Greg Anderson wants Warren Johnson to come out and play.
Four-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Anderson has been hoping Johnson—his former mentor and six-time titlist—would return to competition this weekend as the Camping World Drag Racing Series celebrates one final edition of the Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway.
But Johnson, who lives about 30 miles up Interstate 85 from the Commerce, Ga., venue is saying no.
Johnson is expected to headline the traditional track walk that will allow 250 fans to mingle with past Southern National winners John Force, Antron Brown, Angelle Sampey, Eddie Krawiec, and Anderson, too, as they trek down the storied quarter-mile at “Georgia’s House of Speed.”
But that’s as far as Johnson, 77, will go. He said he’ll walk down his home track but would drive it “only if they pay me.”
“He should. I hope he does. There’s no excuse. He lives right down the road. C’mon,” Anderson said. “That doesn’t make sense to me. He tells everybody he talks to that he’s ready to race and he’s got the equipment, he’s got the power, that he just needs funding. Well, you live 30 miles down the road, so . . . you can do that. Qualifying will pay for it.
“If nothing else, Kurt should be out there. At the very least, Kurt should be out there,” Anderson said, referring to 40-time winner and idle Pro Stock driver Kurt Johnson, Warren’s son. Kurt Johnson trails only Top Fuel veteran Doug Kalitta on the dubious-distinction list of “drivers with the most victories and no title.”
Anderson contended that Kurt Johnson “works in the shop every day. I don’t know what they’re working on. They’re obviously doing something, because they’re living. They’re renting something or selling something to somebody.” Then with a chuckle, he said, “They’re definitely not helping me.”
Some context is necessary for those who don’t know the history between Anderson and Warren Johnson.
Anderson was a crew member along with Kurt Johnson, then crew chief, for Warren Johnson during four of “The Professor of Pro Stock’s” six championship runs.
“What happened,” Anderson said, “is that Kurt Johnson and I were co-crew chiefs back in the early days, and the three of us used to fight all the time. (Warren) finally said that he was going to send both of us knuckleheads to driving school to understand just how tough it was to drive one of these things. He didn’t think we had any idea, and he said it wasn’t easy. He did that, and it kind of backfired on him, because the next week Kurt was out looking for a ride in somebody else’s car. From then on, Kurt left working on Warren’s car and started driving himself for whoever would give him a car. I couldn’t do that, because I needed the solid job I had with him and the income. I had to put it on hold.
“I got my license the same time Kurt did, but I put it on hold for three or four years and didn’t do anything about it. In the meantime, I asked him to let me do some of the testing in his cars. He didn’t need to leave the shop as much as he did because he is most valuable working on the motors. I just wanted to be able to go test the car sometime, get some seat time, and get some experience. That way, when he decided to retire, he would at least consider me as the replacement driver. If I got no experience, he would never consider me. That is what I asked for,” he said.
“He kept promising he would do that and that went on for two or three years. I finally came to the conclusion it would never happen. That’s when I told him I had to leave and try the driving thing on my own. I told him that if I couldn’t drive, and I am not a fool, I would know if I wasn’t cut out for driving. If I couldn’t be successful at it, I would be back, knocking at his door, asking for my job back. That is how it went down,” Anderson said.
It turned out that Anderson was more than good. He earned four titles and set class and NHRA records that remain today. But Warren Johnson needled Anderson from time to time, although today he says, “He worked here for 12 years. He was a good employee. I have absolutely nothing negative to say about Greg. Everybody that’s ever worked for me, I’ve always told them that ‘we’re going to part ways at some point. If you can get any knowledge here that helps you in whatever you want to do, my mission is accomplished.’”
Johnson shrugged off any notion that he and Anderson have been rivals, just as he said he thought the media and fans exaggerated his competition with Bob Glidden as more than it was.
Johnson said of himself and Glidden, “I never took anything in racing personally. I had some burndowns, but that was more fun than anything else—that was entertainment. Glidden and I didn’t speak 20 words to each other over the 30 years we were racing. It’s not that we hated each other. We were two dogs fighting for the same bone. That was the way we made our living. We were so focused on making a living. Doing this was something we enjoyed doing. Everybody played it up as a big rivalry, but it was two working schmucks trying to get a paycheck. That’s all it was.”
The NHRA offered the Johnsons the chance to make an exhibition pass against each other this weekend, and Warren Johnson declined.
“I said, ‘No. That’s impossible to do. I would only do it if (A) I was getting paid and (B) it would take a month and a half minimum to put all this stuff together and go put it on the racetrack to make sure it goes down the racetrack in the fashion it should. I’m not just going out there to ride and embarrass myself.’” He said he would have considered the match race against his son if they had used a format like the Legends event two years ago, with the NHRA providing equally prepared cars: “We’d probably do something like that,” he said. However, that’s not in the works.
Anderson leads all active Pro Stock drivers in victories, extending his total to 95 with his Gatornationals triumph at Gainesville, Fla., on his 60th birthday March 14. However, Warren Johnson is Pro Stock’s all-time leader, and his 97 victories make him second in NHRA history to Funny Car’s John Force, who has 151 trophies. So Anderson has the chance to match or pass Johnson this season. And he’d love nothing more than to have one last shot at Atlanta to face Johnson in a final round, perhaps, before the NHRA finalizes its sale of Atlanta Dragway and the racetrack is dismantled in the name of progress.
“You know, you’d want him to be out here with you. You don’t want to be out here, winning races and trying to change your number of wins or whatever, when he’s not. I’d rather he be out here, doing it at the same time. But I guess he’s older now. But Kurt’s younger than me. He can still do it,” Anderson said.
“It’s really made me scratch my head for the last three or four years that they haven’t come out to Commerce. It’s really made me scratch my head. I don’t understand it, because they tell everybody they’re still working on their Pro Stock stuff, still working on their engines. Got their cars, got their stuff, got their trucks,” he said. “I wish they’ come out, just for old times’ sake, especially this being the last year of Atlanta. That’s certainly a reason for Warren and Kurt to come out. You know they can get [sponsorship] for just one race.”
“I’ve still got three tractor-trailers sitting here. I always kept a spare in case we needed one. None of those has been licensed. That’s $4,000 to license one of those things. I have to put insurance on it. I’ve got one car converted over to the fuel-injection format. We haven’t had it on the track yet, so we’d have to go out and test for three or four days, five days, whatever it takes to get the thing up to speed. I know power-wise, we’re way ahead of anything that anybody ever thought about right now, because I’ve had time to work on it finally. So power’s not the problem,” Warren Johnson said.
Putting that power to the ground, he said, is the issue. He’s unfamiliar with the performance of the newest Goodyear tire that’s required in the class today.
“It was an interesting way to make a living.”
“I can still drive a car. That’s not a problem,” Johnson, who’ll turn 78 in July, said. “Whether I’d be as competitive as I was before we don’t know. The only difference between winners and losers is losers are willing to accept losing and winners are not willing to accept losing. But when you do something for roughly 40 years, seven days a week, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, you just get kind of burned out.
“It was an interesting way to make a living,” he said. “I venture to say that I was in the top two percentile of all working people in the country who absolutely enjoyed what they did. That was not work. It was just the opportunity to succeed. I don’t think I’ve got that much drive in me to do that.”
Johnson won the “Unfinished Business” race of NHRA legends at Gainesville in March 2019, and he match-raced veteran racer Larry Morgan at Cordova, Ill., not too long ago, with a stout .011-second reaction time as his worst light among six launches.
And that’s what Anderson was talking about. Anderson knows Johnson still can give him a thrilling side-by-side race. And with Anderson recognizing that the close of his career possibly could come sooner rather than later, he wanted to wake the echoes cheering Johnson’s fame and their once-intense rivalry – but, Johnson suspected his former protégé is “seeing ghosts.”
Johnson knows he can compete and said, “If I was making money, I’d do it. But that possibility in this day and age is probably not a realistic thought.” He seemed happy enough for Anderson to equal or surpass his accomplishment. “Records are only meant to be broken. If he ends up with more wins, then so be it. I guess I’d have to say I was part of it, because I trained him.”
Anderson continues to push on an off the track. But no one is going to budge Warren Johnson from his position.
“I’ve had a few people that are interested if I want to do it,” Johnson said, “and I told them it’d have to be the right situation: ‘You’d have to have an ROI on this thing, just like I would have to have for my side. I’m not going to do it for free, and you should get a return on it.’ If that situation ever came to pass, yeah, we’d go out there. We’d certainly put Kurt in the car, for damn sure.”
But he said his son “is of the same mindset as I am. We never went to a race that we didn’t think we could win. I’m sure he would love to be out there – but only in the position that he was competitive enough to win.”
All Anderson could do was accept the reality.
“They are surviving,” he said. “Kurt texts once in a while. He seems happy, seems content. Whatever they’re doing, they’re happy with it.”
So no, Warren Johnson won’t melt with sentiment at the notion of a final Southern Nationals. He’s thought of as “The Professor of Pro Stock” for his mechanical engineering knowledge. But he easily could be the “Dean of Pro Stock” for his understanding of economics
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