It’s understandable that Steve Johnson was a tad giddy to reach the Pro Stock Motorcycle finals at Reading, Pa., a few weeks ago. It’s been awhile since his bike has had the kind of muscle needed to go deep into eliminations.
“When I got back to the pit area with (crewman Ervin ‘Jock’ Allen) after first round, we’re like, ‘What do we do now?’ And then when they called us to the lanes for the second round, I was like, ‘Jock, I think I know where to go, do you?’ We were both kidding about it. We were laughing, we were proud and we were happy, all at the same time,” Johnson said.
The two-time U.S. Nationals champion hasn’t won a race since the Gatornationals in March 2014, but he’s showed signs the past month of a performance resurgence. After sitting out three races at midseason — a layoff that broke a streak of 432 consecutive events attended — Johnson qualified 10th at Indianapolis, fourth at Reading, and second at St. Louis, where he lost on a holeshot in the semifinals to Andrew Hines.
Those outings have given Johnson and Allen a spark heading to bikes’ final four events at Charlotte, Dallas, Las Vegas and Pomona.
The major thing, Johnson said, is being more disciplined and conservative with his Suzuki’s tune-up.
“I think I’ve been riding a little bit better, and we’ve made way better tuning decisions with the motorcycle,” the Birmingham, Ala., racer said. “Instead of always trying off-the-wall things, I’ve tried to just tune the bike within a window. It’s a Vance & Hines engine, and Jock and I take it apart, lash the valves, put new rings in it, put new springs in it, and maintain the engine here at the shop. It’s got a new Vance & Hines crankshaft in it.
“And then the tune-up, we went through all of them — our old tune-ups — and found the best tune-up, put it in and have tried to tune around that instead of trying to come up with a new one.”
At Reading, Johnson simply outran his first three opponents. Then, in the finals, Jerry Savoie and Johnson both unleashed their best runs of the weekend, and Savoie’s 6.77 was enough to take down Johnson’s 6.80.
At St. Louis, Johnson posted a qualifying burst of 6.83 seconds, second only to Matt Smith’s 6.80 that stood as low elapsed time of the event. In the semis, a .05-second advantage off the line allowed Andrew Hines to beat Johnson, 6.91 to 6.89.
“It’s always envigorating to do good at the races,” Johnson said. “We work on our engines and try to make sure that our sponsors are happy. My house, I got a notice on it because I haven’t mowed the lawn in so long. I haven’t been to my house, I end up sleeping at the shop. I’m all in, just night and day.
“So when you get a chance to do good, no matter what it is, you have to celebrate. Because your soul recognizes what’s going on, and if you don’t celebrate, then your soul is like, ‘What am I doing this for?’ When we do good, Jock and I celebrate, we laugh and hoot and holler. We sure as hell would’ve been happier to win, but we’re so proud of what we’re accomplishing that we’re still very happy and can’t wait to get to the next race.”
There wasn’t much to celebrate early in the 2019 campaign.
Johnson didn’t qualify at the Gatornationals, the season-opening event for the bikes, and he blames himself for that.
“I wasn’t prepared. It wasn’t a money thing as much as it was just not being prepared,” he said. “It’s kind of been my M.O. for a long time. I’m always the last one to the staging lanes. I just wasn’t prepared. We made bad runs, I made dumb mistakes there, and we didn’t qualify.”
He lost in the first round at three of the next four races, then couldn’t make the call for the opening round at Chicago after qualifying 15th. That was especially disappointing, given that his primary sponsor, Mac Rak, is headquartered near Route 66 Raceway.
“That’s the first time I’d ever made one run and then had to leave the track,” he said of a blown engine. That was the only powerplant he had at the time because he’d broken his other in the shop on the dynamometer.
As a result of the Chicago damage, he skipped the races at Norwalk, Denver and Sonoma to reload for Indianapolis and beyond. He hated every second of being away from the action.
“I was sitting at the computer on NHRA All-Access and on the phone and talking to people,” he said of the three-race layoff. “Oh, I was miserable.
“I really wanted to go to Denver, and we could’ve gone to Norwalk, but we weren’t ready, and I was so over the fact of just going to a race to go. It was very, very hard to miss (Norwalk) because I had never missed a race. But I’m in a little different place right now, and I didn’t go just to make the field.”
Johnson qualified 10th at Indy in his return to competition, and lost in the opening frame to another Suzuki rider, Karen Stoffer.
Wins by Stoffer (St. Louis) and Savoie (Reading, Indianapolis) have earned Suzuki the Wally at the last three NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle outings. That upswing in performance for the manufacturer is a plus for the category, Johnson believes.
“I think it’s nice that there’s some diversity,” he said. “It seems like everybody says the Harleys or V-Twins are going to win, and for the Suzukis to have an opportunity to win is really nice. I don’t know what everybody else is doing, but it’s definitely nice to see something besides a V-Twin in the Winner’s Circle.”
Johnson is hoping that his recent showings will help sway potential sponsors as he prepares for 2020. He’s currently getting help from Mac Rak, Tull Plumbing, longtime backer Slick 50, Button Transportation, CCAR and Superior Machine.
Unlike the sponsors that are generated through hard work and salesmanship, Johnson’s Mac Rak deal came out of the blue like a bolt of lightning.
“I was in Phoenix doing a school program, talking to kids,” he recalled. “I was at Chris McGaha’s (Pro Stock) hauler, and the kids are going inside and he’s telling them all about transmissions.
“So I go outside and this guy says, ‘Hey, are you Steve?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘We hate seeing your white motorcycle. What can we do to sponsor you?’ ”
Johnson’s NHRA career began in 1987 at Englishtown, N.J. Due to a late change in plans, Johnson had no way to get the bike from his shop to the track, so he put it and all the spare parts and tools he needed into a crate. He shipped it to Old Bridge Raceway Park via air freight.
“They put my crate under an empty 18-wheel flatbed trailer, and that was my pit area,” said Johnson, who won his debut round of NHRA competition. “When I came back Saturday morning, somebody had taken a Sharpie and drawn wheels on the crate like it was hauler.”
He’s still keeping things simple. He’s got a tractor-trailer rig, but he and Allen have been going to the races of late in a Chevy pickup truck that hauls a 20-foot tag-along trailer.
“I’m fortunate to have the sponsors that we have,” he said, “but my real goal is to get back where we were 10-15 years ago, and I need to do a better job of promoting our category and our sport.”
Ideally, accomplishing that goal would put Johnson right back into the mix of contenders while maintaining his role as one of the sport’s biggest promoters. In addition to his pair of U.S. Nationals titles, he’s won four other NHRA events, including the first race at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte.
Johnson was one of four Pro Stock Motorcycle racers — Dave Schultz, Paul Ray and Nigel Patrick were the others — chosen to participate when NHRA presented the USA Drag Festival in 1989 at Fuji Speedway in Japan.
Schultz, who would reign as NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion six times, died in February 2001 of colon cancer. In July of that year, Johnson experienced one of the highlights of his career when got to ride Schultz’s bike down the Pomona Raceway quarter-mile during the Pep Boys NHRA 50th Anniversary Nationals.
Johnson started out racing motorcycles on the streets in California for the simple reason that “we didn’t know any better, we didn’t know about real drag racing,” he said.
Now he’s his division’s No. 1 cheerleader, a rider who says he’s always been more concerned with the health of the bike division and the sanctioning body’s success than his own fortunes. Now he’s rediscovered the performance key that’s been missing in recent seasons, and he’s anxious to see a race all the way through to another Wally.
“I feel like this has been a journey we’ve been on all year, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I’ve been trying to ride better and trying to make more decisions quicker so we’re not last minute. I’m trying to use the track temperature, and I’m learning from Pro Stock car guys a little bit about how to tune.
“Dave Schultz used to say enough pennies make a dollar.”
His performance of late shows he’s getting closer to cashing in.