Younger Johnson Excels in Family Business
There are plenty of examples of driving skill being passed from generation to generation in auto racing.
The Unser and Andretti clans have had two generations of success, and the Petty family has three generations of winners.
At the local level, Rod Johnson of Canyon Country is among several second-generation drivers on the Irwindale Speedway roster with family ties dating to the glory days at Saugus Speedway.
Johnson’s story stands out for many reasons.
He is competing successfully in two classes at Irwindale, which is a rarity. Johnson leads the Super Late Model division by 42 points over A.J. DiMarzo of Saugus and is fourth in the Grand American Modified standings.
Super Late Models use 450-horsepower engines and weigh 500 pounds more than the Grand American Modifieds, but use wider tires that generate faster lap speeds. A typical Grand American Modified engine produces over 700 horsepower.
Johnson is not exactly following in his father’s tire tracks. Don Johnson won nine track championships at Saugus as an owner and chassis set-up person.
“He never told me he wanted to drive,” said Don, who first heard of his son’s racing ambition from a woman who worked next door to the family’s racing shop.
Rod was 21 when he began racing at Saugus in 1982. He did not start in the street stock class like most rookies, racing 700-horsepower modifieds from the get-go.
“If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t start him in the top class,” said Don, who has been associated with many drivers in 41 years of racing, including Jimmy Insolo, Dan Press and Oren Prosser, five-time Saugus Speedway champion.
Press joined forces with the Johnsons in Rod’s sixth season, and made a lasting impact on Johnson’s driving.
"[Press] really turned me from a mid-pack runner into a front-runner,” Rod said. “My car was set up like his, and he started telling me, ‘If it’s set up this way, you have to drive it this way.’ ”
Rod stopped competing on Saugus’ one-third-mile flat oval in 1992, three years before its closure, to try his luck on the one-half-mile track at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield. He finished second in the Grand American Modified points standings at Mesa Marin four consecutive years before returning to the Los Angeles area this year for Irwindale’s inaugural season.
“Me and dad figured it was time to go someplace else and learn something else,” Rod said about competing in Bakersfield.
Don attributes Rod’s current success to simple arithmetic, saying: “Driving two cars gives him more laps on this track than anybody else.”
The double-duty is a one-shot deal for Rod, who is planning to sell the Grand American car after the season and use the money to buy a house.
He hopes to move up next year to either the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour or the NASCAR Winston West series. He competed in three Featherlite races in 1998, and was planning the same this year, but success at Irwindale changed his plans.
“We’re leading the points in the [Super Late Model], so we decided to try and put all of our effort into that,” Rod said.
DiMarzo won the 30-lap Super Late Model main event on Saturday, followed by Brian Kelley of Arleta and Johnson. . . . Doug McComb of Thousand Oaks was declared winner of the Super Stock main event after T.K. Karvasek failed the technical inspection for the second consecutive race. Karvasek fell from second to fourth in the points standings, and McComb moved from fourth to second. . . . Art Nevill of Acton won the Legends main event. . . . Johnson won the 30-lap Grand American Modified main on Friday night after taking the lead on the third lap. . . . Gerrit Cromsigt of Pine Mountain Club outran Dusty McDonald of Simi Valley in the 30-lap Late Model main event, and Lee Ladd of Thousand Oaks won the 20-lap Mini Stock main event.
Charlie Venegas of San Bernardino won the four-lap Speedway motorcycle main event on Sunday at Ventura Raceway, with John Matherson of Las Flores and James Eiland of Rancho Cucamonga winning the four-lap sidecar main event. . . . John Dupree won the 20-lap 600cc Pro race at the Outlaw Vintage Short Track Motorcycle races on Saturday night. . . . Eddie Castro of Ojai won the 10-lap Class C Handshift main event and Mearl Barnett won the 10-lap Class C Footshift main event.