Rick Johnson, the winningest rider in stadium motocross history, has retired at age 26.
Johnson, who came out of El Cajon a decade ago to win 28 Supercross races, two stadium championships and five other American Motorcyclist Assn. national outdoor championships, never recovered from a wrist injury he sustained in a fall during practice in 1989 at Gainesville, Fla. He announced before this season that 1991 would be his final hurrah, but after five stadium races he decided it was time.
“The wrist has been getting progressively worse, and it just tears me up inside to be racing for 10th place,” Johnson said from his home in Encinitas, where he moved with his wife Stephanie after their marriage last Dec. 1. “The doctors told me there is nothing that can be done about the wrist, that it will never be anything more than damaged goods, so why go on?”
Johnson had won the first five stadium races of the 1989 season to move one victory ahead of Bob (Hurricane) Hannah on the all-time Supercross list when he went to Florida in March for the opening race of the national 250cc season. Johnson and Danny Storbeck collided in the air off a double jump, and when Johnson hit the ground, the impact bent his hand backward, tearing all the tendons and dislocating the wrist.
After skipping the remainder of the stadium races, Johnson returned late in the year to win the United States 250cc Grand Prix at Unadilla, N.Y., for the third time.
“My wrist was still sore and tender, but I thought I was back,” Johnson said. “Then I crashed at Daytona (in February) and broke my hand. It was the worst thing that could have happened because the cast caused the wrist to lose strength, and it was then that the specialists told me I’d never have more than 50% use of it.
“That’s not enough when it’s your throttle wrist. You’ve got to be able to roll your wrist in any direction to control the throttle, and I don’t have but about half the range of motion I need.”
Johnson made yet another comeback last fall, winning the second 45-minute moto of the U.S. 500cc Grand Prix at San Bernardino’s Glen Helen Park in August and a 500cc national in October at Unadilla.
His last motocross victory came last November in the final round of the Masters of Motocross series in the Netherlands.
“I was in good company. I beat Damon Bradshaw, Jean-Michel Bayle and Jeff Stanton in that one,” Johnson said.
Stanton has won the last two Supercross championships since Johnson, the 1986 and 1988 champion, was injured.
When the 1991 season started, however, Johnson finished no higher than eighth--on his home track at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium--in five races.
He has made enough money and invested it wisely since dropping out of Valhalla High at 16, but he has other ambitions.
“I want to get into auto racing,” he said. “At first, I thought formula racing in Europe was the way to go, but now I think I’d like to get into NASCAR. I’m looking into attending Buck Baker’s driving school before long and then see what I can find to drive. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since before I started riding for Honda, but I couldn’t afford to switch as long as I was winning.”
Reviewing his career, Johnson said his most rewarding victory came in the 1987 Superbowl of Motocross in the Coliseum.
“I got taken out in the first turn, and by the time I got going I was dead last. But I came from behind to win,” he said. “In 1986, at Anaheim, David Bailey and I raced neck and neck for the entire 20 laps, and even though he beat me, I rate it as the fiercest race I ever had.
“Winning my first championship in 1984 was a big day for me because it all came down to the final race between Ron Lechien and me. It was winner take all. I knew his plan was to get a ‘holeshot’ (a quick jump off the starting line) on me and cut me off going to the first turn. I knew if he did that, he would probably win.
“Sure enough, he lined up right beside me, but I leaned into him off the line so that nearly the whole field got through the first turn ahead of us. I was sure he couldn’t keep pace with me through traffic, and I was right. If he’d got the ‘holeshot,’ I probably couldn’t have caught him, but he didn’t and I won.”
One thing Johnson does not plan to do is watch motocross. When the eighth round of the Supercross season gets under way Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., Johnson will be home with Stephanie.
“I have a hard time watching motocross because when I’m there, my body feels like racing, and I have second thoughts about whether I made the right decision,” he said. “I know I’m fit enough to win . . . but for the wrist.”
INDY CARS--For the first time since 1978 when the United States Auto Club ran two races in England, Indy cars will appear outside North America when the 1991 CART season opens Sunday (ESPN, 9 p.m. Saturday PST) in Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia. Twenty-five teams made the trek for the 181-mile race over a 2.793-mile street circuit.
The $1-million Gold Coast Indy Car Grand Prix is the first of 17 races for the PPG Cup championship being defended by Al Unser Jr. The first U.S. race will be the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 14. Unser is also defending champion in Long Beach, another street course.
STOCK CARS--The 1991 NASCAR Southwest Tour will open Saturday night at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield with the $22,945 Coors 100. Doug George of Atwater, Calif., is defending champion in the 15-race series. His main challengers are expected to include Ron Hornaday Jr. of Palmdale, last year’s runner-up; Mike Chase of Bakersfield, winner of the last four races at Mesa Marin; and Will Harper of Tarzana, the 1990 Saugus Speedway champion who is running for rookie of the year honors. Saturday night’s race will be 100 laps on the high-banked half-mile oval. . . . John Covan, former Saugus Speedway champion from Simi Valley, has been appointed director of the Southwest Tour.
MIDGETS--The United States Auto Club’s western regional championship series will resume Saturday night at the Imperial Raceway in El Centro. If defending champion Sleepy Tripp wins, it will move the Costa Mesa veteran into a tie with the late Rich Vogler as USAC’s all-time midget race winner with 131 checkered flags. Also on the program will be Western Racing Assn. vintage cars.
DRAG RACING--The Nostalgia Drag Racing Assn. will hold its third annual March Meet this weekend at Bakersfield Raceway. Featured will be 1974 and older vehicles racing on the famous strip formerly known as Famoso, where the original March Meet was the highlight of drag racing seasons three decades ago. Racing will start at 1 p.m. Sunday after time trials all day Saturday and Sunday morning.
SPORTS CARS--Interesting developments in the 12 Hours of Sebring this weekend in Florida include the professional auto racing debut of Chip Hanauer, seven-time unlimited hydroplane Gold Cup champion; the American debut of Gary Brabham, younger brother of three-time International Motor Sports Assn. champion Geoff Brabham; the return of once-retired Chris Cord to drive in two races; and Robby Gordon’s defense of his IMSA GTO championship after spending last Sunday talking Formula One possibilities with Ford racing director Michael Kranefuss.
Hanauer will team with P.J. Jones, Parnelli’s son, in a turbocharged Toyota MR-2 for today’s Firehawk Endurance race. Brabham, 1989 British Formula 3000 champion, will join his brother Geoff on Nissan’s GTP team. Cord will drive a Toyota in today’s Firehawk race and then join John Hotchkis and James Adams in a Pontiac Spice for the GTP main event. Gordon will drive a Ford Mustang in the GTO race as part of the main event Saturday.