By Larry Ott
Jimmy Johnson stood in the pit area Saturday at Raceway 5 in Batavia preparing for the opening of another season. While it is normal for the veteran 360 Late Model class driver to be busy in the pits on race day, there was something very different about his appearance.
Instead of changing into his driver’s suit as race time approached, he was set to work in the pit area all night in his sweatshirt and jeans. Johnson, who has amassed many wins and championships over the years, was busy Saturday helping his son, Jimmy, and his daughter, Sarah, prepare their cars for the night of competition.
Due to the time and workload of maintaining two race cars for his kids, the elder Johnson has parked his own race car for the time being to devote his full attention to helping his offspring as they develop their own racing careers.
The younger Jimmy Johnson competes in the 360 Late Model class while Sarah races in the Sportsman class in a car that is also prepared by racer Ray Bliss.
“I’m building a new chassis and everything that I’ve started and I’m about two-thirds of the way through it. But I’m going to concentrate on my two kids this year and try to keep them rolling good. If I get my car done later in the season I’ll get it out and maybe play for a couple of races at the end of the year,” said the elder Johnson.
It is very common in the local racing community for veteran drivers to temporarily put their driving careers on hold or to end them altogether for the sake of devoting themselves to the careers of younger family members or friends.
“I really enjoy watching the kids and helping,” Johnson said. “I’ve been working with three cars the last couple years. My son Jimmy started in the Late Model class and it was kind of nice for Sarah because I could put my two cents in and with Jimmy we just had to go on the fly.”
Sarah, 19, is busy these days not only with her stock car racing endeavor but also is busy applying herself to her studies at Fredonia State College, where she is majoring in psychology and criminal justice with a minor in sociology.
“I started racing when I was 14 and have been racing Mini Stocks and Sportsman,” Sarah said. “This is my second year in the Sportsman and I think I finished 10th in points last year. I had a couple top-fives. It was nice. I’m very busy between the racing and the school work.”
As Sarah was busy helping to prepare her car in the pits Saturday, her brother was equally busy in his adjacent pit stall getting his 360 Late Model ready for battle.
Jimmy is also a college student and will graduate from the University at Buffalo on May 18 with a degree in communications.
“I guess my sister and me are trying to keep a family tradition going,” said Jimmy Johnson, who is 22. “This is my third year racing here at Batavia. I also tried to follow the BRP Can-Am 360 Late Model tour a little last year. This year both myself and my sister will be racing every week at both Freedom Speedway and here at Batavia.
“I started my racing three years ago by jumping right into the Late Models. It’s been a pretty steep learning process. There’s a lot to take in, I guess, but it helps having my dad with 25 years of racing experience.”
The Johnsons as well as their fellow Raceway 5 competitors will have to wait another week to hit the track because late in the afternoon Saturday, the sun was swallowed up by a massive rain front that hit the Batavia area and canceled the evening’s race program after just one heat qualifying race - that in the Street Stocks where Brad Shepard took the checkered flag.
The recent rains have been a real problem for promoters this spring as all area racing activity was washed away this past weekend. Raceway 5 promoter Jim Mazur tried hard all week to get his track ready but will try again next Saturday.
“I got here at 6 this morning and we had all our equipment out there today trying to pack the track in,” Mazur said. “I knew the bad weather in the area would probably keep the crowd down but we tried hard for the racers because everyone wants to race.”
• The local auto racing community is mourning the death of longtime Elegant Builders Raceway Park official and tow truck operator Michael Myers, who died last week. Known simply in racing circles as “Mac,” Myers was well known as a friendly and loyal race official who served the Lancaster-based track well for over 40 years. He also was a member of the Buffalo-based Clutch Artists club.
• Area speedways have been hit hard by the rain drops thus far in 2014. Ransomville Speedway has had all its activity canceled due to inclement weather, including two scheduled practice sessions as well as last Friday night’s season opener.
• Merrittville Speedway has lost the first two race nights of its season to rain. Elegant Builders Raceway Park had Friday’s IHRA drag racing season opener as well as Saturday’s preseason stock car practice washed away.
• Dave Buchanan is hosting “Fast Track” each Sunday at 11 a.m. on Radio 550 AM. The call-in show features local, national and international racing news, results and discussions.