Ricky Johnson may be the best racer you’ve never heard of. In the 1980s he made a name for himself in Motocross by winning the AMA National Championship seven times. In his 1989 season, Johnson had an accident and broke his wrist — he would never fully recover and was forced to retire from motorcycle racing in 1991 at the age of 26. He then made the transition from two wheels to four and won the Baja 1000 twice, won the TORC Pro 2 Championship in 2010 and the TORC Pro 4 Championship in 2011 and 2012. Despite the considerable wins, he still seems to fly under the radar.
Johnson most recently has played an integral part in creating the Red Bull Frozen Rush (and he also won the event the inaugural year, 2014). We were able to grab a few minutes with Ricky after qualifying sessions at this year’s Frozen Rush.
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Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Know your limits. That goes for everything from driving to women.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. Surf and turf, pasta and a glass of white wine with my wife.
Q: If you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say?
A: Save your money, and don’t spend it on too many stupid cars.
Q. Who or what inspires you?
A. People with panache. It’s a French word that means flare, that means style, that means guts, that means balls, that means you give 100 percent no matter whatever you do. There’s not really an American word for it. So it doesn’t matter if it’s a guy cooking, or it’s a cage fighter. I just love watching people that have passion in whatever they do. If you want to be the best at it, I admire you.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. For the past eight years I’ve been training military special forces. I work with American forces: Army, Navy, a little bit of the Marines. These guys put themselves in harm’s way, and they go out there and they go fight. I admire them, and respect them, and I want to give them the tools that I have. I can’t shoot very well or fight very well, but I can drive the crap out of vehicles, so I want to make them first to the fight and first away from the fight.
I just love watching people that have passion in whatever they do. If you want to be the best at it, I admire you.
Q. How did you start racing?
A. It started out when I was a little kid. I was three years old and I was crawling all over my sister’s mini bike — she was 4 years older than me. My dad saw a mini bike at Sears and picked it up. It was just a little one and a half-horsepower thing that I rode up and down the street. Then, someone moving in across the street said “oh we’re racing on the weekend, want to go?” and I said yes. I was scared to death and finished dead last. I was racing my shadow the whole night long. I thought I was racing for second-to-last, but I was actually a distant last. But after that I just felt like that was my special purpose. It was just a way for a boy to feel like a man, and now at this age it’s a way for an old man to feel like a boy.
Q. How did you make the transition from two wheels to four?
A. Well, when my wrist was broken they had to fuse it, and I was forced to retire in 1991 because it couldn’t take the stress of riding. I watched NASCAR guys who looked quite a bit older, and I was in my 20s at the time, so I thought I would try off-road racing. I thought maybe Chevrolet would give me a shot because it’s Supercross — same fan base, you know — and they did. I was fortunate enough that they gave me a shot at it and I started racing in stadiums and I’ve done a bit of everything. I’ve done stock cars, I’ve done ASA, I’ve done desert racing, I’ve done X-Games and things like that, so I was able to take what I learned in Motocross and Supercross about being a racer and put that into four wheels.
Q. What do you prefer, two wheels or four?
A. Two wheels, if I had my choice. But I’m 50 now. I didn’t coin the term but I use it quite a bit: “with age comes the cage”. So at this age I love a cage and I love four wheels because I can still drive like I’m 20 years old. But, if you took me at my strongest point I would rather go Motocross or Supercross because the fatigue factor, the strength and the ability to endure pain comes into the mix, so 99 percent of the time the best rider wins.
Q. Do you have any pre-race routines or rituals?
A. Mostly I just like to be by myself. It’s tough because you have to deal with the press a lot, and I usually have friends and family come and watch me. But I’m working, so as much as I’d like to spend time with them I need to be alone to focus.
Q. Do you have any diets or exercises that help you stay in top racing form?
A. Well, I’ve been in a few accidents so I need to take things easy. I usually go hiking or road biking. Back when I was riding I was 6-foot-1 and around 180 to 185 pounds; it mattered more then. Now I just try to live an active and healthy lifestyle.
Q. What tips do you have for aspiring racers?
A. Watch other racers. If there’s a faster guy out there, use his racing line and watch his braking points. Be willing to learn from other drivers.
Q. What do you love most about racing?
A. Just the ability to get out there and go hard. If I felt like I was in the way and was just here to “compete”, I’m not going to do it. If I have a shot to win I’m going to put everything on the line. I feel I have the ability, the strength, the mindset and panache to go win. Does that mean I think I’m going to win every race? No, but I believe I have the ability, and if things go right I’ll be the guy at the top of the podium.
See Johnson compete at the Red Bull Frozen Rush on NBC at 2pm ET Sunday, March 1st.