At the end of 2001, when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco relinquished its huge involvement in NHRA drag racing, one of the key players in the almighty Top Fuel category who directly felt the loss was Alan Johnson.
The brilliant engine components builder and successful crew chief had just come through four eventful seasons with driver Gary Scelzi, together winning three Top Fuel championships with Team Winston. Their incredible string of record-breaking title campaigns came on the heels of Johnson's tragic visit to the 1996 Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, where his talented brother, Blaine, lost his life in a qualifying accident.
Johnson attempted to continue racing in the fuel categories by striking a deal with Toyota to field a Celica-bodied Funny Car, first driven by Scelzi and later by Bruce Sarver, in 2002. That effort ended after a single season, with Johnson returning to his cylinder head business and occasionally assisting his good friend Jim Head on his Top Fuel operation.
It wasn't until last spring, when Johnson was hired by Don Schumacher to spearhead his son's U.S. Army Top Fuel team, that the California-based tuner returned to the NHRA with both feet, leading Schumacher to a national event win in Joliet in his first race with his new employer.
Since then, Johnson has given Schumacher's team the best chance they've had at a Top Fuel championship since Tony's first and only crown in 1999. Last year, after winning the U.S. Nationals, the U.S. Army car electrified the sport with a string of 4.40 passes late in the season that essentially changed the way business is done in the class, forcing other high-dollar teams to press their combinations to keep up with Johnson's hyper-quick tuneups.
At last week's O'Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals in Bristol, Tenn., the Schumacher/Johnson collaboration netted yet another event title, magnifying the value Johnson has brought to the team and emphasizing his role in giving Schumacher the points lead after six races in 2004.
"When you look at what Alan has done for us, it reminds us all of what he accomplished with Gary Scelzi back in the late '90's and 2000," said Tony Schumacher. "I remember back then how brutal that car was and how nobody wanted to face Gary and Alan on raceday. I think when you talk to the other drivers in the class, they're beginning to feel the way we did back then when we were all trying to figure out how to beat him. We won the championship in 1999, but he and Gary won three in that same period."
"Nobody wins out here by themselves," said Johnson, who gave his driver the tuneup he needed to set a new national elapsed time record, 4.441, last fall. "It's all about having the resources to win from your team owner, having the guys around you that know their jobs and want to do whatever it takes to win, and having a driver who knows what to do in the racecar. Look at last week's final round and you'll see Tony saved the run when we smoked the tires. Sometimes it takes a 4.40 tuneup to win and sometimes it takes a driver who can get the car to the finish line when there's a problem."
They are clearly Top Fuel's superteam as the 2004 schedule moves ahead, but for Alan Johnson, he's experiencing a resurrection of sorts which harkens back to another superteam he proudly led not too many years ago.
Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN and ESPN.com.