The Great Pretender



Johnson Hopes Mock Countdown Run Pays Off With Championship

The woman had been crying.

Allen Johnson watched the Christmastime transaction at his Greeneville, Tenn., pawn shop and wondered why the dejected woman with the van full of children waiting outside seemed so desperate. Johnson watched her spread her jewelry on the counter and heard his business partner say he could offer her $25 for the lot.

“She busted out crying even more,” the National Hot Rod Ass’n Pro Stock driver said. “I was about to cry then.”

He followed her outside and said, “Ma’am, I couldn’t help noticing that really bothered you. Does that stuff really mean something to you? What’s up?” She said she was hocking her mother’s jewelry because her husband left, she couldn’t pay her rent and her vehicle needed repairs.

He asked her to wait, sprinted back into the store and returned with her jewelry and $100. Moreover, he invited her to his office and said he would try to help her find a job. After all, Johnson also owns more than 70 gas/quick-stop markets in Eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia, and is landlord to a beauty shop, a massage parlor and several warehouses.

His business partner told him, “You don’t need to be around here because we’d be broke.”

Johnson never saw the woman again.

He can throw that experience into his “No good deed goes unpunished” file. But this season, the driver of the sizzling-hot Team Mopar/J&J Dodge Avenger is no softie. He’s not showing his vulnerable side to any of his competitors.

Johnson capped the Western Swing with his first victory of 2010 at Bandimere Speedway near Denver with a win over Jeg Coughlin. He reached the finals at Houston, Topeka and Norwalk, and by the end of the so-called regular season in Brainerd, Minn., he had achieved a 31-16 win-loss record. Only twice did he qualify worse than fourth and led the field four times.

That’s especially impressive in a season in which Mike Edwards has gobbled most of the goodies — eight victories in nine final-round appearances, 10 No. 1 qualifying positions, and a 42-9 round-win mark.

Despite being runner-up at Topeka to Edwards, Johnson said, “I think we’ve got him caught. We’ve got the added horsepower we’ve found and moved it into our backup engines. We’re just trying to get the car more consistent and not let up.”

That was May 23, and he hasn’t let up since then.

Edwards, he said, “had us all by about 10-15-20 horsepower early in the season and he was making great runs. We’ve gained 15-20 horsepower — and we’re making some good runs, too.”

Thanks to his dad Roy Johnson’s work in the engine shop along with Matt Hensley and Brian Voeck, he said, “Luckily two out of 100 (research-and-development options) worked and we found some horsepower.”

Since locking a Countdown berth in June at Norwalk, Ohio, Allen said he was “pretending (to be) in a mini-Countdown…trying to be aggressive and eliminate mistakes. We’ve done a fair job of it. We had a motor failure in Sonoma, and I thought we had the car to beat there. We’ve just got to be perfect when we get to Indy.” Helping him do that is, he said, “a team that has a lot of hours of experience at the track in the bank.”

Allen Johnson said that when he was a teenager he had no desire to go to a race track. “All I wanted to do was stay home and chase girls, drink beer and raise hell.” Said his dad, “You had to about beat him to make him go.”

When Allen was 17, he and Roy carried the Mopar banner in IHRA competition.

Roy had raced a few NHRA races, but didn’t have the budget to make a permanent switch. His wallet wore out in 1986. Meanwhile, Allen married, became a father and wanted to keep racing while pursuing an accounting degree at East Tennessee State University.

Roy told Allen he was taking on too much, but Allen stubbornly insisted he could handle the load. Roy was stubborn, too.

“I sold the race car and the motor and everything, and he didn’t like me very well,” Roy said. “But I told him, ‘Get your education and money. If you want to race then, we’ll get back together.’ In 1995, he said, ‘I’ve got the money. We’re going racing.’”

For 15 years, Allen Johnson has balanced professional Pro Stock racing with his other businesses. But for years, without much of the factory support Darrell Alderman and Scott Geoffrion enjoyed, he called himself “The Other Dodge Boy.”

And Roy Johnson, as late as 2004, fretted about funding.

“We have very talented people,” Roy Johnson said then. “Allen is very talented, and I don’t think I’m a dummy — I have talents in my hands that nobody else has got. But that don’t go far enough anymore. Younger kids are coming along with engineering degrees and computer degrees, and I’m falling behind. We just need a budget to have more good people. It all comes down to money. You’ve got to have money to pay these people. It doesn’t work any other way.”

Gradually, Chrysler/Mopar increased its funding and today Allen Johnson is the Team Mopar star. He has an agreement with Vinnie Deceglie, who runs Roy ’s Hemi motors. But, Allen said, “It isn’t like we’ve got an in-house deal like Jason (Line) and Greg (Anderson) do. To go out there week in and week out and be able to compete with any of these Pro Stock guys is a feat, because we’re separated by thousandths of a second.”

To race with his father has been special — extra-special since Roy Johnson’s nearly fatal 2007 heart attack in the pits at Phoenix.

“I’ve worked for everything I’ve ever got,” Allen Johnson said. “I built my business on my own. Me and Dad have done this racing deal on our own. It’s like living a dream.”

All that’s missing is an NHRA Pro Stock championship.

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Susan Wade
With 46 years in sports journalism, Susan Wade is a veteran drag-racing writer with 21 seasons at the race track. Capturing the human-interest element is the trademark of the Indianapolis native.