The following article originally appeared in the May issue of RACER magazine. -Ed.
It takes a rare kind of investor to plunge into high-profile motorsport team ownership during an economic meltdown. It takes a rare kind of engineer to turn his back on a dominant partnership he formed with a driver that yielded five consecutive championships. It takes a rare kind of driver to quit a legendary team with whom he scored two titles in order to put his reputation in the hands of a start-up outfit. And it takes a rare breed of driver to be so decisive after losing a sponsor he approaches the aforementioned engineer to say, “I’d like to race for you.”
But then Alan Johnson Al-Anabi Racing is a rare kind of team. His Highness Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar wanted the best of everything when he set a goal of “promoting the domestic and international awareness of motorsports in the nation of Qatar” and that could be what he gets from partnership with Alan Johnson. As His Highness observed: “Alan has a will to win and a competitive zeal that comes from Alan’s own person. He doesn’t need motivation to succeed, he was born with it. He is the most knowledgeable person on the track on Sunday. That is who I want representing Al-Anabi Racing.”
Johnson leapt at the chance. Having won the last five Top Fuel titles as crew chief for Tony Schumacher [and three with Gary Scelzi between 1997 and 2000], he was in the final year of his contract with Don Schumacher Racing and was yearning to return to running his own team.
“It was never my intention to spend the rest of my career at DSR,” says Johnson. “It was only ever an interim thing. They had needed someone to take over the U.S. Army Top Fuel car at the same time as I found myself without a sponsor and therefore unable to field my own team as I had for the previous five or six years. So, as soon as the right circumstances came about, which they have, I was inclined to start my own team again. We have a partnership from Sheikh Khalid, and he’s provided the financial circumstances to run the car properly. Now we have the ultimate challenge of building up our own team and running for the championship.”
It says much for Johnson’s leadership skills that those who worked under him on Schumacher’s car went with him. That was one of the clinchers for another of the integral parts of the new team – its Top Fuel driver.
Larry Dixon says: “I didn’t know Alan very well, but I knew his brother from racing against him, I knew his parents and his sister. I also knew that all but one of the U.S. Army team who’d worked for Alan had moved with him, and Chad Head, who worked at the Indy Racing League, had left to go work with Alan. So though I didn’t know Alan very well, I had enough faith in the judgment of all those people that he’s a guy I’d want to work for.”
The 2002 and ’03 Top Fuel champ, whose title runs in ’05 and ’08 were washed away by the Schumacher/Johnson tsunami, won’t deny that the resumé of the most decorated crew chief in NHRA history was enticing, too.
“Alan’s credentials are the strongest of any dragster team in the history of the sport, and obviously that made it very appealing, but him asking me to be part of his program for the long term… that’s what clinched it for me. I’d been at Don Prudhomme’s for a long period of time [20 years!] and I expected my next career step would be team ownership, like Tony Pedregon did after driving for John Force for so long. But then this opportunity came up and it just made 100 percent sense.
“I was under contract with Prudhomme, but Alan had asked if I was available. Well, it was up to me to make myself available, and to cut a long story short, I ended up buying myself out of the contract with Prudhomme.”
For Funny Car-driving teammate Del Worsham, there was more opportunism involved. The announcement of Al-Anabi Alan Johnson Racing’s formation came mere days after Worsham learned his family-run team was losing its main sponsor. A brief conversation with Johnson at the U.S. Nationals last August, a brief phone call between them the following week, and suddenly Del held the golden ticket. “I bet you we didn’t talk for a total of 15 minutes before we’d committed to each other,” smiles Worsham, who as recently as 2004 was runner-up for the Funny Car title but who last year finished only 13th in the points. He already appreciates the vastly differing circumstances of his environment.
“We had some great years, my dad and I – 2001-’04 we won 20 races – and we never felt at a disadvantage. But from 2005, racing costs escalated massively, and our sponsors were already signed so I couldn’t go back to them and say we wanted more. We had to make do with what we had.
“Al-Anabi Racing wants for nothing, financially. When we find something is better or something needs to be done, there’s no question whatsoever about doing it. If we got in a situation where we had to risk blowing an engine in order to win the race, then that’s what we’d do. We have the parts to cover the consequences. Whereas in my car, after blowing a couple of engines, I’d definitely be looking ahead… This team definitely has a deeper arsenal than we had.”
Worsham confirms that a weight of responsibility being lifted should have a positive effect on his performance. “I think I’ll be a better driver than I have been the last few years. Being able to just concentrate on driving is such a difference. At Phoenix this year, we smoked the tires all day Saturday, and in the past, in that situation, I’d have just been a nervous wreck on Sunday, thinking about how we’re gonna get this car down the track. But in Phoenix, I could just get in and drive, because I wasn’t having to think like a crew chief or a team owner or the guy chasing the sponsors.
“It’s hard to say this early in the year how it’s going to shake down, but from what I’ve seen in the first two months, my confidence level is such that I can say we could be fighting for the Funny Car championship this year.”
Given Johnson’s heritage and Dixon’s own history, even more is expected of the Top Fuel half of the team. Johnson states: “There’s nothing that should be holding us back. We have the same personnel who worked on the Army car, I’ll be there, and Larry Dixon is a proven champion.
Obviously when you start a brand-new race team you’ve got all new parts, transporters, shop, and so on, so there are a lot of things for you to work out. We had a little bit of bad luck at the start of the year, but we’re gonna work through that and when it comes down to the important part of the year, the Countdown for the Championship, I feel very confident that both cars will be competitive enough to race for their respective titles.
“Performance-wise there is a whole group of cars that are quick enough to compete for the Top Fuel championship. So, ultimately, it comes down to which team makes the fewest errors on Sunday.”
Given that he’s left the (relative) comfort zone of Don Schumacher Racing to become a team owner again, and given that his partner has huge expectations, you might expect Johnson to feel some extra pressure. He does – but it comes from within, as Sheikh Khalid alluded to.
“His Highness wouldn’t have come on board and invested his part of the partnership if he didn’t think that we had a chance of being championship contenders,” states Johnson, “but he won’t apply any more pressure on us than we already apply to ourselves, because we know how good we can be and we know it’s up to us to prove it.”NO COMPROMISES
Running a single Top Fuel car and a single Funny Car side by side isn’t the compromise that it sounds. For one thing, there is 75 percent interchangeability in parts. Secondly, with someone of Alan Johnson’s expertise, he can and does use information from one to the other.
Says Del Worsham: “A Top Fuel and a Funny Car obviously load differently, so all your numbers are different; but track conditions are the same for both, and if one of us makes a good run, Alan can use information on the other car. I’ve already seen him, after Larry [Dixon] or I have made a run, download the data transponder to see what the engine did and then translate it to the other car.”
Johnson himself adds: “Most parts are interchangeable except for the chassis. They run the same clutch, same supercharger, same engine… So once we get setups fine-tuned – and they’re both already competitive – then we’ll pool information.”
As a former owner/driver, Worsham observes: “This situation is probably not a lot different from running two Funny Cars. Despite the exact same parts, you still have to tune them differently. So pulling information from each car helps a lot. I’ve been asked whether a one-car Funny Car team can compete with John Force’s four-car team but, in reality, Larry and I can play off each other. We really should be considered a two-car team.”Words by David Malsher
Photos by Marc Gewertz