Warren Johnson - GM interview
Warren Johnson Looks Toward 2005 SUGAR HILL, Ga., Dec. 7, 2004 - Even while Warren Johnson begins preparation for "The Professor's School's Out Tour," his final full season behind the wheel of the GM Performance Parts Pontiac, don't think for ...
Warren Johnson Looks Toward 2005
SUGAR HILL, Ga., Dec. 7, 2004 - Even while Warren Johnson begins preparation for "The Professor's School's Out Tour," his final full season behind the wheel of the GM Performance Parts Pontiac, don't think for one minute that class has been dismissed just yet. After struggling through a disappointing campaign in 2004, the 61-year-old Johnson is pulling out all the stops to ensure that his final trip traversing the 23-race NHRA POWERade circuit produces the kind of results his fans have grown accustomed to over the last 30-plus years.
Like all great competitors who make the difficult decision to remove themselves from the field of play, whether it's Joe Montana, Cal Ripken, or Michael Jordan, Warren Johnson has been a trailblazer in regards to his influence on his respective profession. It is difficult to imagine a national event where "The Professor" won't be applying his engineering expertise, but over the course of four decades as an accomplished racer, engine builder, chassis designer and safety equipment proponent, Johnson's impact has been felt in all corners of the sport of drag racing. His inventive work with General Motors in the early '80s toward the development of the DRCE (Drag Racing Competition Engine) is still the benchmark in Pro Stock, and subsequent versions of the DRCEII and DRCE III promise to benefit racers in the category for years to come.
"When you think about General Motors and drag racing, one name comes to mind, and obviously that's the 'The Professor,' Warren Johnson," said Fred Simmonds, GM Racing Group Manager Drag Racing. "I can't think of any driver who's had a more important impact on his class than Warren Johnson, from a performance standpoint and even from a safety standpoint. Take a look at the roll cages in a Pro Stock car; that's Warren Johnson. The beadlock tires? Warren was on the leading edge of that technology. Everyone knows the stats - he is Mr. General Motors Drag Racing."
Trying to list even a fraction of the performance milestones "The Professor" has surpassed over the years is a daunting task in itself. In 453 career races spanning from 1971 to 2004, Johnson has captured six NHRA Pro Stock championships (1992-'93, 1995, 1998-'99, 2001), 92 national-event victories, 130 No. 1 qualifying performances, 784 round wins (.693), six U.S. Nationals crowns, made 143 final-round appearances, set low e.t. of the meet 134 times and ran top speed at 198 events. Johnson was the first Pro Stock competitor to exceed the 180-mph barrier (1982), the 190-mph barrier (1986) and the 200-mph barrier (1997), and he set the national speed record on 25 separate occasions and the national elapsed-time mark 11 times.
In 2004, an incredible trifecta of performance streaks for Warren Johnson came to end including 22 straight seasons with at least one national-event victory, 22 consecutive top-five points finishes (both dating back to 1982) and 16 consecutive years with at least one raceday pole award. With last year's runner-up finish at the NHRA Winternationals, Johnson continued a streak of 23 race seasons in which he's competed in at least one final round.
Original development of GM DRCE - "The DRCE came into being when Hurst wanted to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Hurst Olds in 1983. It was supposed to have been finished by the middle of 1982, but by November nothing had been accomplished on it so I took over the project myself. The cylinder head and block, I believe it was a 10-day mad thrash to get the pattern work, or prototype, made so we could cast some cylinder heads. Actually, the original prototype was first done in wood. That's what started the development of the DRCE. Oldsmobile didn't want to use a Chevrolet engine, which was the base engine for GM in Pro Stock at that time. Olds wanted something they could call their own and that's the genesis of the DRCE series of racing engines. Over the past 20 years it's been, shall we say, a work in progress. The first major redesign of the DRCE was in 1991 and '92. The block was revised and a better casting was made for the cylinder head because the original pattern work was done in such haste that we really didn't have time to finesse it. In the early '90s, the cylinder head was redone and completely retooled. Basically it was the same cylinder, it just had new tooling. That same basic cylinder head is still being used today."
That design, barring any unforeseen changes in Pro Stock, promises to be around for a long time. "It's really been the mainstay of GM's Pro Stock effort for the last 23 years now. Right now the DRCEII is the best performing engine out there, but the DRCEIII we're working on currently shows some promise as well. The potential of the DRCEIII is in the block because that lends itself to a higher rpm with the way it stabilizes the valvetrain and ultimately it will be the way to go. The block on the DRCEIII is still about 48 pounds heavier than the previous block so there's a lightening operation that you have to be involved with."
Innovations you've made in safety and the pride you take improving the sport in that area. "I'm the last guy who wants to see anybody get hurt doing what they enjoy, and that's racing. Safety to me has always been a primary concern. You need performance, but at the same time you need an equal helping of safety. These cars are going quick enough, and fast enough, that certainly, people have been hurt in the past - I remember a number of incidents where people have lost their lives. I've looked at what was left of cars, surmised what happened and that's where the roll cage design that we have today came in. We did that back in 1984 or '85. The dual parachutes was another area that we worked on with Stroud Safety because I saw so many failed deployments of parachutes that by adding a second parachute you double your chances of at least one chute opening. We're currently revising our seat design because I looked at Brandon Bernstein's accident at Englishtown and that prompted us to make some changes."
Work with the Beadlock tire design. "It was quite obvious that we needed to do something. We saw a number of drivers get upside down in the 18 months or so prior to the change and all of those incidents could have been averted with the beadlock tire. The beadlock tire by its very nature has a lot more lateral stability because the bead is locked to the wheel and the tire is therefore more stable, coupled with the fact that by lessening the amount of sidewall in the tire that gives it a lot more lateral stability also. The cars are not near as prone to tire shake from the standpoint that you have a much more rigid assembly with the beadlock wheel and the way the tires are fastened to it. The conventional method we've used in year's past was just a bunch of sheet metal screws attaching the tire and the wheel together. Not only was it an archaic method it was highly unsafe. There have been numerous pictures of incidents over the years that show cars making a burnout where the tires are barely touching the rim, or not at all - it's sucked right of the bead area. In a tubeless configuration all you need is to break that seal just a little bit and you have a tire that's flat. The bottom line is that we had better performances all year, and we didn't have any incidence of cars getting into trouble on the racetrack, so I thought it was a win-win situation. The car is also much more stable and you can drive it around the racetrack better. When you get out of the groove you don't have as much of a phenomenon of the car trying to pull itself out of the groove even further. With the bigger footprint on the ground, the tendency to spin the tire down track is a lot less. It was probably something that was five years overdue, but it's happened, it's behind us and I think everybody is a happy camper that we have them on there."
How did you reach your decision to get out of the racecar? "Nothing is forever and I've looked at it that I need more time in the shop to get the development work done to increase the performance of these cars. It's something that I had to do. I'll certainly test drive, and I may sporadically run an event or two, but as far as a full-time position, I think it's something I need to do for Warren Johnson Enterprises, for Kurt's car, my car and whoever we put in my car in the future. We need to increase the performance of these vehicles and that's going to take more of my time. We're on a limited budget and we have to make every nickel count. I was born handicapped, with only two hands, so I need more hours."
Is driving a racecar something you'll miss? "No, I never have missed it. Driving the car has never been my bailiwick. I enjoy it if I have an ill-handling car, then I have something to do and it makes it more interesting. But for the most part it's something that just came with the territory. Like I said before, when I first started Arlene wouldn't drive, Kurt was too young and the dog couldn't get a license so I was basically stuck with it. The car to me is a place to test everything we've been working on."
What did you learn in 2004 that you'll be able to implement in 2005? "Performance-wise our Pontiac Grand Am and Kurt's Chevrolet will be right there, and we actually expect to be at the head of the pack. We started honing in on it toward the end of the season, but didn't have enough time to produce all the parts and pieces that it takes to get the performance to where it needs to be. With the 84 days of offseason that we have, I think we can bring the performance up to where it needs to be, and Kurt and I will be in excellent shape next year."
What will you do between now and next February that will put you back in the hunt for the championship? "We have a new car and that will be part of the equation. The car will be done in about three weeks and that will help. We have complete new engine assemblies that we've been working on, and now that we won't be attending any races for the next two and half months, that will bring us back to where we need to be. I just need more shop time so the offseason will benefit our program multifold."
What plans are in place for the transition of putting a new driver in the car? "We'll go full bore in 2005 and if we see eligible candidates as far as drivers are concerned, I've got spare cars. We'll put them in a car at a few national events just to get them used to running the way we run our program. That way they'll be up to speed in 2006."
Not everyone can say that they discovered their lifelong passion at the age of nine, but this racecar driver has always been a gearhead with a need for speed.
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