To race fans, he is Allen Johnson, the 2012 National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Pro Stock World Champion. He's a fixture on the circuit winning races since 1999 and qualifying for the Countdown to Championship in all six years the format has existed. His blue Mopar-powered Dodge Avenger regularly exceeds 212 miles per hour, and, in addition to being a champion behind the wheel, he is one of the best-respected team owners in the business. He's confident and aggressive, telling fans after winning the 2012 championship that his team would be right back in there again in 2013.
To businesspeople in Northeast Tennessee and in the oil business in general, he is Allen Johnson, owner of Greeneville Oil and Petroleum. He runs 37 Quick Stop Markets and three Lube X-Press oil change facilities. Allen also owns a gym and is partners in a motorcycle dealership and a golf course in the Greeneville area. He's surprisingly soft-spoken, and is just as comfortable talking about accounting software packages as he is discussing blocks, cranks, cylinder heads, cams and manifolds.
Yet, despite the vastly different settings of his vocation and his avocation, there are a few things that race fans and businesspeople both recognize in Allen Johnson: dedication to his family and his employees, work ethic, ambition, and a desire to create success for himself and for those around him.
Allen was born to Roy and Revonda Johnson in December 1959. "They ran off to Georgia and got married," says Allen. "They borrowed $25 and a car when my mom was 15 and my dad was 17. They had to borrow more money just to get back from Georgia." That was in January 1959. Two more children, Rhonda and Randy came along. "We didn't really have a whole lot growing up," remembers Allen.
From the time he was eight or nine years old, Allen worked for Clyde Newton roofing houses. "In the sixth grade I made the basketball team," Allen remembers. "The Converse tennis shoes were $17 or $18 a pair. When I made the team I had on a pair of black, plastic-sole, Kmart tennis shoes. My mom and dad simply could not afford Converse tennis shoes. I'll never forget how hard I worked roofing houses and cleaning gutters to save money to get those shoes."
Allen's father Roy had begun working on tractors and learning engine repair. Eventually, he opened his own business, Roy's Auto Repair. Roy's shop now serves as the engine building shop for the racing team.
Surprisingly, Allen didn't want anything to do with racing when he was young, instead focusing on football, where he became an All-State Honorable Mention running back. But when he was about to graduate high school, Allen asked Roy if he could tag along to a race in which Roy was competing. Says Roy, "I nearly passed out."
In the late 1970s Allen got a job at Allergan Pharmaceuticals. It was to be his stepping stone to professional success, but one day it didn't seem to be going the way he wanted it to, so Allen informed Roy he was planning to quit Allergan and start working on engines at home. Roy took Allen by the shoulder and pushed him back out the door. "He said, ‘You get your degree and then we can talk, but you are going to make something of yourself.'"
"My dad has been the most influential person in my life," adds Allen. "In the beginning he was tough and strict, then he became more of a guiding figure, pushing me to college and into my career."
Allen began taking classes in the evenings while working at Allergan during the day. "When I started college, I was taking machine shop," he says. "Part of your core curriculum was Accounting 101. I fell in love with it. I had always thought accounting was for dorks. I was a car and motorcycle guy. But the professor made it so real and exciting."
In 1986, Allen had his accounting degree from ETSU. Allergan promoted him from driving forklifts to internal auditing, at which he excelled.
Allen's accounting prowess attracted Bob Rodefer's attention at Rodefer Moss, and Rodefer introduced Allen to Fred Myers, who owned Greeneville Oil & Petroleum. "I thought going there would be a good opportunity for me to grow into a partner role or something."
So one Monday morning in 1988, Allen took a week's vacation from Allergan and showed up at Greeneville Oil, ready to start accounting. By the end of the week, he knew it was a good fit, and turned in his notice at Allergan. At the end of the second week, Myers stuck his head in the door of Allen's new office and asked, "By the way, what are you paying you?"
When Myers decided to sell the company, Allen lined up a partner to help him buy it, but that partner bowed out unexpectedly within 30 days of closing for health reasons. Harvey White with First American Bank met with Allen and agreed to go with him alone. Myers subordinated the down payment. So in 1994, Myers financed $650,000 for a ten-year period as the down payment.
Just as Allen was settling into ownership of Greeneville Oil, the racing bug bit him. In 1995, Amoco sent Allen to the Daytona 500. Amoco was a secondary sponsor of Bill Elliott in that race and wanted to hear its jobbers' impressions of whether the sponsorship made sense as a long-term deal. "I don't know if we convinced Amoco to get big into racing, but after that weekend, I was ruined again," says Allen.
Roy and Allen dabbled in racing throughout 1995 buying a dragster and competing in a few regional races. By the end of the year, both men were in agreement. Roy closed his shop to the public and turned it into a racing shop. The Johnson team started competing full-time in 1996 and hasn't missed a race since.
"I wanted to do it for him more than I wanted to do it for myself," says Allen. "He had wanted to race as a professional all his life. He had the ability but never the funding. I was able to be lucky in business when Fred gave me a shot. I gave that shot back to my dad, knowing he would be successful at it."
The first year, 1996, had a steep learning curve. Allen was learning how to trust his employees at Greeneville Oil to keep things flowing smoothly in his absence. And on the drag strips, the Johnson team journeyed to 18 races, but qualified for only one. "That year was really hard, but we were really determined." While other start-up teams were renting engines from established shops, the Johnsons were building their own while Allen was making sure he had the right people in the right places at Greeneville Oil.
"I set out on that journey early on," says Allen. "I knew I had to have good people that I could put in key positions that could carry weight when I was away." That's where I get my kicks in business, in laying out a plan or a foundation for somebody and seeing them take it and really be happy and flourish with it."
Allen traces that attitude back to a conversation he had at a 1987 awards dinner while working for Allergan Pharmaceuticals. "I designed and wrote a program in Lotus to manage inventory that won me the honor of employee of the year worldwide. I sat beside a lady named Virginia McDermott who was on the Allergan board. She told me I was going to be a very successful person one day, and then she asked me, ‘What kind of manager are you going to be?'"
"She asked me how I was going to pick my people and how I was going to treat them," says Allen. "That has always stuck with me."
As Johnson was letting his people do good work in business, life was getting better. He met his wife, Pam, and enjoyed watching his daughters, Heather and Kimberly become parents themselves as Heather became mother to Jaevon and Jakobi and Kimberly began raising Andrew.
And all the while Allen and his team were getting better and better at racing. After a long climb, in 2012, he reached the pinnacle, winning the NHRA Pro Stock World Championship.
The team won that championship by a thousandth of a second at a time during the year, which is an incredibly small period of time, but even moreso when put in context of the team having competed for 17 years.
The team was built the same way Johnson's other businesses have been built: with patience, persistence, dedication and determination. And over time, success has come naturally.
"For the last six or seven years, we have been able to turn the racing into a thriving business of its own," says Allen. "We have a great sponsor in Mopar and the Chrysler Corporation. We produce our own engines and we're fortunate to be able to rent out engines to two of the other top teams in Pro Stock."
"It actually surprises me sometimes that we have been able to hang in and be competitive for so long", Allen says. "Because we took the beatings, we were always just that much more determined to be successful."
Allen says his retirement timetable has about ten years left. He has a few goals along those lines, including raising a colt from birth, taking his grandsons on a trip together, playing golf and relaxing at his Florida home.
In the meantime, he says, "I'd like to find a way to pay back all the people that have been there for me in my business. Someday I'd like to help them buy it from me like Fred did for me. At the end of the day, I feel my best when I have helped someone else accomplish something they needed to accomplish."