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Barbara Terry interview with Ricky Johnson

I met the most extreme sports guys I think I’ve ever come across when I met Ricky Johnson. You could say he has been a thrill-seeker since he was a young child. He’s been riding a bike since his dad bought him a mini-bike at the age of three. Ricky is, to put it simply, a legend in the motocross world. He’s a seven-time AMA champion and a four-time national champion. His name is synonymous with motocross, as he notched an astonishing 61 wins, dominating the sport in the 1980s. He retired as the all-time wins leader (until Jeremy McGrath, who is also in this book, later broke it).

What was your first car?

My first car was a 1978 Datsun pick-up truck I bought when I was 15 years old. I started professional motocross racing when I was 13, and my father said, ‘You save up your money, I’ll pay for the racing. But you have to save up the money to pay for your own vehicle.’ I paid cash for it; I think it was $420.1 bought it and he let me drive the truck home before I had my license.

That’s cool. Where do you think that truck is now?

It went from myself to my sister, to a really good friend of mine, so it’s probably floating around L.A. right now or in an LA. junkyard.

I was going to ask if you thought it might still be in one piece.

Doubtful (LAUGHTER). No, actually, I babied that thing. It was my first vehicle. I spit-shined it and took really good care of it.

You spit-shined it?

Not spit. I shined it.

What color was it?

It was actually tan. My dad was a painter and he was into what colors stayed clean. Since I was going to the motorcycle track all of the time, he thought a beige truck would be the easiest for me to take care of, so I took his advice.

What do you drive now?

Right now, I drive a 2008 Toyota Tundra. I don’t know if it’s a SuperCab or whatever, but it’s perfect. It fits me and my wife and my three kids, and it has plenty of room.

What’s your favorite color combination when it comes to cars?

When it comes to…silver and black. I like silver because there was an artist who did a lot of artwork for No Fear. His name was Emile Boray. He’s an American guy who sounds very French. He said silver is great because it’s a different color every time you stick it outside. It’s a different color at night, it’s a dif­ferent color during the day, it’s a different color in the evening. It can be blue, it can be white, it can be dark. So, my first car was a light metallic silver with a black interior.

That’s nice. How many cars have you owned since that first Datsun pick-up truck?

That was kind of, you might say, my drug of choice when I was young and successful. I loved cars, so I’ve probably had about 15 different trucks. Racing, I won some, I think, three different Nissan pick-up trucks. Then driving for Chevrolet, I got quite a few. The vehi­cles that I bought, I bought a grey market Mercedes 190, six Cs out, which was fun… a blast to drive, That’s why I bought it. I had a Ferrari 308 at one point, had a convertible ‘vette, which was also one of the most fun cars I ever got to drive because you could slide it at will. I had the automatic, not the manual, so it was an easy car to drive. It was black with a red interior. I had a Lexus Legend when they first came out, when I raced for Honda, and assorted Chevys. Not so many Fords and a few Toyotas over the years.

Okay. If you never pulled the trigger on your dream car – because you had a good selection – but when you were a little kid, did you have that particular dream car that you never got? If you did get it which one was it?

Well, particularly because I raced motorcycles, you could never have your dream car because you always had to put motorcycles on the back. For me, it was what I bought – a Toyota SR-5 – with nice wheels on it and a great stereo system. That was my pride and joy for a long, long time. It was great – black with a gray interior. As far as my dream car, I’d have to say it’s a ’60 Impala. I love the fact it has the wings, the size – the two-door Impala with a convertible. Brian Simo – Mark and Brian Simo – and Jeff Bitiasakis, the original guys that started Life’s A Beach, had ’60s and that’s what we’d go out in. Top goes down immediately, it’s a manual top, so BOOM, the top goes down immediately and you jump in the back. You could fit four people in the front seat and four people in the back, and you just go. I very much loved the style. Maybe it’s because I come from the Batman era and it’s very much like the Batmobile. (LAUGHTER) So…

Wham-Bam-Pow!

Yeah, all that good stuff I But it wasn’t a ’59, it was ’60, right when the wings started to mellow out a little bit. As far as a sexy vehicle, that’s the one I like.

You going to get one?

Maybe someday.

Did you get a lot of speeding tickets?

I did. I used to get, I even got taken to the, what is it, the 2 percent club or whatever – 2 percent of the worst drivers on the street. I actually stood up in the class and argued with them that, since I was a professional racer, I should be able to drive faster than everybody else. They didn’t like that so they told me to sit down and shut up.

How old were you?

I was 18. I got speeding tickets all the time. I was just cruising along at 90 miles an hour to a race and, next thing I know, there’s a cop behind me that’s been chasing me for a while.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done in a car?

Hmm. Let me think. I’d say a friend of mine named Norm who owns a junkyard in Wisconsin. This was when Jimmie Johnson and I both raced AMA cars. We went out and we had a good time one night. We called Norm and asked him to get us a bunch of junk cars. After we had a good time, we went over – my wife, too – and ran the junk cars. Whoever was co-driver ran the emergency brake. Whoever was driving ran the steering wheel and throttle. So Jimmie and I were a team. I’d drive or he’d drive and we’d swap. We had races in this muddy junkyard in Wisconsin, cars stacked three high and our crew chief, Ron Malick, whose now on his team, would have a cooter chasing us down. The exhaust was ripped off so he had a lot more horsepower, but we had maneuverability and we proceeded to destroy all six cars we had.

That sounds fun.

It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a vehicle.

What kind of music do you listen to when you’re driving?

I’m kind of a funk guy. I grew up with R&B and I had some friends who were really into dancing and stuff, so I tend to go towards stuff with a stronger beat. I’m not a metal guy. I like a little bit of country and classic rock.

What do you think about the Go Green cars, about the hybrids?

I think it’s time. I think it’s great if you look around – just in my lifetime – how people treated the world, thinking it was a never-ending thing. Bury as much garbage as you want, dump as much garbage as you want in the water. Test nuclear bombs. How many fish do they kill when they drop one of those things in the ocean? Now you see recycling bins for green waste, for plastic and all the things people are doing to save the Earth. It’s like back in the day before we were born, parents drank and smoked…

And ate tons of butter.

Right. They didn’t think anything of it They thought we were in a little cocoon and nothing could get to us, but as we learn and evolve. This isn’t forever.

Do you see yourself buying a hybrid?

Yeah. I would love it because I would love to not by gas every day, even though it’s back down to $1.85 a gallon. That would be my first motivation. My second would be that I’m being friendly to the ground.

Ever had any accidents on the freeway?

I was in one car accident. Someone ran a red light when I was 17 years old and turned in front of me. It was on a New Years. My dad told me, don’t go out. There’s too many idiots out there. I’d bought my new Dodge D-50, had it cleaned up and was going to go out with some friends and couldn’t find them. As I’m com­ing home, the light was green, the guy goes in front of me. I hit the brakes and we hit and I sliced my arm open. That was it. I don’t go nuts on the roads.

Not anymore.

I didn’t go nuts when I was speeding back in the day, either. I spent a little bit of time speeding when I got a 924 Turbo Carrera GT.

Nice.

It was a very nice car. I got it from Jim Gennard at Oakley. It was one of my contract perks. It was a great car. They only built so many, so they could run those. It was the beginnings of the 924. There was this road I’d drive on at night that I knew like the back of my hand. I finally pushed the envelope a little too much because we ran at some pretty high speeds in those things, but I got lucky and got away with it

How fast did you go?

I remember seeing 130 a couple of times.

That’s not too bad.

The road had less than…I think the longest straight­away was under a mile.

Oh, then that’s pretty bad.

We were sliding a bit there. It was…as much as I’ve raced with stock cars and all that stuff, there’s no way I’d drive that fast. I was naive and I got away with some crazy stuff.

You started racing at what age?

When I was nine years old. Started racing amateur at nine. I raced mini-bikes, 80 CCs and 85s until I was 12, and then got tired of the politics of the mini-bikes – like soccer dads and all that – so Brock Glover, who was a friend of mine, and then the current 125 National Champion, helped me out quite a bit when I was young. Let me try one of his bikes. So I started 125s when I was 12 and turned pro at

  1. From there, it was just go as fast as I could go.

How old were you when you got your drivers license?

Sixteen. On my 16th birthday. I was there at five ’til six, waiting for it to open up.

What are you doing right now?

A lot of stuff. Things that I’m very proud of. I work with the U.S. Military. I teach them how to ride bikes and quads, how to get in and out of situations with speed and stay safe, and I’ve helped a lot of military guys in the past. I feel my call to duty is to take the knowledge I have and teach these guys with it. I take, mostly…not the knowledge, but the riding technique, I take from motocross. But the driv­ing situations, I take from the Baja 50 and 1000 because you’re dealing with sometimes hostile territory there and you have to get in and out without getting hurt. The other thing I’m doing is, I’m a driver for Pro Tube for Barlow Motor Sports, for Red Bull. I’m a Red Bull athlete, so I focus on everything I can do to help Red Bull athletes, find new talent and help them with their marketing. But win­ning races is priority one. We only won one race last year. We should have won more, but everybody says that. I am the current owner of Paris Raceway. It’s a motocross track. It’s the No. 1 track in southern California. Most of the pros and all the top amateurs practice there every week and we do quite a bit of racing. My No. 1 job is to be a hus­band to my wife, Stephanie, and a father to Luke, Jake and Cassidy. All this other stuff I do just affords me time to be with them.

Wow, anything else?

Nothing else. Let’s see…l do some stunts, some stunt driv­ing, whether it be precision driving. I just did a Polaris shoot on quads. I’ve been in Goodyear spots and Chevrolet spots.

Okay, do you prefer to own, lease?

Cash.

So you like equity.

No, I like to endure the pain once. It kills me to write a check each month. I’d rather write the big check and be done with it, feel the hurt.

So you don’t have to worry about it in the future.

And I know it drops in value immediately, but, if I can, I just paycash.               j

At any given time in the past have you ever looked at somebody else’s car and said, ‘Man, I just have to have that?’

Yes. I was in Europe and met with Eric Gabors who was the current 500 World Champion – actually, a 250 world cham­pion at the time, and he took me for a ride in a 190 Mercedes. He slid the thing around and drove the hell out of it, and I said, ‘I have to have that!’ And Rocky Coster, who was my team manager at the time, had one in America -the same color as my truck, the metallic gray, and it was like I had to have it. It was like when I test drove a ‘vette. I was just screwing around one day and, the guy, I thought he was making a mistake. Let me take it, and my friend and I drove the hell out of it. I came back and I had to have the thing. It was too much fun.

What do you think of the Z06?

Awesome cars. They’re…

Pretty sweet. They need better seat belts.

They respond. Having a better set of seat belts would help. You’re pretty bolted. They lift you up and spin you around, and the seat belt latch will tighten. Still, like you say, a set of six-point harnesses would be good. °

A man after my own heart is Ricky Johnson. He has the same need for speed as me! He’s a very strong, very grounded family man who has lived a remarkable and inter­esting life so far. He was not exactly what you might expect from an off-road champion – not burly or roughshod. He showed us pictures of himself and Ronald Reagan from the 1980s, when Ricky dominated motocross like Reagan dom­inated communism. I realized, as I watched Catherine, who was taken aback by all the memorabilia that Ricky had, that I was in the presense of a real champion and legend!

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