- Advertisement -
|Queen Creek, Ariz.|
|Hoosier, Race Technik, VMware/Digital Fuel, AiM|
|Specialist at VMware/Digital Fuel|
Favorite TV show:
|“The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” by Stephen R. Donaldson|
It’s no secret that racing is tough on a car, often testing the limits of a vehicle’s build and suspension. So when Rick Johnson mentions that his Mini Cooper has 20,000-plus race miles on it, you wonder how that’s possible.
“It’s got 11 solid years of racing on it and it’s just been phenomenal,” said Johnson, who races a 2003 Mini Cooper S. “We’re afraid at some point it’s going to fall apart. I can’t get rid of it.”
Despite the aerodynamics of a shoebox, the Mini Cooper with Johnson at the wheel is a force to be reckoned with. Competitors in Performance Touring B and Time Trials B in NASA’s Arizona region know that Johnson will always be in the mix.
Johnson has had success beyond the Arizona region, winning NASA’s 2014 Western States Championship in Performance Touring B and Time Trials B. Those victories qualified him for the Mazda Race of NASA Champions last year, where he finished 14th overall. Prior to that, Johnson had finished on the podium three times at National Championships races.
The 46-year-old Johnson was a latecomer to auto racing, but he should have started in high school in Fresno, Calif. Johnson racked up eight speeding tickets his first year of driving and was summoned to meet with the traffic court judge.
“I go in there and sit down and the judge goes, ‘You cannot get another speeding ticket or I’m going to have to do something,’” Johnson said. “My Dad just shook his head and said, ‘I don’t believe what just happened. We just met with a judge who told you to slow down.’ I did slow down after that, but it wasn’t ever like I was out street racing. It was just the way I drove.”
Going fast was in Johnson’s DNA. He came of high school ranked third nationally in the 100-meter butterfly and went to the University of Southern California for swimming.
It wasn’t until his early 30s that Johnson started doing NASA HPDE after leaving a management consulting job that kept him traveling almost 250 days a year. Friends and instructors encouraged Johnson to move into racing.
Johnson met a mechanic Doug Chernis, who was converting a group of Mini Coopers into racecars for a Scottsdale dealership. Johnson got a ride in a Mini Cooper and loved it.
“I spent 20 minutes on the track laughing my butt off in the passenger seat of this thing,” said Johnson, who lives in Queen Creek outside Phoenix. “The brakes were amazing. It was just so much fun. We were having a blast and I’m like, ‘I have to get one of these.’”
Chernis later went on to start Race Technik in Mesa, Ariz., and Johnson uses the race shop to maintain the car and provide support at races. Johnson’s strength is in data and video acquisition, and analyzing the information.
Having the data helped get Johnson through mental barriers on the track such as braking deeper into turns. “Data is extremely important if you really want to improve,” he said.
Johnson is looking to advance his video program by mounting cameras in the wheel wells so he can watch the suspension and see what happens to the car in curves and braking zones.
Chernis said Johnson is good at communicating what changes he wants to the Mini Cooper.
“At this point the car is so well dialed in, it’s mostly fine-tuning tires,” Chernis said. “That’s from him being able to tell me what he needs the car to do so that I can make it happen mechanically.”
Chernis credits the longevity of the Mini Cooper to Johnson’s approach at the track, where test sessions and qualifying are kept to a minimum. The car hasn’t been in a significant accident and a little luck has helped too.
The luck ran out for the car’s engine at the 2013 National Championships while Johnson was chasing down the leaders with two laps to go. No gauges showed anything abnormal, but Johnson later discovered a crack in the cylinder, causing it to lose all the coolant. The temperature gauge was actually reading the air temperature.
Johnson will frequently campaign a second car at NASA races, and in the past has owned a Porsche GT3 Cup Car and two stock cars. He has another stock car that is getting prepared for the 2017 season.
“For me, a spec series was really attractive because I wanted to learn and develop my skills as a driver and as a racer,” Johnson said. “That’s really my driving force.”
Tage Evanson, NASA Arizona’s Regional Director, said Johnson is a fierce competitor, but once he started seeing some success with the Mini Cooper, the car got greater scrutiny from competitors.
“Just like any Type A personality, he really looked at the rules,” Evanson said. “I wouldn’t say he bent them, but he went right to the limit.”
Chernis called out the “scrutineers” by noting that the car passed all race inspections.
Evanson said Johnson is well liked at the track and can poke fun at himself. For several years the Mini Cooper had a Cold Stone Creamery wrap to promote the franchise Johnson owned with his wife, Kim. When Johnson left the paddock for the track, he would play ice cream truck songs on a portable PA system.
“He’s just a lot of fun to watch, especially because the car is just so cute,” Evanson said with a laugh.
Out on the track, Johnson finds inner peace and life balance, a welcomed break from a high-stress career.
“I could do this every single day for the rest of my life and probably be the happiest person ever,” he said. “If there was a way I could be on a racetrack every single day, I would do it.”