Women play essential roles on GM Racing teams

INDIANAPOLIS, Sept. 24, 2002 - They perform some of the most important functions of any GM Racing Pro Stock team, yet many times their contributions to the success of the program go unnoticed. They change clutches, interpret computer graphs,...

INDIANAPOLIS, Sept. 24, 2002 - They perform some of the most important functions of any GM Racing Pro Stock team, yet many times their contributions to the success of the program go unnoticed. They change clutches, interpret computer graphs, record data, gather weather information, schedule travel arrangements, keep track of finances, cook meals, and on occasion, drive the team bus from race to race. To the casual observer they're just another person in the pits, but ask any crew member and they will tell you that the racers' wives execute some of the most essential tasks on the team.

Arlene Johnson has been married to GM Performance Parts Pontiac driver Warren Johnson for over 40 years. She's also the mother of ACDelco Chevy Cavalier driver Kurt Johnson. Although she wasn't that familiar with drag racing when she first met Warren in 1960, Arlene knew a little something about automotive matters learned while working on cars with her dad in her home state of Minnesota.

"I wasn't new to cars when I met Warren, but I was new to the racing part," explained Arlene. "At that time drag racing wasn't really prominent in Minnesota, but a bunch of us would get together every Sunday afternoon and race and I grew to like it.

"When we first started I would fuel the car, charge the battery, help change carburetor jets and the rear tires. You learned to do things pretty quickly out of necessity and that's served us well over the years. I also helped drive the truck to the races, and once we got going, I cooked for the guys on the team. It was a different time, and we didn't have the help like we do now so I had to pitch in any way I could."

Over the last four decades Arlene has watched the sport grow from its strong family-friendly roots. "I think drag racing has always been a family-oriented sport," she explained. "I know when we first started we took Kurt out to the track when he was little. We all had friends we would race with and we would all take our kids with us. I think the family-friendly aspects of the sport are what have made it so popular over the years. The spectators bring their little ones out and are probably encouraged in doing so when they see the racers bring their kids.

"Kurt was too young to help us at first, but when he turned 12 or 13 years old, that's when he began helping out. We never pushed him into it, it's just something that he wanted to do."

Arlene still plays an irreplaceable role on Warren's championship-winning Grand Am, but now she handles different functions, both in the office and at the racetrack. At the headquarters of WJ Enterprises in Sugar Hill, Ga., Arlene is responsible for a number of items including payroll, paying the bills, answering phones, keeping things in order and making sure the schedules of Warren and Kurt are well organized.

"I also drive the motor home to all the races and video the cars on each run," said Arlene. "Warren will ride with me during the west-coast swing but most of the time I'm by myself. I've been driving the motor home now for nine years.

"It's difficult sometimes getting ready to leave for a race, but the sport has been pretty good to us - no two days are the same and winning makes it all worthwhile. When it's your day, it's your day."

Toni Yates met Splitfire Pontiac Grand Am driver Jim Yates in 1971 - Toni was 16 and Jim was 18. Three years later they were married and they've been together ever since.

"Jim always dreamed of racing in Pro Stock," explained Toni. "I didn't even know what drag racing was before I met him, but I learned quickly. I was the flag girl for the street races. When we started going to the race track, I would roll the tires down to Goodyear, do the clutch, the transmission and the engine work. I taught Jamie (son) how to install the clutch."

When Jim started racing NHRA Pro Stock full time in 1990, Toni had to balance the demands of taking care of the Yates' three children (Jamie, Melissa and Jon), the grueling schedule of working on the race team and being involved with the family's auto-parts business. Jamie is now crew chief on his dad's SC/T Pontiac race team, Jon is a crew member and Melissa is a senior at Clemson University.

"I was basically the crew chief until we got the McDonald's deal," said Toni. "It was tough. We didn't want the kids to miss out on Little League, football, basketball, things like that, so we hired a live-in nanny. That worked out really well. When the kids got older it got a little harder, and it became really tough when they were in high school, trying to be there for prom nights, graduation and other special occasions. We relied on family quite a bit - sisters-in-law bailed us out a lot. When the kids were old enough we just started flying them to the races and they loved it. They grew up out here and that's helped to make our family very close."

Take a look in the Splitfire Pontiac pits today and you'll see that Toni Yates is busier than ever. With the luxury of a bigger race budget and the necessity of having additional crew members with specialized talents, Toni's responsibilities, like Arlene Johnson's, have changed over the years.

"I stay with the race car to make sure the tires are set and check out the track to see where we want Jim to line up," said Toni. "I also observe the car to see if it's going straight or if it stands up on the wheelie bars. I also record data in the log book after every run and keep Jim's schedule straight - remind him when he has to be somewhere. We're constantly on the go, and everything's still very fast paced so being organized is a must.

"Looking back, I would do this all over again in a heartbeat. We've had a wonderful life together and made many, many close friends out here. At this point in my life I sometimes get tired of the traveling, but it's better now since I'm not worrying as much about the kids. I'm enjoying racing more than I used to. Jim and I both missed out on a lot of things at home, but it was a choice we had to make. My relationship with Jim wouldn't have been as strong as it is today if I had stayed home."

At first, Karen Krisher wanted to be an elementary school teacher. That is until she met Chevy Cavalier Pro Stock driver Ron Krisher during their senior year in high school. Karen was attending Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio, and Ron was at Lordstown High. Like Arlene Johnson and Toni Yates, racing wasn't even on Karen's radar screen before she met her future husband. But on one of their first dates Ron took Karen to a local drag strip and she was hooked. In 1975 Karen and Ron were married.

"Ron really had a love for racing and his enthusiasm was contagious," explained Karen. "When we started out it was just the two of us. Ron taught me how to do everything on the car. I didn't have any mechanical skills at all, but it was something we did together and that meant a lot to me. After I learned how to do it, I really enjoyed working on the race car. When we first started I was turning wrenches. I would lay on the floor in the garage and build motors, replace head gaskets, pretty much anything that needed to be done."

For one of her birthdays in the early 1980s, Ron purchased three semi-tractors for Karen which allowed her to start her own trucking business. Wire Express now has 20 trucks on the road, and hauls general commodity freight throughout the state of Ohio, but Karen still enjoys her work on the race team most of all.

"Before we went Pro Stock racing in 1996, I worked on the trucking business full time," explained Karen. "When you make a decision to go racing professionally though, you make a commitment to a whole different lifestyle. As team manager I take care of the travel arrangements, the bookkeeping, the payroll, I pay the bills, do the merchandising, meet with sponsors and do whatever it takes to keep the team running smoothly. I can't explain how we manage to do everything but we do. You just know that something has to be done and you get it done.

"I used to be much calmer when Ron raced. But when he had the crash at Pomona two years ago that really scared me. Ron doesn't take any chances but I still get nervous when he races. We go through a little thing when he gets in the car where I pat his hand and leg, but besides that, we don't communicate a lot. I basically stay out of the way."

With the Eagle One Chevy Cavalier driver closing in on the completion of another successful race season, Karen Krisher doesn't have any regrets on the course their life has taken. And now son Jon, who turns 18 in October, has started to take an interest in the sport as well.

"Jon is very interested in racing now," said Karen. "He graduates from high school this year and is going to set up his college schedule so he can go to the races. Jon wants to race, and if he's still interested when he finishes college then we'll discuss it. But he has to finish college first.

"There are days when we wish we had more time at home, but if we were to quit racing today I don't know what we would do. I think we would really miss it."

-gm racing-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Ron Krisher