Buoyed by a runner-up finish to his son Kurt at the Keystone Nationals in Reading, Pa., Warren Johnson is primed and ready to take on Heartland Park Topeka, the site of the Advance Auto Parts Nationals on September 29-October 1. Warren has...
Buoyed by a runner-up finish to his son Kurt at the Keystone Nationals in Reading, Pa., Warren Johnson is primed and ready to take on Heartland Park Topeka, the site of the Advance Auto Parts Nationals on September 29-October 1.
Warren has won five of the 16 NHRA national events contested on the quarter-mile track in Kansas' capital city since 1989. He has qualified in the top spot six times in Topeka, and he clinched his fourth Winston championship there in 1998 with a final-round victory over Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the wee hours of the morning.
W.J.'s previous success at Heartland Park could be irrelevant, however, with a new racing surface in place. "I'm hoping that it will be a good race track," Johnson said. "The work that was done at Maple Grove Raceway before the Keystone Nationals really turned that track around. We intend to apply what we learned in Reading with Kurt's double-frame-rail chassis and my own shock absorber experiments when we attack Topeka.
"Historically Heartland Park has been almost too good for the Pro Stocks," Johnson noted. "With Topeka's relatively high altitude we're down on horsepower, and the starting line has more teeth than a school of piranhas. In the past, we absolutely couldn't turn a tire there.
"The wind can also be a factor in Kansas," Warren cautioned. "It changes direction so quickly that you can have a headwind when you leave the starting line and a tailwind by the time you cross the finish line!"
THE PROFESSOR'S SABBATICAL
While Johnson isn't backing off from his regular 24/7 regimen, this season has the hallmarks of an R&D year for the Professor of Pro Stock. Fifteen races have passed since Warren last stood in the winner's circle at the Gatornationals in March. That dry spell surpassed the 12-race victory drought he endured in 1997-98, and is approaching the 19-race winless streak he went through in 1990-91. Significantly, Johnson won two of his five NHRA championships immediately after those lean times.
"We're gathering data for next year," said Johnson, "and at the same time we're obviously still trying to win races this year. We are using this season to garner as much knowledge as possible because everyone is going to have a steep learning curve when the next generation of Pro Stock race cars arrives next year.
"We're sorting through some of the variables with our current cars to give us a head start on next season," Johnson continued. "The setups that we are running in Kurt's Camaro and my Firebird are rather unorthodox by Pro Stock standards, but we're learning which path to take in 2001.
"You can't have too much knowledge," declared the Professor. "Ignorance is definitely not bliss in racing. The problem is that sometimes you can drown in a sea of information. It helps to have a mental life preserver."
THE POWER AND THE GLORY
Any questions about Warren Johnson's ability to make horsepower were definitively answered at the Keystone Nationals. Johnson recorded six runs over 200 mph, including the event's fastest Pro Stock speed at 201.28 mph. Kurt Johnson added five more 200 mph passes to his tally, including four straight 200 mph runs in eliminations. The Johnsons topped 200 mph a total of eleven times at Maple Grove Raceway, while the rest of the field managed only four runs over 200 mph.
What made the difference? Warren credits Maple Grove's recently refurbished asphalt. "The racing surface is smooth and flat at the top end," he explained, "and that keeps both rear tires on the pavement. When you have two feet on the ground, you can usually run pretty fast." Warren has now logged 97 runs over 200 mph since he recorded Pro Stock's first 200 mph pass in April 1997. Kurt has topped 200 mph 39 times in his career. The Johnsons are responsible for 61 percent of the 223 Pro Stock runs over 200 mph that have been recorded in NHRA national event competition to date.
If drag racing were an Olympic sport, Johnson's GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac would be a certified gold medallist. At 200 mph, W.J.'s Firebird sprints 100 meters in 1.12 seconds!
Elvis' shrine at Graceland and the jazz clubs of Beale Street will not be on Johnson's itinerary when the NHRA tour returns to Memphis for the AutoZone Nationals on October 6-8. Johnson will spend his time at Memphis Motorsports Park, where he has won four times in the last nine races. He notched his most recent victory at the Tennessee track in 1998 when he defeated Kurt Johnson in the final round.
"It was a bumpy ride at Memphis when we first ran there," Johnson recalled. "Since the surface was ground smooth several years ago, it's turned into a very good place to race.
"The major variable in Memphis is the weather," Johnson observed. "Even this late in the year, we can still get a helping of heat and humidity. If Mother Nature cooperates and we get cool temperatures, I expect to see low 6.90s in Memphis. When we have a track that will yield those kinds of elapsed times, Kurt and I usually do well."
Johnson holds the Memphis Motorsports Park track records for elapsed time (6.881 seconds) and top speed (200.08 mph). W.J. set those marks in October 1998, making them the second oldest Pro Stock records in the book. Only the 6.874/201.11 mph marks that Johnson established at Houston Raceway Park in March 1998 have lasted longer.
REFLECTING ON READING
Johnson was undismayed by his final-round loss to Kurt at the Keystone Nationals. With his eyes firmly fixed on the Big Picture, W.J. saw the Johnson vs. Johnson final as a victory for the entire team.
"It was a win-win situation for Warren Johnson Enterprises," Johnson asserted. "It really made no difference whether I won or Kurt won because all of the prize money goes into the same pot. The win was good for Kurt and good for his ACDelco team."
Warren's semi-final round victory over points leader and chief rival Jeg Coughlin Jr. marked the first time in six meetings this season that W.J. defeated Jeg in a head-to-head race.
"I had no idea who was in the other lane," said Johnson with a grin. "We made a suspension change based on what the track was telling us and the car improved from a 6.91 in the previous round to a 6.88. End of story."
Johnson now has a 10-13 career record against Coughlin. Warren has faced 117 drivers in his NHRA Pro Stock career; only eleven of them have a winning record against the Professor. <pre> NEXT RACES: Advance Auto Parts Nationals, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, Topeka, Kan. TV: TNN, Oct. 1, 4:30-6 p.m. (ET) AutoZone Nationals, Oct. 6-8, Memphis, Tenn. TV: Speedvision, Oct. 8, 5-6:30 p.m. (ET)
LAST RACES: Matco Tools SuperNationals Englishtown, N.J., Sept. 9 Qualified: No. 5 Finished: Lost to Darrell Alderman in second round. Keystone Nationals Reading, Pa., Sept. 17 Qualified: No. 3 Finished: Runner-up to Kurt Johnson.