ACDelco’s Johnson takes aim at Gatornationals victory
Florida’s warm climate and Southern charm combined with great on-track action and 40 years steeped with history and performance milestones have made the ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals one of the must-see events of every NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season, with racers and fans alike looking forward to the first East Coast national event of the season. Pro Stock driver Kurt Johnson is among those who look forward to the trip to Florida each season, and in addition to the history and warm weather that accompany the event, when ACDelco assumed title-rights sponsorship of the race in 2006, the Gatornationals became an even bigger event for the 45-year-old racer; the urgency to be at the top of his game and run at the front of the pack became a greater priority at Gainesville Raceway than ever before.
“It seems that we try twice as hard when we go to the ACDelco races,” Johnson said. “We’ve struggled a couple of years at Gainesville. Then, in 2005, we won the ACDelco race in Las Vegas, so it’s been a mixed bag of tricks for us. At the same time, we’re going to do everything we can to pull out a win at the ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals. There are going to be a lot of great customers there who buy our products, and that’s what it’s all about - marketing high-quality ACDelco parts and services. We’re going to do all we can to win this thing.”
Johnson has been going to Gainesville Raceway since 1976, when he made the long trek south from Minnesota with his dad, Warren, and his mom, Arlene, and since that trip to the Gatornationals more than 30 years ago, the veteran Pro Stock driver has understood the appeal and excitement surrounding the Gatornationals.
“Everybody is tired of the winter; they want to see sunshine and great drag racing, and the ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals is the perfect place for that,” Johnson said. “The fans are excited. They want to see those boards light up with a great number. You have a lot of barometer at Gainesville, which helps these Pro Stock cars run fast if the air is right.
“When you leave Minnesota, you have cold and snow and slush, and then you hit the Florida border, and you’re looking at oranges and grapefruits and warm climate. My first time at the Gatornationals, I thought it was cool. It was the first time I had been in Florida or that far south - I was digging it.”
Johnson’s first Gatornationals as a Pro Stock driver was during his rookie season, in 1993, and admittedly, it was a memorable race, but for all the wrong reasons.
“There was a lot going on at that race,” Johnson said. “We borrowed a Cutlass from Gary Chimeri that was one of Dad’s old cars. We qualified, and I think we blew up some motors, too, but it was a good car. I was a little hard on equipment at that time in my career. I lost to Larry Morgan in the second round. The Scribner brothers were helping me, and I was using Dad’s motors. I was getting a lot of help from a lot of people.”
In 1999, Johnson advanced to his first Gatornationals final round when, after qualifying No. 2, he defeated Hurley Blakeney, Morgan, and Troy Coughlin before losing to his dad in the championship heat. Four years later, in 2003, Johnson captured his first Gatornationals victory with a pair of decisive round-wins against Greg Anderson in the semifinals and Jeg Coughlin in the final.
“That was a great day,” Johnson said. “Greg was running good and was tough, and then to get by Jeg Coughlin in the final took about everything we had. I was good on the Tree in those two rounds, .013 against Greg and .016 against Jeg, but that’s what it takes to win a national event: not only running fast on the track but also letting out the clutch on time. The 2003 Gatornationals was a special race to win [because] the whole family was there, Kathy, Erin, Conner, and Jarrett.”
Since making his Pro Stock debut in 1993, Johnson has won 39 national events, earned 29 No. 1 qualifying awards, and 16 top 10 points finishes, 13 of which were in the top five. In fact, Johnson has never finished outside of the top 10 during his career and has averaged a fourth-place points finish in his 16-year career. The resident of Lawrenceville, Ga., has also won at least one race every year since 1995 (the longest current streak in NHRA Pro Stock), and his 507 round-wins are second among full-time, active Pro Stock drivers only to those of his six-time NHRA Pro Stock world championship father.
“It takes everybody at the shop in Sugar Hill to create a winning program,” Johnson said. “There are 12 of us that work on the two cars. Justin Belfance primarily takes care of the clutch and the transmission and that particular part of the car when we get to the track, but he oversees pretty much everything at the shop as far as getting the ACDelco Chevrolet ready for competition. Bobby Wunderlich does the back half, including tires and rear-end gears, and Mike Smith tunes the motors and works between both cars. Then we have Randy Chambers and Adam Drzayich off of Dad’s team, who came over and helped out at Phoenix, with Dad overlooking everything. Greg Pitts orders all the parts and anything else we might need, Craig Cash and Ronnie Seeger do the CNC work, Mom takes care of the administrative stuff, and Kathy is a big help when the kids are in school.”
The team’s hard work is already paying off this year. At the series’ last event in Phoenix, the ACDelco Chevrolet driver rebounded off a disappointing season opener in Pomona to advance to his 74th final round.
“We had four strong qualifying runs in Phoenix where we learned something every time out,” said Johnson, who is in sixth place in the Full Throttle standings. “On Sunday, we continued to improve as the day went along. We did everything except win the race, and we came awfully close to doing that. We feel really good right now, and obviously, we would have felt better if we would have won, but it was an upward stroke, and with a little more testing and fine-tuning, I think we can do some damage in Gainesville.
“Once you get to the racetrack, you only have so much horsepower, so lately we’ve looked at trying to make better runs, maximizing the horsepower that we have. You have to make everything work in sync.”
Johnson hopes to carry the momentum he gained in Phoenix into Gainesville, but he knows that the competition will be tough and that he and his ACDelco team will need to be on their game if they hope to score another Gainesville Wally.
“With the number of terrific teams that will be on hand at Gainesville Raceway fighting for the 16 qualifying spots, we can’t leave anything to chance,” Johnson said. “You have to be on your game for all four qualifying sessions, and it’s going to take a good hit right out of the box. We want to win one of these — preferably the ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals — and then we’ll see what happens after that.”