Pro Stock Biker Steve Johnson lovin’ life — supersized, please

REACTION TIME

By Susan Wade

A funny thing happened to Steve Johnson on the way to McDonald’s.

The veteran NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle rider discovered that he probably isn’t qualified to work there.

“I’ve been racing 24 years nonstop. It’s the only thing I know,” the Californian transplanted in suburban Birmingham, Ala., said. “I probably couldn’t even get a job at McDonald’s, but I know about Pro Stock Motorcycle racing.”

Indeed he does.

He knows how to win the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, including how to win it “upon further review.” He beat Matt Smith to the finish line in 2005 but got his trophy only after Smith held the Wally, did the post-race interviews, and was declared champion of the Labor Day classic at O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis. He beat Andrew Hines last year for the honor and was able to enjoy his victory the same day.

Johnson knows, too, how satisfying it is to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship, which starts this week with the Indianapolis race that’s presented by Lucas Oil.

He’s fifth in the standings and looking for what he calls “a mental moment.”

In trying to put an Indianapolis victory in perspective, not only for posterity but also for an edge in the six-race playoff, Johnson said, “If you can win this race and have not only points momentum, you can have just a mental moment on these guys. . . .

“That’s why this championship, this Full Throttle Championship, for me is way more important than [for] anybody. . . . It’s just everything to me,” the C&L Companies Suzuki rider said. “And this last six races is my shot to take our team and my company to the final promised land.”

A third U.S. Nationals triumph, which would elevate him into the company of motorcycle greats Terry Vance and John Myers, would serve several purposes, he said: “For me to win, it would be great to have the money, because we need the money. I’d love the points. But it would be so fun at the next race to tell everybody, ‘Hey, who is No. 1 right now?’ ”

Funny, he tried that once — with somewhat embarrassing results. After winning the U.S. Nationals, in 2005, he recalled, he “put a big No. 1 on the back door. It was 12 feet high, the ‘No. 1.’ I was like, ‘We’re No. 1!!’

“It all backfired,” he said, noting that while he went to the final round at the next race, at Memphis, his bike broke at the starting line. “But I was rubbing it in everybody’s face. But I was just so damn proud to be No. 1. Our sport’s pretty humbling.”

Johnson, who easily could entertain for hours in a Las Vegas showroom, turned serious — for a split second when expressing what winning at drag racing’s “Big Go” would mean.

“What it would mean is I’m a pretty fragile guy when it boils down to it. It’s a mental thing. If I go in there and I ride good and the team makes the right calls and we win the race, I’m going to just get in everybody’s face and say, ‘I’m winning!!’ ” he said.

This oldest, longest-lasting, and most prestigious race in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series is strategic . . . for all of those reasons. “Being part of the fraternity of the four-wheel guys, but it’s our special deal [too], because when it’s special for those guys it’s like, ‘Wow! It’s got to be big!’ ”

Johnson used to be the Pro Stock Motorcycle class’ liaison to the sanctioning body, its spokeman. But he gave up that role several years ago to focus simply on securing sponsorship and winning rounds and races. It paid off in 2008, when he won back-to-back races at Indianapolis and the brand-new zMax Dragway at Concord, N.C.

“I got out of the political end of it, and to most the traditional and the mental part of it,” Johnson said. “Charlotte has always been what I’ve thought as my special deal, just because it’s a $70 million facility or whatever it was. Winning over there was so cool after winning here at Indy when we went back-to-back. When you tie it together, these are the two most special races for me.”

The Carolinas Nationals is Stop No. 2 on the Countdown trail.

And Johnson has been comparing notes with pal Larry Dixon, who heads into the Countdown as the Top Fuel class’ top-seeded driver.

“I knock on Dixon’s door, and I’m standing in his basement,” Johnson said. “Let me tell you, when you go into Dixon’s basement, there are like 700 Wallys — well, not 700, but there’s Wallys everywhere. It’s like wallpaper.

“So I’m looking at those and I’m sleeping there on the couch, and . . . but I’m looking at those trophies, and I’m like this is motivation to win Indy.”

He said he and Dixon have a bond that’s all about passion for drag racing. “We love what we do. You guys know this is not a money deal for us,” Johnson said.

For Johnson, the thrill is on two wheels rather than four, like his fellow pros in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Modified.

“Motorcycles only go 200 in six seconds. But the fuel cars, we look at those guys and we can’t even believe them. But I tell you, when you see somebody that’s not a real seasoned rider and they struggle, it really gives you a lot of respect for how fast a Pro Stock Motorcycle is. I don’t think the fans can even comprehend what it’s like to hang on and not have the roll bar and seat belts and all that kind of stuff.”

But he loves it.

“I go back to the McDonald’s thing. It’s all high stakes or having to do dishes. This is what I do to pay my bills,” Johnson said. “I’m very fortunate at 3 o’clock in the morning when I’m doing more and more proposals all the time that I’m sitting there and falling asleep and I just work through it. I must be doing this because I love racing.

“You know, 100 grand a year, jeepers creepers, you could do that anywhere,” he said. “I absolutely love what I do.”

Passion . . . Steve Johnson would like that super-sized, please.

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