Johnson, then Atlanta

While children across America were searching for Easter eggs last Sunday, Warren Johnson was hunting for horsepower. After two days of testing at nearby Atlanta Dragway, W.J. spent the Easter holiday in his Sugar Hill skunkworks preparing for a...

While children across America were searching for Easter eggs last Sunday, Warren Johnson was hunting for horsepower. After two days of testing at nearby Atlanta Dragway, W.J. spent the Easter holiday in his Sugar Hill skunkworks preparing for a motorized marathon. With five national events in the next six weeks, there will be no rest for the weary on the NHRA championship drag racing circuit. Johnson's objective is to regain the championship form that propelled him to five NHRA titles in the last eight seasons. "We've developed some sort of electrical anomaly in the car," Warren reported after suffering a disappointing first-round loss at the O'Reilly Nationals in Houston. "The engine sounds like it's constantly running on the rev limiter. Several times at the last race it simply refused to start. We have completely disassembled the car to find the problem - the only thing left on it is the paint! "We'll have the problem fixed before we leave for Richmond," W.J. vowed.

The Old Dominion State promotes tourism with the slogan "Virginia Is for Lovers" - but Virginia is also for racers. Virginia Motorsports Park, the site of the upcoming Moto1.net NHRA Nationals presented by Chevrolet on April 28-30, is paradise on Earth for Pro Stock racers. The track near Richmond has produced phenomenal performances since it became a regular stop on the NHRA tour in 1995. Warren Johnson won 16 straight rounds at VMP en route to four consecutive victories in 1995-1998. He made history there in 1997 when he produced the first 200 mph Pro Stock run. At last year's race, he set the national speed record at 202.24 mph in his GM Goodwrench Service Plus Firebird before suffering an upset loss to No. 15 qualifier John Nobile in the first round of eliminations. "We've done well at Richmond over the years," Johnson noted with his characteristic understatement. "The track favors how we run our race car, and we've had exceptionally good weather conditions at several events. When you have a good track and good air, the result is usually a plethora of 200 mph runs. "We'll have a new puzzle to solve this year at Virginia Motorsports Park," Warren advised. "The track has been resurfaced with concrete from 330 feet to the 1/8th mile, so we will essentially have three different surfaces to deal with - the old starting line, a new middle section, and the original back half. It's going to be interesting."

One week later, the NHRA troops will reassemble at the freshly refurbished Atlanta Dragway for the Advance Auto Parts Southern Nationals on May 5-7. The track in Commerce, Ga., is literally just up the highway from Johnson's top secret headquarters. W.J. has enjoyed considerable success at his home track, posting four victories in seven final-round appearances since 1986. He's also qualified on the Pro Stock "pole" eight times at the Southern Nationals. Last year Johnson staged his own reenactment of General Sherman's Civil War march through Georgia when he rolled to his milestone 75th career victory at Atlanta Dragway, defeating Richie "the Kid" Stevens in the final round. W.J. utterly dominated the event: He qualified No. 1, set the track elapsed time and top speed records, reeled off five 200 mph runs, and ran the quickest e.t. in all four rounds of eliminations. "You can disregard all of that because we'll be racing on a brand-new track," Johnson declared. "The track was resurfaced from the starting line to the finish line. We've tested there several times, but that will not be an advantage because the surface will be entirely different after it is prepared for a national event. The fuel cars will put down a layer of rubber on the top end that we need for traction. At our last test session at Atlanta Dragway, we could only go about 200 feet under power because of the pollen that had accumulated on the track. The bees may like those conditions, but race cars don't!" After five of 23 events, Warren is second in the Pro Stock championship standings, 133 points behind Jeg Coughlin Jr. W.J. has advanced to the final round three times, but Coughlin has been there four times - and each time his rival came away with a victory. "It's not that I'm having a bad season, but rather that Jeg is having an unbelievably good one," Johnson observed. "I'm maintaining about the same pace that won championships in the last two seasons. The breaks have been going Jeg's way so far, but over a year that will all balance out." Johnson has divided his time between simultaneous tire and chassis development programs. "When you are always trying to go quicker and faster, you have to try some unusual things - and sometimes they backfire," Johnson explained. "Once you get behind, you have to work four times as hard just to get back to where you were. "We have radically increased the stiffness of our race car chassis, and that has required us to develop some unusual suspension combinations," Johnson continued. "This is an unconventional car, and it appears to want unconventional shock absorbers and springs. We're definitely exploring uncharted territory with this chassis. "We are simultaneously working with Hoosier to develop a new Pro Stock tire," he added. "They received a new mold last Friday and worked straight through Easter weekend to make new tires for us to test. I know they are committed to the success of this program. It may take several more iterations before we come up with the tire that I want, but there is a strong possibility that I will run Hoosiers in Richmond or Atlanta."

W.J.'s SILVER ANNIVERSARY SEASON: The Way It Was

Warren Johnson made drag racing history at Virginia Motorsports Park on April 25, 1997, when he recorded a top speed of 200.13 mph in his GM Performance Parts Pontiac. Johnson's historic run at 7:27 p.m. during the second round of Pro Stock qualifying was the first 200 mph pass by a Pro Stock driver in NHRA national event competition. It earned the Professor a $25,000 prize and the first membership in the Speed-Pro 200 mph Pro Stock Club. "We knew we had the horsepower to run 200 mph," Johnson recalled. "Greg Anderson (Johnson's crew chief) made the right call on the clutch and chassis combination. Lo and behold, it all worked!" Johnson covered the quarter-mile in just 6.894 seconds, the first pass in the 6.80s at an NHRA event. That record-setting performance added a $15,000 bonus from the MBNA World Record Club. Two months later, Johnson's barrier-breaking Firebird was repainted in black-and-silver GM Goodwrench Service Plus livery. At the end of the season, it was returned to its original colors and put on display at the NHRA Motorsports Museum in La Verne, CaliF.

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Series NHRA
Drivers John Nobile , Jeg Coughlin , Warren Johnson