50 Years Later: The Professor Reflects on his Indy Debut

The upcoming Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals will mark the 50th anniversary of legendary Pro Stock racer Warren Johnson’s 1971 debut at the esteemed event. In honor of this Golden Anniversary, we dove back into the notes taken while writing his biography to share a little about his experience.

Johnson explained that he had already gotten some of his best “driver training” on the UDRA circuit, where less-than-ideal track conditions demanded active participation from drivers. As his comfortability with his Chevrolet Camaro developed, Johnson saw NHRA as another potentially viable sector. He scheduled his debut for the 1971 U.S. Nationals, an event that brought more cars to the starting line than any other drag race in the country.

“Oh no, I wasn’t nervous,” said Johnson with a shake of the head when asked. “Nervousness is usually the result of a lack of preparation, and being nervous is nothing but a waste of time and energy anyway. But I wouldn’t say I was overly confident, either. Back then, you had all the Mopar factory teams and what not, and I was just some schmuck from up in the Northwoods. By anyone else’s standards, I shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But I figured that they put their pants on the same way I do.”

Warren Johnson goes through tech at the 1971 U.S. Nationals, where he made his NHRA Pro Stock debut.

Once they were on-site at what was then known as Indianapolis Raceway Park, WJ and his wife, Arlene, settled into the campground for the weekend with fellow Minnesota racers, pitching tents that would serve as functional and reasonably priced accommodations.

His first NHRA event and U.S. Nationals debut yielded less than stellar results – Johnson qualified No. 28 for the 32-car field and was ousted in the first round by Don Grotheer – but the ‘schmuck from up in the Northwoods’ had his foot in the door and was quickly learning the territory.

“That first trip to Indy was part of the learning curve,” said Johnson. “You have to learn how to race, and you have to learn what you need to do to win. I wasn’t a crew chief for somebody for a dozen years, so I had to learn everything about the racing business at my own expense. That first race at Indy was just part of the process.”

For those fortunate to be part of the U.S. Nationals in its heyday, an impression was made that sometimes set the bar unreasonably high. The impact of Johnson’s first Indy experience was lasting, though he didn’t enter that first NHRA event with exorbitant expectations.

“It was just another place to race for me,” he said. “I wasn’t evaluating sanctioning bodies or anything like that, I was just looking for new places to race. Having never been there before, I didn’t know what to expect. I may have read about it here or there, but in reality, it was just one of the closer venues for me, and it fit my schedule.

“What really sticks out in my mind is the sheer volume of competitors in all categories. But back then, it was a lot more affordable to dabble in drag racing. Travel didn’t cost near what it does today, and very few people had tractor trailers or big set-ups like that. People would haul on flat-bed trailers, and there were a few enclosed trucks and a lot of box trailers.”

Johnson’s first Indy win came in 1984, behind the wheel of his boxy 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass. The victory was particularly memorable as it came with a final-round defeat of Indiana native and archrival Bob Glidden, who already had five U.S. Nationals trophies on the mantel at the time.

WJ at Indy on the 30th anniversary of his Pro Stock debut in 2001. This photo is one of many amazing shots provided by Auto Imagery for the book “Drag Racing’s Warren ‘The Professor’ Johnson,” available through CarTech Books.

In all, Johnson won the U.S. Nationals six times (1984, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1999). At the time of his departure from driving in 2014, only one Pro Stock racer – nine-time Indy winner Glidden – had more success at drag racing’s most historic event.

Portions of this story and much more can be found in Drag Racing’s Warren “The Professor” Johnson, available online through the publisher, CarTech Books, here.

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