NHRA: Johnson’s impact could snap a Coil

You could see Austin Coil bristle when the question was asked. A man of intense pride and accomplishment, perhaps the question was worded poorly, or the context misunderstood completely.

Whatever, there was a moment when slapping the reporter silly crossed his mind. He might never admit to it, but that’s not what his eyes said.

“I’ve won 16 championships,” said Coil, who won 14 since joining John Force to become the most dominant crew chief/driver combination in racing history. “How many has he won?”

He, in this case, was Alan Johnson, the crew chief for Tony Schumacher. The question was whether Johnson might not be the best tuner in the history of the Top Fuel dragster category. At least, that’s what the question was supposed to be.

Under Johnson’s tuning fork and a harmonic convergence of competence and chemistry, last year Tony Schumacher feasted on the single-season record book with 15 victories in 24 events, 76 round wins, and a championship season that was analagous to Secretariat’s performance at the Belmont Stakes. It made Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR title over Carl Edwards look like a photo finish.

If you ever wanted a sure thing, that team was it. Schumacher deserved all the credit in the world for his role in bringing the U.S. Army its fifth consecutive championship. But Schumacher won’t hesitate to say how big a role Alan Johnson played in it.

Johnson has always been an impact player. Schumacher struggled in nine events in 2003, then won in the first after Johnson was hired. That’s clout.

Johnson’s decision to form his own team, Alan Johnson’s Al-Anabi Racing, is backed by a rich sheik (aren’t they all?) from Qatar. It’s good for the sport. The more new owners, the better, especially well-funded ones. And here’s hoping those getting by on a shoestring eventually start rubbing elbows with sultan royalty as well.

So powerful was Johnson’s reputation that all but one team member left the Army team to go with him. Johnson then hired the last driver to win a top fuel championship not named Schumacher: Larry Dixon.

“I know what an impact Dick LaHaie made for me,” said Dixon, talking about the importance of a great tuner. Dixon won back-to-back championships and is third all-time with 44 top fuel victories, including the 2008 season-ending Auto Club Finals at Pomona — his finale with owner Don Prudhomme — as well as his third race this season wearing Johnson’s maroon and gold.

On the career tote board, Dixon trails only Schumacher (58) and International Motorsports Hall of Famer Joe Amato (52) in total victories, and Dixon’s team should only get better.

Johnson’s move into ownership has already had a profound impact on the division, although maybe not for the reasons we thought. The expectation was that Dixon would roll. Yet it appears some of the other runners have stepped up their game to combat an Al-Anabi anihilation.

Heading into this weekend’s NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn., there have been five winners in seven races. Dixon is only sixth in the points. He has one victory, half as many as Schumacher, who is now being tuned by Mike Green.

Schumacher, who looked forward to stepping up as a leader within his team — and has done so brilliantly — is second in the points to Antron Brown. Both Schumacher and Brown — who also has two victories — have been fantastic as most expected the Dixon/Johnson connection to clean up.

“Alan Johnson has won championships with whoever was driving his car, whether it was his brother (Blaine Johson, (Gary) Scelzi or Tony,” Dixon said. “It goes back to the horse and jockey theory.”

That theory is that every jockey needs a horse, and you don’t win a drag race without a great car. Ron Turcotte needed Secretariat more than Secretariat needed Ron Turcotte to win the 1973 Triple Crown with back-to-back-to-back record performances.

Johnson won four Top Alchohol Dragster championships with Blaine, who was on his way to the Top  Fuel in 1996 when he was killed at Indianapolis. Alan Johnson won three titles with Scelzi, 1997-98, and 2000.

Including last season with Schumacher, Johnson has tuned eight Nitromethane champions in 12 years. It’s not quite Coil-like, but it’s darn impressive that it came with different teams, drivers and resources.

The saving grace for the rest of the Top Fuel category in 2009 was supposed to be that Johnson A) left the technical information in the Army Racing hard drive, and B) planned to devote most of his direct attention to a first-year Funny Car program and driver Del Worsham. Yet here’s a tidbit overlooked in the drama of last year’s funny Car finale: The body of Cruz Pedregon’s title-winning Toyota was designed by Johnson.

He knows what he’s doing. Worsham, who won only once in the previous three years, won the most recent event, in St. Louis.

One thing is certain. Austin Coil and Alan Johnson have few peers in their craft.

And there’s no bristling at that notion.


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