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Professor Teaches A Lesson In Class

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 18 2009
Warren Johnson (Photo courtesy of NHRA)

Warren Johnson (Photo courtesy of NHRA)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Commerce, Ga. – Some things haven’t changed very much in the 29 years that the NHRA has been hosting the Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway.

On Saturday afternoon, Arlene Johnson rode back and forth from her husband’s pits to the starting line on the same bicycle she had at the track back in 1981, when her husband Warren Johnson was the seventh fastest Pro Stock qualifier at the track where he had clinched an IHRA crown a couple of years before.

And 29 years later, the white-haired ball of energy, now age 65, was almost as fast as he was on Day One. He’ll race from the eighth spot on Sunday, while one of his former employees, Greg Anderson, will go from the No. 1 qualifier spot.

And Johnson, despite his age is running as fast as ever – faster than them all in Pro Stock at the track closest to his home in Buford, Ga.

On Saturday he set a new Pro Stock track record of 211.26 miles per hour. Earlier this year, at Texas, he set his career-low Elapsed Time of 6.567 seconds.

Perhaps his most impressive ETs are the quick trips he makes back and forth from his Pontiac racer into the team hauler and back as he helps prepare the car between runs.

Anderson said one of the main reasons he went out on his own in 1998 was because he knew Johnson, known as “the Professor” to legions of drag racing fans and drivers, had no intentions of quitting.

“No matter how many times he said he was only going to drive another year or two, I knew better,” Anderson said. “He’s going to drive until they pull him out of the car.

“I think I made the right decision, and I’m absolutely sure right now that he will never stop driving that car. My hat’s off to him. I hope I can still do it when I’m his age.”

Anderson agrees that his old boss is still pretty fast with the wrenches too.

“He’s probably the hardest working guy out here,” he said. “That’s the beauty of drag racing. You can still do it when you are 65 years old.”

Johnson has a Pro Stock leading 96 career event wins, second overall in NHRA, and a NHRA record 138 top qualifiers. In the past two seasons, the results have been sub-par by his standards, but he was No. 1 qualifier at Bristol last year.

But there are encouraging signs this year, and he says that’s due to old-fashioned hard work on the car.

“We’ve been working on whole engine package and the car too, filing and grinding,” he said. “It’s an on-going process. I tell people that the performance envelope stops when you stop working on it. There’s always something you overlooked. It’s a matter of finding things and fixing things.”

He said that he’s thought about whether his age is affecting him behind the wheel, but he’s not a big believer in the theory that birthdays are a major factor. One of his friends once bought him an “Old Guys Rule” t-shirt, but he won’t wear is. “I’m not old,” he insists.

But he acknowledges that there are other factors in play.

“What happens is you lose your passion for it,” he said. “Reaction time diminishes, not with age, but with muscular development.

“The question is whether you want to work 24 hours a day at this or eight. I’m still stuck on 14.”

He said his fun meter still pegs when he’s got tools in his hands, as evidenced by his calloused, oil-stained fingers.

“Anything mechanical is fun to me,” he said. “I like to file and grind and bend and weld.”

He said he sees no end to his enthusiasm for hard work. Anderson, his old understudy, said Johnson will be working up until the time they bury him in the ground.

Johnson laughed when he heard of that remark. “Oh, heck, I’ll probably have to dig the hole myself because they’re too slow digging it,” he said.

In the nitro classes on Saturday, the young guys and gals continued to rule. Defending Atlanta winner Ashley Force Hood remained atop the Funny Car standings while rookie Top Fuel driver Spencer Massey, 26, grabbed his first professional pole in just his seventh try by bumping Morgan Lucas from the No.1 spot. Brandon Bernstein also moved past Lucas into the No. 2 spot. Missing the elimination rounds were Todd Paton, Luigi Novelli and Chris Karamesines in Top Fuel, and Andy Kelley in Funny Car.

Hood said the joy of being No. 1 qualifier was somewhat tempered by the fact that the spot is no assurance of success in the eliminations. And too there’s the driver she faces first round – the formidable Del Worsham, who bumped Kelley from the field to get the 16th and final spot.

“That’s a great team and he’s a great driver,” Hood said of Worsham and his team. “But you have to take the hard guys. There are no easy guys in our field.”

She said the biggest challenge ahead is be simply getting down the track in good shape. “The groove is pretty narrow,” she said. “You can’t make any mistakes. There’s no leeway. You’ve got to keep it where it needs to be.”

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 18 2009
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