Date published: May 18, 2012
32nd annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals, May 4-6, Atlanta
Since Kurt Johnson burst on to the Pro Stock scene in 1993, the son of famed six-time world champion Warren has been a major presence in factory hot rod competition. He earned rookie of the year honors after winning three events in his debut season; made history with the category's first six-second run, a 6.988, in Englishtown on May 20, 1994; and has recorded 40 national event victories in 78 final-round appearances.
Though lack of sponsorship has forced him and his father to cut back on their racing programs, K.J. has still been a force to be reckoned with, as demonstrated by his most recent runner-up performance, at the 2011 Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals.
Johnson explained how the current financial situation has changed his racing efforts. "One of the biggest things that we've had to cut back is our testing," said Johnson. "It costs $2,500 per day to rent a track, and with the reduction in the size of our team, it takes longer to prepare the car for the next run, so we don't get in as many passes during a given test session. We've also had to reduce the amount of engine dyno work because of the wear and tear on parts."
Though the W.J. Enterprises shop has state-of-the art machining equipment that enables Warren and Kurt to produce their own engines with minimal use of outside vendors, they have many expenses, such as insurance, property taxes, travel costs, and payroll, along with a large number of replacement parts.
"We spend $100,000 a year on valve springs alone," said Johnson. "But even though we don't have a major sponsor at this time, we do get help from associate sponsors like the Mark Christopher Auto Center and Summit, along with product support from Comp Cams, K&N, Cometic, Motive Gear, Boninfante Clutches, Red Line Oil, MSD, Wiseco, and other aftermarket manufacturers. As for a major sponsor, that's something that my dad and I are still working on every day. We want to put ourselves back into the position to where we can take maximum advantage of our resources and experience."
The younger Johnson entered the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals in 14th place in the standings, having qualified for all six of this year's national events. In Atlanta, the All Access team followed his efforts throughout the weekend with his '09 Pontiac GXP.
The goal, as for every other Pro Stock campaigner, is to get down the track in the afternoon session with a solid pass to provide valuable data for the rest of the weekend. K.J.'s car responds well in the opening round with the quickest 60-foot clocking for all the Pro Stockers, a .988, and records a 6.664 at 207.40 mph to place 10th in the field of 20 cars.
"That was a killer 60-foot time," said Johnson. "But in our next increment, the 60-foot-to-330-foot, we fell off with a time of 1.798, which was only 13th-best, and that slowed us down for the rest of the run. So that area is obviously where we have to focus on for the second session."
The Friday-evening pass does not turn out as well for Johnson; his 60-foot time slows to a 1.011, resulting in a 6.688 at 207.56 mph. Johnson drops to 14th, two spots out of the top 12, where he had hoped to be before Saturday's pair of qualifying rounds.
"We were a little bit soft on the clutch in the night session," said Johnson. "We'll try to be more aggressive on Saturday morning."
Though the first Saturday session often has the best atmospheric conditions for the normally aspirated Pro Stockers, such is not the case. "The humidity is about 3 percent higher, which raises the adjusted altitude by at least 100 feet," said Johnson.
Having not qualified in the top 12 on Friday, Johnson's numbers were wiped from the scoreboard, and he is down to two qualifying rounds to make the program. His 6.674, 207.72 puts him into the program in the No. 13 position.
"Even though we put more clutch into our tune-up," said Johnson, "we were still a little soft with a 60-foot time of 1.012. You have to move in small incremental steps when you try to be more aggressive with the clutch because it's very easy to go overcenter. When that happens, you'll Kurt Johnson either have tire spin or tire shake, which can force you to abort the run."
K.J.'s tune-up for the final session produces the desired results, and he is one of the few to improve, making his quickest qualifying run, a 6.661. "That is more of what we we're looking for," said Johnson. "We're still a bit off on the clutch, but our 60-foot time picked up to a .996. What made it even cooler is that we beat Vincent Nobile to the finish line on that pass, and it was the fifth-quickest run of the session. We feel that gives us the data we needed to hopefully improve a bit more for Sunday's eliminations."
By the time that the Pro Stockers come up to the line for their first round, overcast conditions have developed, the corrected altitude has dropped from 3,595 feet to 3,258 feet, and several drivers improve on their qualifying times. K.J. is one and quickens from Saturday evening's 6.661 to a 6.639 and runs more than 208 mph for the first time with a speed of 208.55. But his .070 reaction time is no match for Ronnie Humphrey's near-perfect .003, and K.J.'s Pontiac is put on the trailer.
"The car was definitely better on that pass," said Johnson. "The tires hooked maybe just a bit harder than they should, which caused an initial bounce off the line that kept us from running as quick as a 6.62. But you have to hand it to Ronnie. He's been working very hard to improve on his lights lately, and you can't keep guys like that down for very long. He just did a better job on the starting line, and he deserved the win."
Johnson is correct in his assessment of Humphrey's driving; Humphrey defeats 2009 world champion Mike Edwards on a 6.67 to 6.64 holeshot to advance to the semi's, where he loses to No. 1 qualifier and eventual runner-up Jason Line.
"Obviously, we would have liked to have gone more rounds in front of our hometown fans because we had the car to do it with," said Johnson. "But we were still pleased with the way that we turned things around with our tune-up and how well we ran in comparison with the other teams. We're in the position where we can do some testing before the Topeka event in two weeks, and hopefully, we can carry on with what we were able to accomplish this weekend in Atlanta." ND