No. 36: Blaine Johnson
Blaine Johnson

 

There's no telling how many races and championships Blaine Johnson would have won had his life not been cut short in a violent crash at the 1996 U.S. Nationals.

Seven championships and 53 NHRA national event victories - the sum of his career numbers and those of Gary Scelzi since Scelzi took over the wheel of the Johnson family's Top Fuel dragster - seems a reasonable total. Not just anyone could have accomplished what Scelzi has in the last four years - even if he or she was strapped into drag racing's quickest car, as Scelzi has been - but Blaine Johnson wasn't just anyone.

At 26, he won the second national event he entered, the 1988 Gatornationals, with his and brother Alan's Olds-powered Alcohol Dragster. He also won his second-to-last start in an Alcohol Dragster, the 1993 Chief Nationals, where he defeated the current king of the class, Rick Santos, in the final.

The Johnsons won championships in each of their last four years on alcohol (1990-1993), and at the time of Blaine's tragic death on Aug. 31, 1996, he was still that category's most prolific winner, with 26 NHRA titles - even though he hadn't raced an alcohol car in three years. The record held until last season, when it finally was eclipsed by Santos.

By the summer of 1988, halfway through his first season of driving, Johnson was entrenched as one of the leading figures in Alcohol Dragster. He won the inaugural California Nationals in Sonoma, just up the coast from his lifelong hometown of Santa Maria, Calif., and was runner-up a week later to Bruce McDowell in Seattle.

Johnson, brother Alan, and their father, Everett, who had been drag racing since the 1950s, won all of their national event finals in 1989 except the Mile-High Nationals in Denver, where - for some reason - Blaine never won. He reached the final there in almost every year of his career (1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1995, and 1996), but lost six times in six tries. In his first appearance on the mountain, Blaine was runner-up to a driver making his national event debut, Cory McClenathan; in his last trip, in Top Fuel in 1996, he was in the other lane for Eddie Hill's last national win.

Johnson concluded the 1980s by winning the 1989 Winston Finals over Mike Kosky and opened the 1990s by winning the 1990 Winternationals over Steve Faria. He was unstoppable in 1990, appearing in the final round of five of the year's first six national events and winning four. He later won in Sonoma, where he always performed well, and again in Pomona, where he was even better.

1991 yielded more of the same: seven national event victories in 10 finals, another championship, and his only U.S. Nationals win. In 1992, the Johnsons won five nationals in seven finals, and in 1993 took another four.

Having indisputably conquered alcohol racing with their four consecutive championships, the Johnsons turned Pro in 1994, but surprisingly failed to qualify in five of their first six outings. Blaine won his first round on fuel over the driver he enjoyed beating most, Kenny Bernstein, at the 1994 Springnationals, and by the start of the following season he was a regular in the late rounds.

Johnson was runner-up to rookie Larry Dixon at the 1995 Gatornationals and also finished second that year in Richmond, Denver, and Dallas. On the final day of the 1995 season, in the last round of the Winston Finals against Dixon - who by then had won four national events and the previous day's Big Bud Shootout - Johnson won his first Top Fuel title with the quickest run of his career, a 4.68.

In 1996, Johnson opened with a Winternationals victory, then smoked the tires in the Gatornationals final but scored anyway when Scott Kalitta refused to accept that his front end wasn't returning to earth after a and flew into a blowover before half-track.

Johnson was running away with the Winston championship in just his third year in Top Fuel, just as he had six years earlier in Alcohol Dragster. He claimed his 30th and final national event win at the Autolite Nationals in Sonoma, where he trounced Bernstein in the final, 4.67 to 5.00, and won his last round three weeks later in the Brainerd quarterfinals.

Thirteen days later, on a U.S. Nationals qualifying attempt opposite McClenathan, Johnson's engine expired at the conclusion of a 309-mph pass, and shrapnel from the explosion pierced both rear tires and tore off the wing, rendering him a passenger. He hit a turnout in the left-lane guardrail at an angle, then hit right guardrail. Johnson died of his injuries, becoming the first fatality at an NHRA national event since May 1986. He was 34.

Fittingly, Johnson's final pass was a track-record run, 4.61. He also was the Top Fuel national record holder at the time of his death with a 4.592. - Todd Veney

Comments from the panel

"Cut from the same cloth as Lee Shepherd, Blaine was reserved in public but a tiger in a race car. He dominated TAD like no one else, and turned aluminum billets into works of cylinder head art. And like Shepherd, he left us much too soon." - Rick Voegelin

"The quintessential 'natural' drag racer. Even as he faced death, he was drivin' the wheels off." - Cole Coonce