Warren Johnson's career path in racing very nearly came to NASCAR country long before the Minnesota native came to town for this weekend's Carolina Nationals at zMax Dragway @ Concord.
Johnson, 65, has 96 wins in the National Hot Rod Association's Pro Stock division. That's the most in that class and the second-most all-time in the NHRA's Powerade Series, behind only John Force's 126.
But just as he was beginning to taste that kind of success, Johnson also did some work for another fellow with the same last name.
"I did some engine work for Junior Johnson back in 1976," Warren Johnson said. "I believe he had heard about me from A.J. Foyt, for whom I had also done some work."
Warren Johnson, now known in drag racing circles at "The Professor," began working on part of the power plants for Junior Johnson's stock cars back in Minnesota, while Junior Johnson continued working on the short blocks at his facility in North Carolina.
"At one point, he asked me to join his team on a permanent basis," Warren Johnson said. "However, being from Minnesota, where that type of racing was virtually non-existent, I had already started my career in drag racing, and was just starting to do well, so that's where I stayed.
"Maybe if I had been raised down south, and grown up around stock car racing, my decision might have gone the other way."
Picking a nit, but figuring it will be fixed
The "win" light on the scoreboards at zMax Dragway @ Concord isn't nearly prominent enough.
The light that tells you which lane the winning car was in is supposed to "sparkle." If the sun had been out Thursday you would have needed to be standing under the sign to see it at all.
By Sunday, when those lights will be particularly important during pro eliminations, I'm fairly confident that issue will have been addressed.
Kansan is quickest so far
The quickest pass made Thursday was by Steve Matusek of Lenexa, Kans., in the Competition Eliminator class. He covered the quarter-mile in his turbo-charged car in 6.498 seconds.
More than just a driver's name
Loved looking at some of the names decaled on some of the cars running Thursday in the Competition and Sportsman classes.
"Racin' Jason" and "Flyin' Brian" both were there, as was the "Carolina Kid." Somebody was driving "Mama's Mink" and another car was nicknamed "Lynn's Kitchen." A driver calling himself "Pizza Joe" was in the "Dough Maker."
One team called itself "Mixed Nuts Racing" and another was "Mechanized Maintenance."
One of the cars, driven by David Sampy of Piedmont, Ala., is sponsored by professional golfer Boo Weekley.
And just before 5 p.m., a car rolled up to make a qualifying pass but had to be towed back to the pits behind a golf cart. That car was owned by "The Tax Group."
Carolinas rich in drag racing history
The NHRA will start making its history at zMax Dragway @ Concord when Powerade Series qualifying begins Friday afternoon, but there is a long history of drag racing in the Carolinas.
"We raced at some really interesting places," said Buddy Martin, who along with Ronnie Sox won three NHRA titles with the Sox & Martin team. "We ran tracks where if you didn't get stopped in time, you'd go sightseeing through the trees on top of the mountain and you were just gone.
"We raced on dirt tracks and old airport runways all over the country in those days. Wherever there was racing and some money to be made, that's where we went."
Sox, known as "Mr. 4 Speed" for his shifting prowess, was the first NHRA Pro Stock champion in 1970. His family ran a gas station near Burlington and that served as the base for his racing operation.
Many of the drag strips that existed decades ago, like Shuffletown in Mecklenburg County, are long gone. Rockingham Dragway, however, still hosts major races throughout the year including two International Hot Rod Association national events.
Gene Fulton is just one of the names from South Carolina's history in the sport. Fulton raced around the Spartanburg area, doing a lot of his winning in a 1964 Chevy II station wagon.
"That thing bought and paid for my business," he said of Fulton Competition, which is among the elite engine builders in Pro Modified racing. It was totaled at Bristol when a competitor blindsided Fulton near the finish line.
Fulton took the car home and buried it behind his shop.
"You could probably find at least eight to 10 tracks within a hundred miles of Spartanburg," Fulton added. "I'd run four times a week in the early '70s - Wednesdays at Wadesboro, then Friday, Saturday, Sunday at Spartanburg, Shuffletown, Shelby or wherever. You'd only win about as much as $300, but $300 then is like $1,000 now."