by Dave Despain
Ricky Johnson was the typical California kid motocross prodigy, a racer at age 3, dead last in his first race but a local hero by the time he was 16, the age when moto-prodigies battle for seven-digit contracts from the Japanese manufacturers. With the endorsement of big-time star Broc Glover, Johnson got help from Yamaha and reigned as 125cc Rookie of the Year in 1981.
Besides his on-track prowess, Johnson stood apart from his peers thanks to male-model good looks (he once posed nude for a controversial motocross clothing ad), a brash and often outspoken personality and, unfortunately, a serious streak of bad luck when it came to injury. For example, his rookie year in the 250cc class he won races and led the championship until his bike broke at the season's finale. But the following season that momentum was broken by a fractured collarbone and then a dislocated hip.
Still, Johnson was indomitable. He signed with Honda for 1986, teammate to David Bailey and Johnny O'Mara, fitness soul brothers who trained for motocross like Olympic athletes and treated Johnson as odd-man-out. The season-opening Anaheim Supercross was one of the great races of all time, Bailey barely edging Johnson after a race-long lead-swapping battle. The loss had a profound effect on Johnson's riding style. "I knew then," Ricky recalls, "that if I was going to beat Bailey, I would have to ride wide-open for 20 laps. He was smoother and a more gifted rider than I was, so I had to go out there and treat each race as if the championship was on the line."
Thus focused, Johnson went on to beat Bailey for the Supercross and 250cc National championships. Sadly, Bailey suffered paralyzing injuries in a racing crash at the beginning of 1987, leaving Johnson personally devastated and professionally detuned. "That took away the biggest reason I got up every morning," he remembers.
Nonetheless by the spring of 1989 Johnson had accumulated seven championships; four Motocross des Nations win, one of which earned him an audience with President Reagan; and he had just broken Bob Hannah's record for career Supercross wins. Then the curse of injury struck again. A motorcycle racer's stock-in-trade is his throttle side wrist and Johnson's was shattered in a freak crash from which he would never fully recover.
Despite the pain and immobility of the crucial joint, he won two more National races. But by the spring of '91 the writing was on the wall. Ricky retired from two-wheeled racing to pursue a car and truck career and his success is noteworthy. He's won the Baja 1000 a couple of times; he was ASA rookie-of-the-year in 1999 as teammate to now-five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and he competed in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
In 2009 Johnson founded the Traxxas TORC truck racing series, which he subsequently sold in order to concentrate on his driving career. In 2010 he won the TORC Pro2wd and he remains one of closed-course off-road racing's biggest stars.