No. 7: Warren Johnson
It is deliciously ironic that Warren Johnson, a man who playfully disparages his own driving ability, should be honored as one of drag racing's 50 greatest drivers.
Johnson's standing as the preeminent engine developer, the predominant team owner, and the deepest thinker in Pro Stock is unquestioned. But a great driver? Not in Warren's world, where drivers are as disposable as spark plugs.
"Driving just comes with the territory," says the man who has won the most Pro Stock races in NHRA history. "Outthinking the competition is what appeals to me."
That is the essence of this most unlikely of drag racing stars, a 58-year-old, silver-haired grandfather who prefers the intellectual challenge of racing to the adrenaline rush of competition. W.J. is complex, calculating, and cerebral, an engineer/racer who is invariably analytical and occasionally controversial. Drag racing lore does not record who first hung the sobriquet "the Professor" on Warren Johnson, but the nickname was a perfect fit.
Despite Johnson's objections, the NHRA record book testifies to his considerable skill behind the wheel. He stands at the head of the Pro Stock class in every statistical category: victories, final rounds, No. 1 qualifying times, low elapsed times, and top speeds.
With a professional racing career that spans four decades, Johnson has achieved the status of senior statesman in the sport. He is a racing encyclopedia who has competed in 84 percent of the Pro Stock races contested in NHRA history. He has qualified for every race since the 1987 Gatornationals — a remarkable 15-year streak. In a class where horsepower reigns supreme, Johnson is the undisputed king of speed, having recorded the fastest run in more than half of the races since 1982.
"This isn't rocket science," Johnson declares with his characteristic candor. "It's about racing for 1,320 feet. Drag racing is an engineering exercise in its purest form; you either win or lose."
Johnson's steely determination and his relentless work ethic were forged as a young man growing up on a hard-scrabble farm in Minnesota's aptly named Iron Range.
"What we were doing wasn't really farming; it was more like moving rocks around," Johnson recalls. "Growing up on a farm was a great education for a youngster with an interest in mechanical things."
Long before he became the most prolific Pro Stock driver in NHRA history, Johnson was an unknown soldier in an army of weekend warriors. He drove his modified '57 Chevy hundreds of miles to race on obscure dragstrips while his wife, Arlene, cradled their son, Kurt, in her arms. The Johnsons won their first race in 1963 at Minnesota Dragway. There would be many more victories to come.
Johnson's Pro Stock career was an accident of geography. Insulated from the fuel-racing frenzy of Southern California and isolated from the stock-car strongholds of the East, Johnson concentrated on engine development during the long Minnesota winters. He took night classes in engineering while working full time in a steel fabrication shop, but his heart was in the tiny garage behind the family home in frigid Fridley, Minn.
Johnson made his first foray into Pro Stock in 1971 with a Camaro that he had driven home from a dealership and stripped in his driveway. He towed his homebuilt race car to Indianapolis, qualified 28th in the 32-car U.S. Nationals field, and was promptly defeated in the first round of eliminations.
That experience taught "the Professor" the value of patience and persistence. Eleven years later, Johnson finally won his first national event. Another decade elapsed before he won his first Winston championship. It was a deliberate, thoughtful process for Johnson to gather the equipment, the resources, and the knowledge to become a champion.
At first, Johnson financed his fledgling racing operation by building engines for rival racers. Campaigning an evil-handling big-block Vega on poorly prepared tracks educated Johnson in the fine art of high-speed driving. In 1975 and at age 32, Johnson made the life-changing decision to become a professional drag racer. It was a bare-bones family business: Warren, Arlene, and Kurt slept in their truck and took showers in friends' hotel rooms.
"My plan was to start at the bottom and work my way up," Johnson remembers. "We had no sponsorship money, absolutely nothing. In retrospect, I had no choice but to make it work."
Warren did make it work, finishing as runner-up in the 1976 Winston championship with a Camaro he later christened "The Incredible Hulk" after it logged nearly 3,000 runs in six seasons of hard racing. He finished fifth in the standings in 1977 and seventh in 1978, but he was still winless on the national event tour.
Johnson took a sabbatical from NHRA competition from 1979 to 1981. During these "lost years," Warren won back-to-back IHRA Pro Stock championships and barnstormed his big-block Camaro on the match racing circuit, where he perfected his racecraft.
"You have to understand how to win; winning doesn't happen by accident," he explains. "I needed to learn how to race."
The Johnson family migrated to Georgia in 1981 to take advantage of the South's year-round racing weather. When NHRA replaced its complex system of Pro Stock weight breaks with a straightforward 500-cid, 2,350-pound formula at the start of the 1982 season, W.J. returned with a vengeance.
Johnson scored his first NHRA national event victory at the 1982 Summernationals in Englishtown, defeating reigning champion Lee Shepherd in the final round. Once he tasted victory, Johnson's appetite for winning became insatiable. He has won at least one national event for 20 consecutive years — the longest active winning streak in NHRA drag racing.
Johnson utterly dominated Pro Stock in the 1990s, winning championships in 1992, 1993, 1995, 1998, and 1999. When he didn't win the championship, he finished second or third. He won 30 percent of the races and appeared in 44 percent of the final rounds. He claimed four consecutive U.S. Nationals crowns from 1992 to 1995 and ended the decade with his sixth career Indy title in 1999. W.J. reached drag racing's last great milestone with his barrier-breaking 200-mph run in April 1997, and in 1999 he made history again by running the top speed at every event on the calendar.
Mechanical wizardry and technical innovation are the hallmarks of Johnson's career. He introduced the Funny Car-style roll cage to Pro Stock and perfected the five-speed planetary transmission, but internal combustion has always been W.J.'s specialty. He still prepares the cylinder heads and intake manifolds for his record-setting engines.
When Oldsmobile engineers launched a serious drag racing program to showcase the resurrected Hurst/Oldsmobile in 1983, W.J. was the man they called. Johnson reworked the venerable big-block Chevrolet V-8 to create a purpose-built powerplant: the invincible Drag Race Competition Engine (DRCE). After nearly 20 years, the Johnson-designed DRCE remains the foundation of GM's Pro Stock engine program.
"The Professor's" most successful student is his son, Kurt, a 22-time national event winner and the first Pro Stock driver to run a six-second elapsed time. Arlene has stood by her man for 39 years, and she is the thread that binds the tightly knit family enterprise.
With a sixth championship in sight, W.J. shows no sign of slowing down. He dismisses talk of retirement: "I enjoy what I'm doing," he declares. "I'm having more fun than one person should be allowed to have."
With his steel-blue eyes fixed on the future, "the Professor" will continue to write the book on Pro Stock as one of drag racing's greatest drivers. -- Rick Voegelin
Comments from the panel
"He's not the best driver by any means, but he's good enough that the greatness masterminded in the shop gave him an incredible mechanical edge." - Thomas Pope
"Drag racing's top innovator and deepest thinker." - Kevin McKenna
"The consummate engineer/mechanic. Like Don Garlits, one of the very few who truly understood every aspect of a drag racing vehicle. When he passes on, he'll take more knowledge with him than anybody else." - John Jodauga
"Represents the last professional drag racing "hold-out" in the age of extreme motorsports specialization." - Jim Hill
"Maybe the most misunderstood man in our sport. On the track he's amazing. The technology, innovations and fresh thinking that he brought to his class are tops in a sport that's full of those things. The longevity, the continued dominance and the amazing power that he has set him apart from everyone else on the list." - Bob Frey