Many people think their personal experience is universal and permanent. As best as can be known, it isn’t. It’s relative and temporary. But along with Ernie Keppler’s efforts, the late Dave Johnson has achieved at least a little of that, universal and permanent - for a while.
Every time Keppler makes a run in the ’63 Pontiac Tempest, ‘White Warrior’, he’s both continuing Johnson’s experience and making history of his own, keeping the Warrior’s heritage intact but also adding his own ownership is a balance Keppler is well aware of.
“I was a Ford guy but my brother had a Grand Am,” said Keppler. “In the early 70’s we played around with it. The Pontiacs also seemed like they were the underdogs.”
A downstate ‘flatlander’ from Spaulding, Illinois, Keppler eventually connected with the Chicago Pontiac crowd which included Joe Zajac, Larry Kaufman, Rick Johnson and Dave Johnson along with Larry Quinn of Springfield. Zajac, a long-time Nostalgia Super Stock® Inc. president and current vice-president, provided some biographical background about Dave Johnson, who was also vice-president of the organization for a time.
“Dave was around in about 1987 when the NSS® thing was starting up,” said Zajac. “The car had a 421 with some Super Duty parts, cast iron block, a Pontiac 2x4 intake and a Jerico 4-speed. It would run high to mid 11’s.”
But that wasn’t fast enough for Johnson.
“He had this ‘want’ to go faster, and was very determined,” continued Zajac. “Some Wenzler heads went on and it didn’t take long, those heads really made a difference in air flow.”
Johnson was so motivated that when he went looking for an intake manifold at the same level as the heads and unable to find one, he paid $1,000 to rent a sheet metal unit for a season, took it to a patternmaker and then eventually took the vendor-manufactured tooling to Indy Cylinder Head, which made the first casting. Those changes got the all-steel ‘Warrior’ into the 10’s but, of course, the quest continued.
“He started into the body with ‘glass panels and doors and quickly went into the 9’s,” said Zajac. “One of the motor rebuilds had titanium connecting rods. He threw some money at that thing. The car was always (painted) white, he didn’t care much about appearance. At one time he put on some monoque wheels that were flat black. If he could find something that would add 15 or 20 horsepower, he’d spend the money.”
Eventually the car broke into the 8’s and was consistent in the 8.90’s. Johnson also ran in the National Muscle Car Association’s Pro Nostalgia class until that category was cancelled. “The last race was in 1997 and I recall seeing him and the car at a show at Joliet in 2008,” said Zajac. Johnson passed away in 2009.
Meanwhile, Keppler, a professional mechanic, while driving back from a race at Central States Dragway in Havana, Illinois, heard from a friend that the ‘White Warrior’ might be for sale.
“I’ve spent a lot of time running in the ‘Dust Bowl’ there,” he said. At the time, the car had a 528 cubic inch engine with a JAT aluminum intake and allegedly would run in the 9.60’s. “It’s had a number of different engines in it,” said Keppler. “They expected low 9’s but had some trouble with the crank trigger and other parts.”
Another iron block engine went in the 10.40’s but Keppler said he got it to run 9.40’s by pulling the timing back. “It was supposed to be a high-revving combination but actually was a semi-street engine,” Keppler explained. “I would run (fellow club member) Gene Devening in the low 11’s. We had some really close races.”
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