Mike Salinas earned his first NHRA Drag Racing win ever with legendary tuner Alan Johnson at the helm. Salinas began working with Johnson in some capacity when he returned to Top Fuel racing in 2017 and brought him on full time to begin the 2019 campaign. That makes Johnson a rare commodity.
Tuners at major teams may offer guidance to multiple cars when called upon, but they’re ultimately responsible for one team. Johnson tuned Brittany Force from 2016 to 2018 as a tuning consultant with Brian Husen as crew chief. While there he also offered his tuning acumen to other teams, notably Steve Torrence prior to 2017.
Johnson is responsible for one Top Fueler this season: the one driven by Salinas. That is, to state the obvious, significantly easier. He provides more than tuning to the San Jose, Calif. native. Johnson, and this has been true since first signing on with Salinas, spends time adjusting driving habits that range from course correction to burnout procedures.
“One of the biggest problems last year is that I was working with two teams, but the cars were different,” said Johnson. “One was built by JFR and one was built by Morgan Lucas Racing. So, trying to balance and tune two different cars was something I found very difficult. So, you have to completely ignore the results of one car while trying to tune the other one and that’s a tough thing to do. This year, it’s the same car, same driver and that makes it a lot easier to get the car where it needs to be to win.”
That all led to a win at the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. While the mystical nature of arguably the greatest tuner of all time is fun (the term “kingmaker” gets thrown around, though perhaps a gender-neutral term is more applicable in NHRA Drag Racing) sometimes the simple explanations are the best. Johnson gets his dragsters to launch harder than anyone in the sport. Let’s look at the numbers.
Salinas currently leads Top Fuel (alongside Torrence) with an .835-second 60-foot average. That’s .014-second quicker than last year, when he was .006-second slower than class leader Force. Yes, the same Force Johnson tuned. In 2017, Johnson tuned Force to a second-place .841, just a thousandth behind Torrence… who Johnson tuned to a class-leading .843 alongside Force’s identical number.
There’s more to tuning than 60-foot time, of course, but the correlation between quick elapsed times and quick 60-foot times is exceptionally high in nitro categories. Johnson didn’t win a championship with Torrence, but he won with Force and certainly got the job done with Tony Schumacher more times than you can count on one hand.
Salinas has gotten quicker (3.752 e.t. / 2.22% quicker) compared to the class average (3.764 / 1.62% quicker) this season, with the caveats that we’re dealing with a small sample size and we’ve raced in quick locales. Still, that suggests positive things about his driving and the focused attention of Johnson and Husen – not to mention the crew that came over from Force during the offseason.
“When he began driving, he really didn’t have very many runs,” said Johnson about Salinas’ improved driving. “It’s one thing to have runs in a Top Fuel car and it’s another to have runs in a Top Fuel car that runs quick enough to win a championship. They’re two different things because a quick car is much more difficult to drive. He’s done a very good job of coming up to speed on that and in Vegas he was flawless. That’s what it takes and he’s going to be a great driver.”
Chasing a championship became achievable as soon as Salinas hired Johnson. When Johnson brought over his crew and his full attention, it became plausible. Top Fuel is as wide open as it has been since Johnson left Don Schumacher Racing – and the iron remains hot as long as Torrence and company are vulnerable. Expect Salinas to do his best to strike.