The racing fraternity is a unique breed. In some instances we can be more than brutal with one another. I’ve said many times that it frustrates me to no end to see how vicious both fans and racers can be with not only their words but sometimes even their actions. There’s bickering over favorite drivers, on-track incidents, and sometimes even derogatory debates over which division is the best.
While we can all be guilty at times of waging our own wars with our racing brethren, there is a completely opposite aspect that shows itself over and over again. As a sport we take care of our own, and when tragedy strikes in the racing world we put our differences aside to come together to support one another. Such is the case right now as we all struggle to come to grips with the untimely passing of Jason Johnson.
Known throughout the Sprint Car ranks as “The Ragin Cajun,” Johnson was a hard-nosed competitor, who had worked his way up the ladder of the racing world. From his humble beginnings on the local scene he fought tooth and nail to reach his ultimate dreams behind the wheel of his familiar No 41 Sprinter.
Through hard work and perseverance the five-time Lucas Oil American Sprint Car Series (ASCS) Champion excelled to the pinnacle of the sport in 2015, when he acquired adequate funding to pursue the full World of Outlaws (WoO) Craftsman Sprint Car Series docket.
Johnson’s rookie season would be full of adversity, but he never gave up. In fact, not even a fractured back sustained in a wreck at California’s Placerville Speedway in April 2015 would keep him from reaching his dreams. Despite being sidelined for a few months as he recovered, he still was able to return to the driver’s seat to claim the 2015 WoO Rookie of the Year Award.
That’s just the kind of guy that Jason Johnson was. He was determined, driven, and damn fun to watch on the race track. He was an all or nothing kind of guy.
It was that same focus and determination that catapulted him into an upset win on Sprint Car racing’s biggest stage in 2016. The Louisiana native held off perennial Knoxville Nationals favorite Donny Schatz to win the crown jewel event at the famed Knoxville Raceway. It was regarded as perhaps one of the greatest Knoxville Nationals of all-time.
For me personally, it will go down forever in my mind as one of the greatest Victory Lane celebrations of all time.
Johnson left nothing on the table as he and crew celebrated with unparalleled exuberance. When reporter Dave Argabright inquired about his aggressive driving to protect the lead in the closing laps of the event, Johnson proudly exclaimed, “Shit, I wanted to win!”
With ambition Johnson embarked on the 2018 campaign. On the heels of consistency the team was fifth in the current WoO standings and had claimed two wins within the past few weeks. Everything seemed to be on the upswing for Jason Johnson Racing. Sadly, life threw an unexpected curve ball at the Johnson family and the entire racing fraternity on Saturday, June 23.
As Jason battled for the lead on lap 18 at Wisconsin’s Beaver Dam Raceway, he and Daryn Pittman made incidental contact. The result of the melee sent Johnson for a vicious ride into the turn three barricades. He was extracted from his car and airlifted to a nearby hospital. Sadly in the early hours of Sunday, June 24 he succumbed to his injuries.
Jason Johnson was only 41 years old.
As the devastating news spread like wildfire through the racing world early Sunday morning, the outpouring of sympathy and grief was immediate across social media channels, forums, and news sites. In his wake he left behind his wife Bobbi as well as his five-year-old son Jaxx. His immediate family was joined by thousands of members of the racing fraternity who ached from this horrible loss.
As I tearfully read the news Sunday morning, I began to receive countless grief-stricken messages from my racing brethren. From the expected comments of “This can’t be true can it,” to notes of “What do you think we can do to help,” the messages were aplenty.
And just like that, during this darkest of times I was reminded just how special our racing family truly is. Fans, crew, staff, and racers from all forms of dirt track racing immediately began to come together to support the Johnson family and to let them know that they were definitely not alone.
Profile and cover photos on Facebook and Twitter were replaced with Jason Johnson memorials. Fans, competitors, and media began sharing their favorite memories of the racer.
A phone call that stood out to me came from COMP Cams Super Dirt Series CEO Chris Ellis. He called and said, “I know we’re a Super Late Model group, but what can our series do to support the Johnson family?” It’s no big secret that the Sprint Car and Late Model world rarely intermingle, so found it so awesome that different forms of dirt track racing were immediately coming together to support a fallen brother.
I had additional phone calls from several racers asking if there were any places they could donate to support the family. Track owners called to ask if there was anything special they could do to honor Johnson’s memory at their upcoming events.
Across social media I took notes of posts that really struck home. One of those came from WoO Sprint Car announcer John Gibson. It read as follows:
“Here’s the thing about racing: When it breaks your heart, it’s racing PEOPLE that help to start the mending process. A night at Dingus in Knoxville with friends/my racing “family” was exactly what I needed after an afternoon of driving from Beaver Dam and trying to process the events of the last 24 hours. And as I remember Jason, mourn his loss, and send my love to his family, I continue to keep Daryn Pittman and his family in mind as well. Anyone who heard him in victory lane knows how much he’s hurting too.”
Johnny hit the proverbial nail on the head. It’s the people in the racing world that get us through the hardest of times. There’s no shame on leaning on your racing family in your greatest time of need. Another point that John made that is so true is that as a community and a sport we need to get behind Daryn Pittman with everything we have. This is an incredibly tough time for one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.
A Sunday night Twitter post from Pittman also caught my attention.
“Today has been one of the toughest days of my life trying to process everything from last night! Words can’t describe the pain i feel for the Johnson Family! Jason was an incredible competitor, an amazing dad & a great person. Plz cont. to pray for Bobbi, Jaxx & the Johnson Family!”
There’s no easy answer here, and this pain is going to be something that we all will have to deal with for time to come. As I tried to come to grips with it on Sunday morning I talked things out with my wife, Sheryl. She didn’t grow up around racing, and even now she isn’t nearly as entrenched in it as I am. So, sometimes she can see things from the outside that I can’t see as I stand in the middle of it all. Her perspective about the pain we all feel for the passing of Jason Johnson really helped me, and maybe it will some of you as well.
She said, “I’ve come to learn that the racing world is so unique, and it’s really a tight-nit group. It doesn’t matter if you knew the person well or not, it still hurts you deep into your soul when someone from the sport unexpectedly passes away. You feel like they are part of the family, and to know you’ll never get the chance to see them at the track again cuts deep. That’s why it’s so important for you to all support one another in these times of need by standing together tall.”
I’d like to think this will be the last time that we ever have to deal with the loss of a member of our racing fraternity, but the undeniable reality is that racing is a dangerous sport. There’s always a chance for a freak accident. It’s a risk that we all understand, and that we all accept. After all, racing is in our blood, and it’s what we do and what we love.
I think Jason’s wife, Bobbi summed it all up best with a recent post.
“Let’s stay together as a racing family, the one Jason and I always loved together being a part of, so we can care for one another during not only this time, but all the time. Treat each other right no matter what. Let’s commit to pray for strength for each other and better days ahead for everyone. That is what Jason would want for all of us. I am heartbroken for sure, but so grateful for you all and the support you all have shown! Thank you!”