BRISTOL — Warren Johnson, the six-time NHRA Pro Stock champion nicknamed The Professor, was inducted into Bristol’s Dragway Legends of Thunder Valley on Sunday morning.
Johnson ranks second as NHRA’s all-time winningest driver. His 97 victories are only behind the 134 wins by Funny Car driver John Force. Johnson won the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in 2002 and 2005.
He called it the ultimate reward to see his name on the Bristol Dragway tower alongside fellow Pro Stock legends Sox & Martin, Top Fuel legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, NHRA founder Wally Parks, IHRA founder Larry Carrier, former dragway president Jeff Byrd and others.
“When you look at the class if you will, it’s humbling,” he said. “When you do something for a living that you enjoy, that part of it you never even think about it. To be recognized for something you’ve enjoyed doing all your life, that’s probably the ultimate reward.”
Besides his NHRA accomplishments, Johnson had 13 wins on the IHRA circuit including six at Bristol Dragway. His Thunder Valley accomplishments are far reaching. His first win at Bristol came in the 1979 IHRA Spring Nationals and he won the pole for the 2008 Ford Thunder Valley Nationals.
“I won my first national event here,” he said. “All I remember is we were running at 2:30 in the morning because of the rain. You couldn’t even see the finish-line clock and you could barely see the eighth-mile. It is ironic I won my first national event here, and then to be up there.”
Still an active competitor, it was otherwise a rough weekend for the 69-year-old racer from Sugar Hill, Ga. Johnson failed to qualify for the Thunder Valley Nationals after problems getting his Pontiac down the track.
His decades in the sport, however, give Johnson a perspective few others enjoy. He ranks the fans as the most important aspect of the sport, then the sponsors and finally the competitors and sanctioning bodies.
Unlike most of the other Thunder Valley legends, Johnson still has racing goals to achieve.
“It’s hard to put into words what it means because everybody up there is recognized for what they’ve done and accomplished,” he said. “I’m still working on trying to accomplish what I want to do. Obviously, I’m honored to be up there and hopefully I’ve been a positive influence on younger kids that you can achieve what you want as long as you put enough effort into it.”
Defending Funny Car champion Jack Beckman was given a special award by the family of the late Shirl Greer, the first NHRA Funny Car champion, before Sunday’s elimination rounds began.
Beckman is a former sergeant in the Air Force and a cancer survivor. He lauded the toughness of Greer, a former Kingsport resident who came back from a vicious wreck in qualifying at the final race of the 1974 season to win the championship the next day.
“I’ll be 47 in a couple of weeks, but the seven-year-old in me, the age when I first when to the races, hasn’t disappeared,” Beckman said. “That hasn’t disappeared when I’m around the pioneers and the legends of the sport. When they were recognizing Shirl in 2009, I didn’t know if I would have the chance again, so I went and introduced myself. It took me from a 40-some year-old dad to a little kid at the ropes in the mid-70s again. The man was just tough as nails, from a different breed, a different generation. It’s a bit surreal to have my name mentioned in the same sentence.”
Allen Johnson, the defending NHRA Pro Stock champion, was also surprised by a special honor. He and his father Roy were presented with the ‘Mopar President’s Award’ by their sponsor for their loyalty and service as a brand ambassadors.
Roy Johnson began a career as a Chrysler dealership mechanic in 1963 and earned two championships as a sportman racer before spending the last 17 years as engine builder for the Johnson & Johnson Racing team which he co-owns with Allen.
Allen Johnson has raced exclusively in Mopar-powered machines over a professional career which has produced 18 national-event victories.
“From them to present an inaugural award after all the great teams who have been with Mopar, it’s just a mind-blowing thing,” Allen Johnson said. “Mopar is a great sponsor and hopefully we can live up to this. They kept it a real big surprise, so it was awesome.”