From his trademark Chevy Monza to his new second-gen Camaro, and from nitrous oxide to twin turbos, Jerry Johnston isn't afraid to shake things up in search of an edge on the competition. We caught up with the reality TV personality and here's what he had to say...
“It’s kind of my dream car,” explains Jerry “Monza” Johnston. “I’ve always liked the ’70 to ’73 Rally Sport split-bumper Camaros. I wanted one as a kid but I could never afford one. I finally came across this one six or seven years ago. I actually got it from Dominator off the show – it was just an old shell, basically, and we built it up. There were squirrels living in the thing when we picked it up. It was a bare hull, and we took a true 1972 split-bumper Camaro RS and turned it into a race car. Some folks think I’m stupid for doing that instead of just going for a tube chassis deal, but I was building it for street racing.”
The show Johnston is referring to is Discovery’s Street Outlaws series, where the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma racer is better known as Monza, a nickname tied to the car he competed with before his ’72 Camaro build was ready for primetime.
“I’ve been messing with cars my whole life,” Johnston says. “There’s been a lot of different projects over the years – a ’68 El Camino, a ’70 Nova, a ’71 Challenger...” Johnston’s been competing since the 80s, largely at clandestine street events, but he’s also spent some time in series competition as well. “We did some class racing here back in 2006 or so – it was called Mod Street. We were actually racing Mustangs with Chevy motors in them. We won the championship the first year we did it, and then we came back the next year and won the championship again.”
In the years since, Johnston has become a dominant force on Street Outlaws, hitting #1 on the show’s coveted top ten list of drivers on several occasions. But with competition as close as it is in the show, Johnston’s had no time to rest on his laurels. “Last year we were running nitrous; this year we switched over to twin turbos,” he says. “We’ve got a whole new car from front to back, and we’re in the process of getting everything sorted out.”
Johnston’s Camaro gets its motivation from a 572 cubic-inch 481X powerplant from Pro Line Racing that’s equipped with a pair of 98mm Precision turbos and gets its marching orders from a FuelTech controller. Power is routed through a TH400 transmission built by Mr. Wendell's Motorsports in Fort Worth, Texas, along with a Mark Williams full-floater rear end. “The car’s pretty much got the best of the best in it,” Johnston notes. “That motor’s capable of making over 4,000 horsepower, but we’re closer to 2,000 on the street.”
It’s no surprise that a stout bottom end is part of the recipe, too. “I run Diamond pistons in all of my nitrous motors,” Johnston adds. “I’ve been running Diamond pistons for a long time – probably since 2006 when we were running in Mod Street. I’ve tried a few different pistons over the years, and I just always end up going back to Diamond. When you’re running nitrous, you’ve got to have a good piston that is able to take some abuse, and they seem to have the best product out there. They’ve always held together the best for me.”
With street racing pretty much anything goes when it comes to car setup, but there’s a few fundamentals that Johnston points to as general guidelines. “Of course you want the car to be as light as possible with the most power you can get,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s a pretty simple formula. But now we’re changing a few things because we’re going to be doing the No Prep Kings events too, and they’re got five pages of rules. We’ve got to make the car 250 pounds heavier in order to run the combination that we have right now.”
And as with any significant changes to a race car’s setup, there’s some time required to get everything dialed in. “We’re still figuring the car out – what it likes on the street and what it doesn’t,” he says. “It’s a whole new learning curve going from nitrous to turbo. The turbo motors have more power management, so the biggest deal for me is learning out to use all of the technology involved. The driving really hasn’t changed all that much.”
Considering how consistently fast he’s been over the years, we thought Johnston might have formulated something of a system to his preparation and racecraft, but he says there’s nothing elaborate to his ritual. “I don’t really mentally prep for any of it,” he explains. “I just get in there and do my thing, it just kind of comes natural to me. One thing I’ve always been able to do is drive – I don’t want to over-think it too much, you know? There’s a routine as far as what you turn on or off, of course, but I’m not one of those guys who has a strict “process” to make myself think I’m going to win. That’s just not me.”
Whatever he’s doing (or not doing) seems to be working. But of course the success of any racer isn’t a one-man operation. “My biggest help is my son Brandon,” Johnston tells us. “He’s always right there no matter what I’m doing with the car. We’ve recruited Manny Alvarez from HPP Racing too. They helped us do the tuning on the car, and he knows a lot about turbo setups, so he’s going to help us make that transition and get everything set up under the hood. And Wendell Dunaway from Mr Wendell’s Motorsports helps us a lot as well.”
As for this season and beyond, Johnston says his primary focus is to get back to #1 on the Street Outlaws list. “Our goal is to go make money – to go win,” he says. “The car’s two-tenths faster with this turbo motor than it ever went with a nitrous motor, and we haven’t even leaned on it yet.”