Johnson to leave Schumacher Racing to form own team

Updated: August 30, 2008, 9:14 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

CLERMONT, Ind. -- The most successful marriage in the NHRA is breaking up.

Alan Johnson, the most decorated Top Fuel crew chief in history with 75 national event wins and seven championships including the last four years with Tony Schumacher, is leaving Don Schumacher Racing at the end of the season to become a team owner.

Johnson, 49, will run a two-car team (Top Fuel and Funny Car) through a partnership with Qatar-based Al-Anabi Racing, said to be one of the leading drag racing teams in that region. The team, which will be called Alan Johnson Racing, will debut at the season-opening NHRA Winternationals next February in Pomona, Calif.

Johnson has not yet selected drivers.

"This is an exciting opportunity," Johnson said in a statement released Saturday at the 54th U.S. Nationals. "We look forward to our relationship with Al-Anabi Racing and the people of Qatar. It's widely known that my goal for some time now has been to become a team owner again, and this is my opportunity to achieve that goal."

Rumors in the NHRA paddock have ranged from Johnson's new operation having the largest budget in drag racing to an unlimited budget. Alan Johnson Racing spokesperson Tami Powers said those rumors were inaccurate and that the team would have "adequate" funding. Johnson's salary was undisclosed but likely would be $1 million or more. His salary at DSR was reportedly in the high six figures.

"He's had a great business model over there at Don Schumacher Racing. With the financial package that the U.S. Army and Don Schumacher have brought to the table, he knows how to be a successful team owner," said Lee Beard, a former Top Fuel champion crew chief now working with driver Antron Brown and David Powers Motorsports. "The team's ability to take the race car and do maintenance on it to where it doesn't break, it doesn't fail, it doesn't leak, it doesn't give them any mechanical problems -- that's why they've been the world champions the last four years.

Al-Anabi Racing is nearing completion of a state-of-the-art drag racing facility in Qatar, scheduled to host its first race in December. The team merged with U.S.-based Awesome Motorsports in June and races Pro Modified cars in NHRA and IHRA competition. The home facility for the new Top Fuel and Funny Car teams has not been determined.

Johnson won three Top Fuel titles as an owner/crew chief with Gary Scelzi in 1997, 1998 and 2000, but had to fold the team after the 2002 season due to lack of funding. In the middle of the 2003 season he was hired at DSR to work with Tony Schumacher, a rival of Scelzi's who won the 1999 title. The new combination of driver and crew chief teamed for a win in its first race at Chicago, then set an elapsed-time record of 4.441 seconds for the quarter-mile later that season at Reading, Pa.

In 2004 the Johnson/Schumacher duo began its title streak and won 10 races. Its 2006 title was legendary, as the team came back from 336 points down and could only win the championship by winning the finale at Pomona and setting a national record -- and it did both, beating Doug Kalitta and clocking 4.428 seconds in the final round.

The U.S. Army-sponsored dragster has equaled its 2004 victory total with 10 wins already this year, including five consecutive coming into the U.S. Nationals. It is a runaway favorite for a fifth straight title with a 526-point lead, though the standings will be reset after this weekend in the NHRA Countdown to One playoff format. Schumacher's lead will be adjusted to 30 points with six races remaining.

"The U.S. Army team will clearly be starting a new chapter next season with a new crew chief, but before that happens we're all committed to winning a fifth consecutive world championship," Schumacher said in a statement. "There's plenty of business to attend to these next few months."

Johnson was unavailable for comment after Schumacher failed to make the field in Saturday's qualifying. The car will have two more attempts Sunday before Monday's eliminations.

Johnson owns and operates Alan Johnson Engineering in Santa Maria, Calif., a firm that specializes in building cylinder heads for car, motorcycle and boat racing. His success as a crew chief began in the Top Alcohol dragster ranks with his brother, Blaine, as the two won four consecutive titles from 1990-1993. On Aug. 31, 1996, Blaine Johnson was killed in a qualifying run at the U.S. Nationals while holding a commanding lead in the Top Fuel championship. He was 34.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.