Foggy mornings and cool ocean breezes have made the Carneros vineyards famous as the home of fine wine. The same conditions produce bounty of another kind -- the horsepower that propels Pro Stock race cars to record speeds at Sears Point...
Foggy mornings and cool ocean breezes have made the Carneros vineyards famous as the home of fine wine. The same conditions produce bounty of another kind -- the horsepower that propels Pro Stock race cars to record speeds at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.
Five-time Pro Stock champion Warren Johnson appreciates a glass of vintage Merlot, but that's not the reason he relishes racing near the shore of San Francisco Bay in this weekend's Fram Autolite Nationals. Johnson's 500-cubic-inch GM engines are recognized as being among the most powerful motors in drag racing. The oxygen-rich atmosphere at Sears Point Raceway works like Mother Nature's supercharger to boost Warren's record-setting engines to more than 1,350 horsepower.
The Pro Stock national speed record has been set three times at Sears Point Raceway. Bob Glidden set the mark at 193.21 mph in 1991, W.J. ran 194.51 mph in 1992 and Darrell Alderman raised the bar to 197.80 mph in 1994. Johnson subsequently set the national speed record in March 1995 at Houston Raceway Park -- and held the record continuously until last weekend when W.J.'s longtime rival Alderman exceeded Johnson's 202.36 mph record with a 202.64 mph run at Seattle International Raceway. It is small consolation for Johnson that he still holds the Sears Point Raceway track speed record at 201.16 mph, a standard he established at last year's Fram Autolite Nationals.
"The atmospheric conditions at Sears Point can be very conducive to performance," said Johnson. "The track is almost at sea level, which means we have high barometric pressure. If you were going to throw a rock into the ocean, you'd have to throw it uphill!"
While the air at Sonoma can be terrific, the traction can be problematic. The combination of a short concrete launching pad, a well-aged asphalt surface and hot California sunshine makes Sears Point one of the most difficult tracks on the circuit.
"Sonoma will probably be similar to St. Louis and Columbus where we had marginal track conditions," Warren predicted. "We won at both of those venues, so I'm optimistic that we'll come to terms with Sears Point.
"I have a notion that we won't be able to use a 'normal' combination," he added cryptically. "If the track holds true to form, it will be the most difficult quarter-mile we'll encounter all year, so we're going to make extensive chassis changes to compensate for that. I believe we have enough range of adjustment in this particular car to adapt to those conditions."
Johnson, 58, and his son Kurt, 38, have made the most of the scenic raceway's performance potential. Warren has won three times in five final-round appearances at the Fram Autolite Nationals; Kurt was runner-up there in 1999 and won last year's race when he beat Allen Johnson (no relation) in the final round. The Johnson family has captured the Pro Stock "pole" at Sears Point seven times, and appeared in five of the last six final rounds. No wonder the Johnsons look forward to coming to the wine country!
The Johnsons have raced in the Bay Area for two decades. The pair ran at fabled Fremont Raceway, where Warren won the Golden Gate Nationals in 1982 and became the first Pro Stock driver to exceed 180 mph. This year Warren returns to Sears Point Raceway in a familiar position -- leading the race for the Winston championship. Warren scored his fifth win of the season and the 86th of his career in Denver on July 22, breaking Bob Glidden's record for the most victories by a Pro Stock driver. Kurt won the season-opening Winternationals and finished as runner-up to his father in Denver. He is seventh in the standings coming into the Fram Autolite Nationals.
Parity has arrived in Pro Stock with a vengeance. Last weekend's Prolong Northwest Nationals in Seattle, the 15th race of the season, saw Mark Osborne become the ninth different driver to stand in the Pro Stock winner's circle this year. The nine Pro Stock winners to date tied the mark set in 1995 and duplicated in 1998 for the most winners in a season. In 1995, nine drivers won in the first 12 races; in 1998, it took 16 events until nine drivers tasted victory. Given the intensity of the competition in Pro Stock, it is likely that a record-setting tenth driver will join the ranks of Pro Stock winners in the nine races still to be contested this season. <pre>
WARREN JOHNSON'S SEARS POINT RACEWAY RECORD
Year Qual. Result 1988 4 First Round 1989 12 Runner-up (to Glidden) 1990 1 Second Round 1991 4 Semi-final 1992 1 Winner (over Smith) 1993 7 First Round 1994 3 Semi-final 1995 2 Runner-up (to Yates) 1996 4 Winner (over Edwards) 1997 4 Semi-final 1998 1 Winner (over Gaines) 1999 2 Second Round 2000 1 Second Round