OFF-ROAD RACING : It's a Fine Line and Fine Time for Johnson

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rick Johnson, the winningest rider in supercross history, learned one important lesson last season in his debut as a Grand National sport truck driver in the Mickey Thompson Off-Road Championship Gran Prix series.

"There's a fine line between driving smoothly and being aggressive," Johnson said. "If you drive too smoothly, you're going to get beat. If you drive too aggressively, you'll beat up the truck and make a lot of enemies along the way."

Johnson, 28, of Encinitas obviously learned the lesson well. He won main events at the Coliseum and in Las Vegas and was voted rookie of the year.

He will begin his second season as a factory driver in a newly built Nelson & Nelson Racing Chevy Thunder S-10 at 7 tonight when the Mickey Thompson series opens at Anaheim Stadium. Johnson is hoping to end the domination of Toyota drivers Ivan Stewart and Rod Millen, who won six main events in 1992.

Millen became only the second driver in series history to sweep both heats and the main event here last year.

"This is the pinnacle of off-road racing and the showcase for trucks," Johnson said. "You won't find any better drivers or equipment.

"This is the Indy cars of trucks. When I decided to retire from motocross, I looked for an area where I could show my talent and desire to drive a four-wheel vehicle. Off-road racing was a natural transition."

Stewart was impressed with Johnson's debut season.

"I thought he would be a contender, but he surprised me," Stewart said. "He was much better than I thought. He obviously understands racing."

Tonight's racing will also feature four-wheel drive ATVs, 250cc motorcycles, 1,600cc dune buggies, Superlites and Sport Utility (formerly UltraStock) classes.

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