For Alan Johnson, The Challenge Is Being Met
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
The victories were stacking up like Canadian cord wood for Alan Johnson. Top Fuel championships, too. The man who drives the cars he built, Tony Schumacher, would be honored with the ultra-prestigeous Driver of the Year Award for 2008.
Presumably, the bank account was faring well, too.
What more could the life-long drag racer want? What could possibly lure him away and do it at a time of life when people tend to settle into comfort zones and hair tends to turn colors?
For Johnson, it was the “C” word.
“I’d say it was the challenge,” Johnson said.
Powerful things, those challenges.
For Johnson, they tore him away from one of the great situations in all of professional sports. But they also appear to have relocated him to another great situation.
Johnson had joined Schumacher and his Don Schumacher Racing team 10 races into the 2003 NHRA season. The team was struggling at the time. It had resources, but no success on the track through the first nine races that year.
Johnson, who owned a Funny Car team, well, his luck was off as well. His team, which had Gary Scelzi in the seat, had lost its sponsorship from Winston in 2001. The following year, it secured a smaller sponsorship, but that only made life more painful for Johnson.
“We couldn’t do it right,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t afford to have the inventory of parts we needed to run competitively on the NHRA circuit, so I gave it up.”
Johnson spent the first part of the ’03 season working with Jim Head’s team.
But about half way through the year, the Schumachers called. They needed a crew chief, Johnson needed a competitive gig.
They reached a deal and, Johnson said, “We brought that thing to life. We won some championships.”
The combo of Johnson and Schumacher did nothing but win championships once they were together full time. They won Top Fuel titles in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. That’s five straight in a class where four straight was a record.
The final one – which turned out to be The final one – was a killer. Schumacher and Johnson won seven races in a row, 15 on the year and put together a streak of 31-straight round wins. Those are all NHRA records.
For the effort, Tony Schumacher became just the third NHRA driver to be honored with a DOTY award by the elite panel of racing journalists that does the voting. John Force and Greg Anderson were the only other winners of DOTY’s from the NHRA in the four decades the award has been in existence.
Late in the year, however, Johnson made the stunning announcement that he was leaving the Schumachers. It was the challenge thing.
“I had a great time over there,” Johnson said. “I can’t remember how many wins but we had a lot of success. It was an exciting experience but there is more to it than just going out there and winning every year. I wanted the challenge of putting my own team together, to see if I could do it and have that kind of success with my own team.”
Johnson was offered the chance to become an owner again. The offer was extended by Sheik Khalid Bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar.
What’s up with that?
“He actually called me,” Johnson said of Sheik Khalid. “It was his desire to go race a Top Fuel and Funny Car. He spent some time researching. He’s been an avid race fan since he was 14 or 15 years old. He loves drag racing. He knows more about it than most people. He’s very into it. So when he decided to race, he looked me up.”
The team launched this season with a two-car, two-driver operation – Larry Dixon in Top Fuel and Del Worsham in Funny Car.
Some figured the merging of West Coast and Middle East would be slow to produce results.
Some figured that Don Schumacher Racing would wither back to the pre-Johnson mediocrity.
Turns out, neither of those things have happened.
The NHRA heads to Topeka this weekend for the O’Reilly Summer Nationals. When it arrives, Schumacher will be the points leader in Top Fuel, having won three times this season with new crew chief Mike Green.
But Johnson and his Al-Anabi Racing has had success as well. Dixon has won one event, the Gatornationals, and Worsham has won the last two, in St. Louis and Bristol, Tenn.
Dixon is sixth in points and Worsham is second, just 57 behind leader Ron Capps.
Johnson said he is not really surprised that his team is winning so soon.
“We expected to put everything we had in it and try as hard as we could,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to predict winning races but the fact that we were able to put a solid team together and have good, solid drivers, obviously we thought our chances were as good as anybody’s of winning early. I would have expected to win the first race, but we didn’t.”
Credit experience, Johnson said of success.
Not just his, but that of Dixon and Worsham. Both are long-timers in the sport. Dixon spent 20 years with Don Prudhomme Racing and won championships there. Worsham had won 24 times in NHRA. He was a U.S. Nationals champion.
“Experience plays a big part,” Johnson said. “I feel like our team has a lot of good personnel. There is enough experience between the three of us and there is no lack of hard work. We have been able to put together what it takes to win.”