eigning NHRA Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson grew up in Duluth, Minn., and got his start in drag racing by helping his father campaign regionally with a 68 Barracuda Hemi car in both Super Stock A and B Modified Production. Heck, when I was 10 years old I was on the racetrack with him, carrying water buckets to cool down the car between runs, Anderson recalls. Thats where I learned and thats where I progressed for four or five years.
Anderson has certainly continued that progression up to the present, where he is well on the way to defending his POWERade crown after winning nine of 12 events in the first half of this season. Early in June, Anderson sat down with DRO at his Mooresville, NC-based shop for an in-depth discussion of his career and the current issues facing drag racing and Pro Stock in particular. Here, in Part I, Anderson describes his career development and how he came to build a championship-caliber team
Anderson: My dad pulled back when he knew the cost and the time for travel was starting to get crazy. He was trying to raise four children and it was tough to do that. But when he pulled back I decided that I didnt want to pull back. So he got me hooked up with a good personal friend of his by the name of John Hagen, which was in 78 or 79. I raced with John who ran Pro Stock in Division 5 against Warren Johnson.
DRO: How old were you at the time?
Anderson: I was probably 16 years old. In between school and weekends Id run down there and work with him part-time and during the summer when I was out of school I went to races with John Hagen and as soon as I graduated I started doing it full time.
John was killed in 1983 at the national event in Brainerd. I was there, I was part of his crew, and I saw it first hand right in front of my eyes and it certainly knocked the wind out of my sails. That was the toughest thing I had ever been through in my life. It knocked the desire to do it right out of me for the next couple of years. For a couple of years I went back to work at my fathers car lot and just worked on used cars. My father had a used-car lot and I would do all the service work on the cars, engine work, body work, whatever it took to fix up and sell the used cars.
I did that for a couple of years until I was at the Brainerd national event in 1986 and I ran into Kurt and Warren (Johnson) and he asked if I was interested in getting back into the sport. We had been racing against them. They were the two main rivals in division 5, Warren and John, they kinda swapped off and would win races between the two of them.
DRO: So you never went to college?
Anderson: Never went to a university, never went to a college. Graduated high school and as soon as I graduated high school I knew what I wanted to do and that was race. I started working full-time Pro Stock racing then. Working on cars and working on clutches and rear ends, though I never did a lot of motor work. I was a mechanical guy that did a lot of work on cars whether it was street cars or race cars. Thats where it all started.
When I talked to Kurt a couple of years later he asked if I wanted to get back involved and I said you know maybe it is time to come back in. I had decided when I went away from the sport, if I ever did it again it was going to be with one of the funded top teams. There were only three or four back then, Morrison, Glidden, Warren, and one or two more.
I had learned racing with John Hagen when he was out competing with these guys, he did really well, but it was always a struggle because we werent heavily funded. We didnt have sponsorship back then. I decided right then that if I ever got back into it would be with one of the top teams that had sponsorship and could do it properly. Otherwise, youre just beating your head up against a wall. I learned that at a young age and the opportunity with Warren set the mold.
I was with Warren at the end of 86. I went down, checked the shop out, and I was impressed so I thought I would give it a whirl. So I called my father, told him I was moving to Atlanta, going racing and he said, Im behind you all of the way. If thats what you want to do, Im behind you all the way. It was tough on him because I did a lot of work at his car lot for him, but it was what I wanted to do. It was what my father introduced to me; the drag racing got into my blood. Ive never been a day away from the racetrack since then.
DRO: Were you married at that time?
Anderson: No, I was single up until six years ago. I lived a single life and to be honest with you, racing with Warren and traveling and working on the cars, that was a seven-day-a-week job. It was tough for people to be married. I saw that part of it; it was hard to take care of your family.
For a lot of years until I finally decided it was time, I stayed single just because it was better for that particular job. You could devote more time to it and you werent cheating your family. I held off until I was 37 years old before I finally got married.
Things are great now, I have and wonderful wife and great children, but a lot of guys still pay the price because we work so much and travel so much. We work in the darn shop seven days a week. Even on our off weekends when were not racing were here working at the shop. Through all those years with Warren I learned that you win the races at the shop. All the preparation you do at the shop, thats where the race is probably won or lost. When you go to the racetrack you have to execute and everything has to go perfectly for you to win the race, but if you show up without your ducks in a row, without power, without your car right, youre not going to do anything.
DRO: When did you decide to leave Warren and what led up to that?
Anderson: I never really thought I would leave Warren. I loved it there. He has a great facility, every bit as nice as this right here and I knew that nobody else in the class had that type facility and that type machinery at their fingertips. I felt lucky to have all this stuff at my fingertips. Every day youd come to work and do something different. Youd learn every day. You had the professor and all the equipment to learn on and it was a neat play shop. You wanted to go to work every day, it was neat and you had fun and you won races. Thats what the bottom line is, I love winning races. We didnt go to a race ever thinking we werent going to win.
I worked for Warren for many years, but never had the desire to drive. I was happy just working on the cars. Kurt and Warren and myself would work on Warrens car in the early years there, and bottom line, there were three of us and we all had our own opinions and our own ideas. We just flat didnt agree on much. We were different type people. Over the years I had gained confidence and I would put my two cents in and of course they were the bosses, they were the men, the guys, and they had their two cents. When we got to where it was the three of us with different ideas we would fight and talk and couldnt come to a good in the middle agreement. And we struggled for a bit.
Kurt and I would always pick on the one that lost the race because he was late all the time. How come you cant have better reaction time? How come you did this? How come you did that? We didnt know any better; we had never driven one of these things you know. So finally, after years of this, Warren said, Thats it! Im tired of listening to you guys tell me how easy this is, why dont I do this, and why dont I do that? Im sending both of you guys to Roy Hills Drag Racing School. Youre going to get in these cars and youre going to see just how hard it is to drive these damn things. And also that should help you to tune these cars better because youll see it from both sides and if you see it from both sides then youll understand whats going on with these cars.
So, it was his idea to send us to Roys school. It was back in 91, 92, or 93. I should remember the year, but thats when he sent us. We went a week apart; Kurt went the first week, I went the next, and both of us from the day we came home from that school knew we wanted to drive a Pro Stock car. Hes what started it all. We probably both had somewhere in the back of our minds maybe the hope that someday we would drive a car, but it wasnt a priority. But ever since we went to that school we got the bug and it wasnt a matter of weeks when Kurt got out of school he went and found him a ride. He just had to do it. He got a ride from the Scrimner brothers and another ride from Jerry Haas or somebody the next race. He just begged, borrowed, or stole and got rides in each race and thats how Kurt got started.
DRO: Did you start looking for a ride right away, too?
Anderson: Well, I just couldnt do that. I was working on Warrens car full time and I didnt have the leverage to do that. I kind of had to bide my time and hope that one day I would get the opportunity. My hope was that one day I would get the opportunity to drive Warrens car; that someday he would retire. He was getting on up in age, even back then, and many times he said that he didnt want to do this any more and wanted to put someone else in the car. That went on for years and years when he said that.
I kept thinking that could be me, and I finally came to him and told him, Look, I want the opportunity to do this or to take over for you when you pull out, but I know that youre not going to consider me if I have no previous experience when it comes time to make that decision. Somehow in the next couple of years I need to start getting some experience.
So I asked him if it would be all right for me to be doing some of the testing of his car when we go out and make some test laps, so he could stay in the shop more, where he is more valuable. He kinda agreed to that, but as the years went on it never happened. Time just went on and Kurt had become a full-time racer by then and I came to the conclusion that there is already two here and theres not going to be three. And I had heard Warren say for years that he was going to quit driving, but I finally realized hell be in the grave before that happens. So I finally decided that if I do want to try this, at least see if I can really do it, Ill have to go elsewhere to do it.
I met my wife about the same time and her father Troy Humphrey raced Pro Stock part-time. He had Ricky Smith and Mike Bell driving his car for a couple of years each. When I married Kim he offered me an opportunity to come drive his car. That would have been in 98 when Mike Bell was still driving his car and Troy said hed run two cars with him in one and Mike Bell and I both drove for about a half of a season in the other one and then Mike moved on somewhere else and I took over Troys car. That was my opportunity, thats where it started and hey, Ill be the first to admit that when I started I stunk. I wasnt any good at it.
DRO: When did the decision come to put together your own team?
Anderson: A couple of years later, I raced for my father-in-law a couple of years and we just couldnt find any kind of sponsorship and we couldnt race but six or seven times a year with the budget we had and we couldnt compete.
DRO: Were you at least qualifying?
Anderson: Sporadically, not every race, but I was qualifying at some. The next year I was qualifying most of the time, but not able to win any races or anything like that. Then the last year of the arrangement with my father-in-law we joined up with Mark Pawuk and ran a second car for Mark. Troy still had his truck and trailer and I drove the car, but I actually helped Mark and that was when he brought in Rob Downey as his crew chief. He kinda brought me in to bring Rob up to speed faster. So for a year I helped Mark and drove Marks second car. That was 2000 and we did not win a race, but we did get three or four runner-ups. So I could see that I was progressing and getting better. I told Warren the day I walked out, that if I go and see that Im not cut out to do this, Ill be back knocking on your door within a month wanting my old job back and Ill be satisfied the rest of my career working on your car.
I didnt have any success to start with, but I could see that each time I went somewhere and got in a car I progressed. If I hadnt seen that progression, then I would have bailed out.
DRO: But you were getting more comfortable.
Anderson: Yeah I was getting more comfortable.
Things were getting better and the next year I moved on to a position with George
Marnell as his crew chief and the races that Troy wanted to run, we got a motor
from George, just like we had been doing previously with Mark. We were using
Bob Ingalls motors. That was sort of a tie in; you go work on their car
and in the meantime help them race this year. Ill foot the bill for the
travel and the motor rental and whatever it takes, and youll still work
for them and drive my car, so thats how that worked.
In that year with George, Ken Black was a partner with George. I worked 2001 as a crew chief on Georges car and drove Georges second car, which was the black Firebird and we won two races, at Bristol and Indy.
DRO: Is that when you first met Ken Black? (Editors note: Ken Black is the owner of Vegas General Construction, Andersons primary sponsor before he signed on with Summit Racing Equipment shortly after this interview was taped.)
Anderson: Yeah, things were really progressing then and getting better and thats where I met Ken and Ken decided, Ive been doing this deal with George for six years and really never had any success, any race wins. Then this knucklehead comes in here and within the first year with our backup car he wins the biggest race of the year. Maybe I need to start something with this guy. Thats how it all transpired. It was kind of a rough deal for George because at the end of the year Ken told him he was going to go his separate way and start his own team and he was going to take me as a driver. So George kinda felt stabbed in the back because Ken took me away from him.
But Ken had done it for six years already for George and he was really on his last year. He was ready to retire; he had had enough and had spent enough money and when this all happened Kens son got interested. He was the one that convinced Ken to go on his own and start his own team. It really wasnt Kens decision on his own.
He had nothing against George and I surely didnt try to steal Ken away from George; it was all their deal and they begged me to come drive their car. In 2002 we started up our own team with
Ken Black Jr. and Sr. as team owners. We bought all new equipment and new racecars and moved to Charlotte and set up a shop in part of the Jerico Transmissions building.
DRO: What made you choose Charlotte?
Anderson: I moved to Charlotte because where I was living in Jacksonville, NC, it was on the coast where theres not even a freeway within an hour from there. It was too hard to drive in and out of and too hard to fly in and out of. We had to drive two hours to Raleigh just to get an airplane. It was just too hard getting in and out of the city; you couldnt find any kind of racing part around town; and every time you needed something you had to call around the country and get it shipped in next day or two-day or whatever it took. I finally came to the conclusion that if I was going to do this full time and for a living and do it right, I needed to be somewhere more centrally located where I can have access to race parts.
One of the considerations was Atlanta because I had several good years there with Warren. It was a good place to race from, Indy was a good place, or Charlotte was a good place, and Charlotte happened to be closer to my wifes family so we elected to come here. When I came here I got lucky with who I ran into with Jason Line and Joe Hornick, my two head engine builders. I met them by accident.
They worked for Joe Gibbs Racing and heard that a drag racer came to town, so they came over and met me one night just to see the operation because they are old drag racers. They were working in Winston Cup then, but finally, when a drag racer came to town they had an interest again. Thats where it all started with them. Theyve been great for me; they have great knowledge from their years of working in the Winston Cup world with the big budget theyve got over there. Its really been great for me. This location has ended up being good for a lot of reasons, not just the travel coming in and out of here.
DRO: How did it feel to finally be a full-time Pro Stock racer?
Anderson: It was great. The first year with Ken Black Jr. and Sr. I won two races, had several runner ups, and finished third in points, so obviously we were on the right track. I had a great team owner who really didnt try to scrimp on things. We didnt squander money; we didnt throw a lot of money away; but he spent what it took to do the thing.
The next year I completely changed my crew. I brought in Rob Downing and Jeff Perley. I had had Mike Stryker and Pat Barrett, who were both Warren Johnson disciples, just like I was. They were great guys, smart guys, and they were great car tuners and track tuners, but for some reason we just didnt gel. We didnt hang out together or socialize together; the chemistry just wasnt there. We had finished third and everybody saw how we got better as the year went on and that we were going to be a heck of a threat the next year and then I completely changed the whole team for the next year. It was a risky move and a lot of people did not understand it, but the chemistry was not there and I didnt see that it was going to be there so I made the change.
I had worked with Rob Downing the year I worked with Mark and I knew we would get along, and Jeff, I had known him from when I was at Warrens. So I brought in those two and I brought in Jason and Joe full time and a couple of other part-time people and that is when it all took off. The chemistry was all of a sudden there and we went and won the championship and won 12 races last year. Hopefully, well do better this year. Since we started this team it has gotten better and better, and hopefully it will continue. The chemistry is the main thing.
DRO: Jason got his first ride in your second car toward the end of last year. Was that part of the deal in him coming to work for you?
Anderson: That wasnt part of the deal in the beginning. The only deal I had with Jason was that he would come over in the evenings two or three nights a week and dyno the engines. He was the head dyno operator at Gibbs, so thats what he did and he was having a ball with it. Hes a drag racer; hes not a round tracker but a drag racer. He had a great job over there, great opportunity. He had access to all this high-dollar equipment, a $2 million dyno he ran over there. It was a dream job. But he loved drag racing and he had raced door cars all of his life. Most people like that, their ambition or goal in life is to some day drive a Pro Stocker, just like your alcohol dragster driver someday wants to drive a Top Fuel dragster. The door car guys stay with the door car guys and the dragsters stay with the dragster guys.
He just never thought he would have an opportunity and when he came over here, well you know they do real well in the round-track world; they get paid a lot of money and drag racers just dont have that budget. We just cant go hire people away from Winston Cup teams by paying them more money.
So I didnt steal Jason; I had to have him want to come over. We hadnt really considered adding a second car yet, but we finished third in points and said, You know what? For the last several years in a row no single-car team has won the championship. Theres Jegs two-car team, Warrens two-car team, and so forth. Yates was the last one that did it, but even he had several sorta team cars helping him, if youll recall. No single-car team had done it recently, so we decided that maybe we needed a second car. So I offered Jason, if he were willing to leave Gibbs and come full time I couldnt pay him as much or more than they were paying him, but I offered him the ride and thats what it took. That was the carrot it took to get him out of there and over here full time.
Thats where it all started and the bottom line is the guy had already won Stock Eliminator championships and Im a firm believer that if you can win in one class, you can win in another. There are people who seem to separate themselves from the pack and I was sure he could win in this class. It would just take him a little time to learn the ropes and get adjusted to the speed, but I knew eventually he would be a good driver.
DRO: But his debut race didnt turn out so well
Anderson: Yeah, we started it last year and his first race was Columbus in a brand-new racecar and we only had four or five test laps on it and we thrust him into the seat right away too early. We got to the worst racetrack weve ever raced on and he flips the car. It was just bad circumstances. It was our fault for putting him in the car, a brand-new untested car. It was NHRAs fault for the track being that bad, and it was his fault for being inexperienced and not knowing he had to get out of it when he had a situation like that. He didnt know you had to have a lot of respect for these things. He figured you could steer it out of anything, but you cant. You dont drive these things; they drive you.
It all ended up a catastrophe, but who knows? Maybe it will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him because most people dont get that lesson right away and they push it and push it until finally they do something and go over the edge.
DRO: Did you have any second thoughts about
Anderson: None. It didnt shake us up. We just went back and had another car built. We tested it better this time and we started at a track that we knew would be safe and a little slower for him and then we went to another good track and kinda eased him up this time. We only let him run four races so he would still be eligible for rookie of the year this season. Were geared up for the full deal this year and weve progressed at every race with him, way ahead of schedule and hes already winning.
DRO: Jasons a big guy to be driving a racecar. Did that give you any concern?
Anderson: He is a big guy. When he came in he was 20 or 30 pounds heavier, but you need that weight in these cars for balance to move around. So he went on a diet right away and he did what it took and he got down in weight. If he wants it that bad, that showed me he'll do whatever it takes.
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