Warren Johnson has fondness for Gainesville track

Warren Johnson professes that he has no favorites among the tracks that host the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series, but the analytical "Professor of Pro Stock" will admit to having a certain fondness for Gainesville Raceway. Johnson has racked up...

Warren Johnson professes that he has no favorites among the tracks that host the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series, but the analytical "Professor of Pro Stock" will admit to having a certain fondness for Gainesville Raceway. Johnson has racked up eight of his 79 career national event victories at the central Florida facility, the site of the upcoming NHRA Mac Tools Gatornationals on March 17-19. Johnson won the last two Gatornationals titles, defeating Jim Yates in the final round in 1998 and his son Kurt in last year's finale. He has qualified in the No. 1 spot seven times at Gainesville Raceway, including six of the last seven races. One year ago at the Gatornationals he set the national elapsed time and top speed records at 6.866 seconds and 201.67 mph respectively. "At this time of year, Gainesville is a track that tends to favor our setup," Warren reports with his characteristic understatement. "It has a smooth racing surface that suits high-horsepower cars and the way we run our program." Johnson has had a love-hate relationship with Gainesville Raceway throughout his 25-year Pro Stock career. He was runner-up to Larry Lombardo in his first Gatornationals appearance in 1976. He scored back-to-back victories in Gainesville in 1984-85, and won four straight in 1991-94. But the 1987 edition marked a low point for Warren when he failed to qualify. That was the last time that Johnson went home early from a race. In the 13 years since then, W.J. has qualified for 243 consecutive NHRA events, the longest active qualifying streak in the sport. "Gainesville is a 'Jekyl and Hyde' track," Johnson laughs. "I've won more races there than any other driver, but I also DNQ'ed there in '87 when we had a case of tire shake that we simply couldn't cure. Maybe the victories balance out the embarrassment of not qualifying!" Johnson kicked off his "Silver Anniversary Season" with a runner-up finish in Pomona and a second-round result at the CSK Nationals in Phoenix. He is solidly in second place in the championship race after two rounds of the 23-race NHRA series, 87 points behind leader Jeg Coughlin Jr. That is actually two spots higher than he was at this point last season. "We're hanging in there, and that's the most important thing," Johnson declares. "We feel pretty fortunate to be in the second spot right now with all of the problems we've encountered in the last few months. "It's still a long season ahead."

Johnson lived up to his reputation as Pro Stock's leading nonconformist when he embarked on a tire development program with Hoosier at the season-opening AutoZone Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. Goodyear has enjoyed a virtual monopoly in Pro Stock since its decisive victory over Firestone in the "tire war" of the '80s. The only blemish on Goodyear's otherwise perfect record is Johnson's victory on Hoosier rubber at the 1992 Autolite Nationals in Sonoma, Calif. "Drag racing certainly owes a debt to Goodyear for its support of the sport through good times and bad times," Johnson remarks. "However, I am a firm believer in the value of competition, and Goodyear has not been seriously challenged in Pro Stock. If Hoosier is able to develop a tire that complements our approach to racing, we could have a competitive advantage this summer." Johnson rolled out his Hoosiers at Pomona Raceway, where he qualified 12th and finished as runner-up to Jeg Coughlin Jr. Although Johnson advanced to the final round for the 124th time in his career, his streak of 29 consecutive top speeds was snapped by Tom Martino. "Some thought our rather lackluster performance was due to the Hoosier tires, but the truth is that we had a wounded engine under the hood," Johnson reveals. "We did discover some fundamental differences in the behavior of the Goodyear and Hoosier tires in our limited testing. The Hoosier engineers are working on new molds and new compounds, and we hope to test them in the near future. "Developing a competitive Pro Stock tire is exactly the kind of challenge I relish," Johnson continues. "Racing would be rather boring if I didn't have a project to stir my imagination." W.J. has gone his own way in the past. He devoted the 1997 season to testing four different chassis, and spent the 1998 season working on a proprietary 5-speed clutchless transmission. "We may suffer some short-term pain for long-term gain," Warren concedes. "Our chassis and transmission programs paid dividends in the long run, and I expect our tire program to do the same."

Warren is leasing his powerful GM DRCE engines to rising Pro Stock star Richie "the Kid" Stevens this season. Johnson and Stevens have an agreement that addresses the thorny ethical problems that might arise when the two meet in eliminations. "When Stevens races us, he has to use his own motor," Johnson explains. "That way there are no gimmes and no questions about anyone taking a dive. "This arrangement gives the Stevens team impetus to work on their own engine program so they won't have to rely on power from somebody else," Warren notes. "In the long run, it's going to help their program considerably." The two drivers squared off in the second round of eliminations at the Winternationals. As previously agreed, Stevens installed his own engine before the race - and W.J. took the win light, 6.959 to 6.979.

Every motorsports enthusiast harbors a secret fantasy - to drive a race car on the street. One fortunate fan realized that dream after winning the grand prize in the Warren Johnson GM Goodwrench Service Plus Lookalike Sweepstakes - a 30th Anniversary Trans Am that duplicated the appearance of Warren Johnson's championship-winning GM Goodwrench Service Plus race car. More than 200,000 entries were received in the year-long promotion. Three finalists were selected randomly and invited to the AutoZone Winternationals as guests of GM Service Parts Operations. Warren drew the name of the sweepstakes winner, Shay Mitchell of Lake Charles, La., out of his helmet in a ceremony held on the starting line at Pomona Raceway. Mitchell was speechless when Warren pulled out her winning entry. "I never dreamed of winning!" she explained later after she drove down the Pomona quarter-mile track with Warren in her new Firebird. "I'm going cruising as soon as I get home." "This was a win-win promotion for GM Service Parts Operations and our customers," said Bill Fitzgerald, manager of event marketing for GM SPO. "The GM Goodwrench Service Plus sweepstakes effectively leveraged GM Service Parts Operations' participation in NHRA drag racing."

There are new faces in the Johnson camp this season. Tom Pierson maintains the "back half" of W.J.'s GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac and Darrick Nykaza ministers to the clutch, rearend, and transmission between rounds. Pat Barrett, W.J.'s longtime computer and data acquisition specialist, missed the Winternationals, but was back in action in Phoenix. Both Pierson and Nykaza are veterans of the Pro Stock wars. Pierson has worked for Pro Stock teams for 11 seasons, but now has what he considers to be his dream job. "Warren was my idol before I started racing," he said. Nykaza drives as well as he turns wrenches. He won the UDRA championship in 1991 and was voted the "UDRA Pro Stock Driver of the Year" by his peers in 1998.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Warren Johnson , Tom Martino