I got involved in sprint car racing during my childhood when my father raced. He actually raced winged modifieds in Texas and Louisiana. They are Northern-style modifieds with a sprint car top wing on them and a big sprint car right rear tire. My father would take me to The World of Outlaws races at Devil’s Bowl Speedway and that’s how I got introduced to them. Growing up as a teenager I realized that racing was something I wanted to pursue.
When I became old enough to race cars I wanted to become involved. We lived in Southern Louisiana and sprint cars were not an option. I actually started off in a little bomber. My parents had instilled in me that I had to know how to work on it so at 14 years old I started building a stock car under the guidance of my father and my uncles James and Keith. My uncle James actually owned a salvage yard and my uncle Keith was really good on stock cars because he had already raced them. They helped weld the roll cage in and gut the car. It was an old Chevrolet Caprice. My uncle James had a 4 bolt, 358 Chevy that we took out of a dump truck or something like that. We got it all ready to race and finished the car about 6 months before I was even allowed to drive it. I’ll never forget it, I let my mom run a powder puff race, she was the first person to drive my car and she won the first race in it.
My first year, I believe it was 1992, I raced stock cars and right from the get go we had success. The first night out we finished 2nd. I think within 6 or 8 races we had already won 3 or 4. We actually won The Louisiana State Championship at Forest Hills Speedway in 1992 and I was the youngest driver to ever do that. That was a big race at that time, I believe there was 60-80 cars in the field.
Over the winter we went to Smiley Sitton’s flea market and auction and they had another winged-modified for sale. It was a car that Smiley had built with an independent front suspension. My father asked if I wanted to race it and I said sure. I was like 16 years old and had the chance to race the same cars as my father, of course I wanted to do it. We bid on the car, purchased it, brought it home and started getting to work on it and that’s kind of how my career got started.
In 1993 we raced the modified and got some great experience but at that point I wanted to go sprint car racing. I didn’t have the background to do it and living in Southern Louisiana wasn’t exactly an ideal sprint car hot spot. My parents weren’t in the position financially where they could just put me out on a tour and let me travel the country or anything like that.
I wanted to get out there. I graduated high school in 1994 and instead of going to college I chose to join The World of Outlaws tour. In 1994 I went on the road with Steve Beitler. I worked with Steve throughout that year and at the end of that year we were travelling down through South Texas and I met with the late John Bankston. John offered me a job to come work for him because we used to race modifieds together and he was really good friends with my dad.
Getting A Shot in a Sprint Car
One of the things we worked out was yeah, I was going to work for him and maintain his sprint car equipment but I was also going to get an opportunity to race a sprint car as well. John was getting older and he felt like it would be a good opportunity for him to try being a car owner. He had plenty of cars and plenty of equipment and we gave it a try.
In 1995 I made my very first start driving a sprint car for Mr. John Bankston down at Beaumont, Texas. I think I ran 8 or 10 races and I think we had some success and we actually raced against each other. Everything clicked right away and I felt really good in a sprint car. Unfortunately John really didn’t enjoy the owner aspect of racing in terms of expenses and obviously needing twice the crew to race like we were. There was a lot of logistics to get two cars to the race track while travelling around so that didn’t work out.
At that point my parents told me if I came home and tried college that they would sell off all of our modified stuff and race sprint cars because The Cajun Sprints in Southern Louisiana were just getting started.
Everything worked out all at the right time and I started racing with The Cajun Sprints really through 1996, 1997 and 1998. The Cajun Sprints were a carburetor, 360 division and we were fortunate enough to win several races. My career wasn’t going as smooth as I would have liked though and I wasn’t achieving the goals I had wanted to achieve so in 1998, at the age of 22 my father and I had a pretty good talk.
I wasn’t really happy at my job and my dad said “Jason, if racing is really something you want to pursue the best opportunity is to get out on the road”. At that point I’d won some races but I hadn’t won a whole lot of them. I had more fun working on a sprint car and travelling and seeing things at that time then I was at my job working at a refinery doing non-destructive testing.
At that point I knew a lot more about The World of Outlaws and I actually reached out to Sammy Swindell, Karl Kinser and Steve Kinser. I figured if I was going to get a job out there I wanted it to be with one of the best teams. I landed a job working with Steve Kinser in 1999 and worked for him for the entire year in 1999 and through the winter of that year.
At the end of 1999 Steve had Kraig in mini-sprints. He let me drive one of Kraig’s back up mini-sprints at Granite City, Illinois and I actually pulled off the win. It was a PowrI race, I think there was 80-something cars and we won with Kraig finishing 2nd or 3rd.
The Support of the King
Following that race Steve said if you want to pursue being a driver that he would support me. In the spring of 2000 we were racing down at Devil’s Bowl Speedway and we were parked right next to Lanny Row’s Shop Motorsports team. Garry Lee Maier was driving for them at the time as a fill-in driver because their full-time driver who worked at the diesel shop had broken his leg in a car accident. Garry Lee told Mr. Lanny that he didn’t think he wanted to drive the car any more and that he wasn’t going to do a good job for him because he was racing cars he wasn’t accustomed to.
I kind of overheard what was being said so I walked over and introduced myself and told Lanny I’d love to drive that car whether it was for 1 race or 5 races. Mr. Lanny called that Tuesday to give me a shot that weekend at the very first World of Outlaws race at Texas Motor Speedway. I remember being so happy that I was going to get to drive a race car and I went running into tell Steve I was going to get a shot to drive for somebody else and be a hired driver. Steve said “No, you can’t do it”. I couldn’t believe it after he had told me he said he was going to support me racing. He then explained he’d support me, but the only way he’d do it was if Lanny was willing to hire me full-time so that I could race and do it for a living. He explained I couldn’t be a one-night wonder.
Needless to say I called Mr. Lanny back and I told him exactly what Steve had told me and Lanny said “Let’s not rule that out and that he’d like to run The ASCS National Tour and I don’t have a driver because mine’s going to be out for 9 months”. We worked out the details and I got my career started by driving The Shop Motorsports #41 out of Greenville, Texas. Lanny and Alan Row owned the car and that’s kind of where it all got started.
We actually found success pretty quickly. I was fortunate to have Steve to lean on and Scott Gerkin. We stayed friends through everything and I could call them for setups and advice which helped me tremendously. We won some races and we were consistent. Along with the support of Steve and Scott along with Lanny and Alan and learning the maintenance program and how much hard work being on the road took we started to win races and build a successful package.
We went to Florida in 2001 and we had a lot of success racing with The All Stars and I got picked up for a short stint with Elden Racing who had just let Jac Haudenschild go. I drove for Jack Elden for about 6 months there and when things went bad just after Knoxville I went back to The Shop Motorsports team.
We started building some success and then Mr. Lanny’s business started going downhill and things started slowing down. Mr. Lanny said I needed to pursue other opportunities.
Racing Up North
In 2003 I went back to the Ohio area and drove for Al Harrison. 410 racing was where I wanted to be and it seemed to work out, it was great. We ran 2nd in points with The All Stars in 2003, we won our very first World of Outlaws race together at Texas Motor Speedway in October of that year. Things were clicking and we were looking forward to 2004. It was going to be great, my career was looking good, we were top 10 consistently with The Outlaws, won our first Outlaw race and I was down in Australia racing. While I was down there I got a phone call to tell me that my sister was in a severe car accident and that I needed to hurry home.
Long story short, I didn’t make it home in time to say goodbye.
I’m not really sure what happened at that point. I’m not sure if it got Al thinking or not but obviously he knew how much family meant to me and about 3 or 4 days after everything kind of settled down and I had spent some time with my family down in Louisiana he called and told me that he was getting out of the sport.
It shocked me. We had 6 cars built, had 6 Kistler engines and we were very prepared to go race with The All Stars and win a championship. We were planning on racing 100+ races that year and do a lot of travelling.
It left me in shambles. When you lose a ride in the spring it’s really, really tough. The Volcano Joe’s ride came open on The Outlaw tour and I tried to get into that but Joey Saldana got that opportunity. When Joey got that opportunity though it opened up the door to run his former ride, the Cox Fabrication #50D car at Knoxville.
I landed in that car for the year. That was a family-owned team by Bruce and Debbie Cox and it was their first year having a hired driver and after a year I think they realized it wasn’t as much fun having a hired driver as it was watching their kid drive so that came to an end.
My wife Bobbi is from Pennsylvania and we were hoping to race up there. A new team had started up there and I called to ask to drive and sure enough I got the opportunity to race for Jim and Sandy Kline for the 2005 season.
2005 was probably one of the most fun year’s I’ve had. We raced 132 nights that year. We raced 2-3 nights almost every week and sometimes up to 5 times a week while rarely travelling more than 100 miles to a race. Also, because we weren’t travelling the days off were actually days off. We got to enjoy motorcycle riding and time with the family. We parked and lived out of our motor home at Kyle and Tammy Boltz’s Jonestown KOA, formerly known as the Lickdale Campground, which is located off Interstate 81 and pretty close to the J&S Fabrication shop where they kept the car. We really enjoyed all of the activities that the campground had and we got to meet a lot of great people. It was just a really fun time.
We won the preliminary night of The Summer Nationals with The World of Outlaws at Williams Grove that year and I thought I was good for the ride but at the end of the year Fred Rahmer became available when Joe Harz retired. He and Moon Byers are really good friends and he had a lot more to bring to the table so he got the opportunity in my ride.
Out of a Ride
I had nowhere to go. I did have a solid ride in Australia with Disbury Racing so I went back and drove for them. I didn’t know what to do at that point. I called the people who I knew believed in me the most; Lanny and Alan Row. I explained that I was down and out and had nothing and asked if we could do anything together? Mr. Lanny explained that all that they had was a dually, a little bitty trailer, one car and one motor. They told me I could pick the races that I wanted to run but that they could only do 10-15 of them. I figured 10-15 was better than nothing.
We missed the first part of Florida with The ASCS National Tour but we picked it up in Baton Rouge and Houston. Things clicked. We were 1st, 2nd, 3rd and we started winning races.
One thing I remember Fred Rahmer telling me when he took my ride was “I know you’re a good kid, I know Jim and Sandy love you but until you can bring something to the table, until you have some backbone and a following behind you, you’re always going to be a gypsy going from ride to ride”.
Hearing that after losing one of the top rides really sank in. He said you have to win 20-25 races to make a statement in this sport. We went out that year in 2006 and we ran 62 races and we won 24. We had an outstanding year, we had one car and one motor. We ran the ASCS National Tour and didn’t knock a single front end out, didn’t break one shock or have one flat or any other problem and we came up 30 points short of winning the championship behind Gary Wright. Missing Florida had cost us the title.
That season was a success and from that point on I learned to look for sponsorship partners and work with people who wanted to get their name out there. Really what this sport is about is finding sponsors that want to be a part of your team and helping you achieve your goals.
I still struggle at selling myself to this day. I was brought up through my childhood being taught that you work hard for what you want. When you’re brought up like that you work on the car all day and you never take time to get some rest. In today’s world a lot of these young guys don’t have to work on the car, they don’t have to do the things we do and they have a lot more time to spend with sponsors and accommodate friends and family. As a result they build stronger relationships.
I’m learning that these days I need to take time away from being so involved with the race car and be more involved with our fans who could be potential sponsors down the road. Some sponsors want to enjoy lunch with you, some want just a mention on social media and you need to take the time to learn people and learn how they want to work with you. It takes a while to learn how to do that when you’re not really a people person.
One asset I have in my corner is my wife Bobbi. She is a real people person. She enjoys selling t-shirts, she enjoys going from coast to coast and remembers people’s names. It’s phenomenal. I can sit there talking to someone and I struggle, I can picture their face and know where they come from but I can’t remember their names.
I just grew up admiring people like Steve Kinser who gained their success by achieving victory and I just always thought that victory would produce sponsorship as an outcome but really in today’s world it’s all about relationships.
Balancing a Budget
In 2006 one of the very first things Mr. Lanny said was that we had a budget. He gave me a figure and he told me he didn’t care if I blew it in one month or nine months but this was all we had to race on. He told me I had the truck, I had the trailer, the car and the motor and this budget. He explained that if I broke a motor I barely had enough in that budget to cover the cost. He explained that was all he could give and he could not go beyond that.
At that point I realized that I had to find sponsorship. As funny as it is to say, I didn’t go through a phone looking for people, I went through a rolodex. There was a gentleman that I had met that was a car owner from Louisiana and I figured if I ever had a shot at getting a sponsor it was from that guy. I called him out of the blue, his name was Chuck DeCrane with Custom Equipment Design, Inc. (CED). He had a midget team up in Indianapolis. I called him up and told him what I was trying to do. He told me to put together a sponsorship package and come see him.
It was Tuesday and he wanted to meet on Thursday. Needless to say I worked all day and night both nights putting together a package that would fulfill his needs. I met him on the Thursday cleaned up, dressed up and trying to present myself professionally.
When I left there I left with a sponsorship agreement that he was going to support us on a monthly figure. That was the beginning for me of learning how to put sponsorship together. So now I knew I not only had Mr. Lanny’s budget but I could count on help coming on a monthly basis from CED to make this thing grow and slowly things started coming together.
I feel like I was very fortunate. We started 2006 off on a $20,000-$25,000 budget, hoping to run 15 races and we ended up running 62 races. We raced all of the way through 2009 on that original equipment and budget. No more money came into that team from Mr. Lanny, and money that came in was sponsorship driven or money earned. We won the championship in 2008, we won $50,000 in The Kasey Kahne Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 360 Challenge that year so it was an outstanding year which allowed us to purchase a second motor. We raced the same race car for all 3 years. I believe the car had 188 nights on it. There were other cars in the picture as well but it seemed like that one car had all of the success. I want to say out of those 188 nights that car had 88 or 89 wins on it. Mr. Lanny still has that car to this day, he never did sell it.
In 2006 we also had a great run at The Knoxville Nationals. We ran The 360 Nationals and while we were there we figured we’d try to run the 410 Nationals. We didn’t know how to do it but we actually picked up a sponsor I had met years ago in Pennsylvania; John Trone from Trone Outdoors. I called him up randomly and asked if he’d help support us and he explained that he was coming out for The Nationals and that he’d love to see his name on our car. Together we decided to rent a premium motor from Don Ott that he would fuel it and work with us on it. So Ott supplied the motor, John Trone paid the lease and we made the most of it. We won our preliminary night and ran third in the final on Saturday night and brought in quite a bit more cash to help out with the budget.
Throughout those years I developed a rivalry with Shane Stewart. Shane was sort of in the same position that I was in. He was looking for a ride before he got together with Paul Silva and they were really, really good. They put a team together on their own as well on a shoestring budget so we could relate to each other but we still both had to produce. We might bang wheels with each other for 1st or 2nd but we sure weren’t going to take each other out because we’d be done if we did. It was fierce and intense racing with Paul and Shane but I think it made us both better drivers.
As a driver racing in The ASCS you can make a pretty good living. Back then I think they had more races and they weren’t as widespread back then. We didn’t have to go to the West coast. I made a good living racing from ‘06 all of the way through to 2015 racing with The ASCS and I really enjoyed my time there.
One Door Closes, Another Opens
Unfortunately 2009 would be the last year for The Shop Motorsports Team. I went back to Australia and the team I’d been racing for started racing with their kids so they kind of backed off on the national scene and I found a new opportunity with businessman Alan Haynes. He had previously driven for himself so it was his first time being a car owner. At one point I was telling him this same story I’m telling you now and he asked why since I’ve learned about landing sponsorship, why I hadn’t started my own team?
I explained that it all sounds fine and dandy and that I could probably put together a lot of stuff but being able to purchase a truck and trailer is by far the biggest thing. It’s hard to come up with the cash to buy a truck and trailer. He said “I’ll tell you what, I’ll do the truck and trailer for you, but I own it, now there’s your start. I’ll get you started, now go accomplish your goal”.
Along with his guidance I was able to slowly piece things together with a lot of the sponsors while I was still in Australia. I knew that we’d had some success on The ASCS National Tour so I felt confident enough that we could keep it going. I owe a lot of that to Mr. Lanny because he allowed me to race on a budget from 2006 on through to 2009 so I kind of knew what it took to race each and every year.
As an owner you are building assets but you are not making an income. So at that point I just learned how to build this and grow it and do what you have to do to have enough money to survive.
As a smaller team we were also willing to take a chance on crew guys that weren’t spoken for or that other team’s might not have hired. We kind of weed through the crew guys. Unfortunately in our situation we are not in a position to pay these guys what they are probably worth. We are very supportive of our crew and if the opportunity presents itself to better themselves as a person, human being or in their racing career we try to encourage them and try to maintain our friendship. A lot of times that’s hard to do because with our budget we need to keep our team intact and sometimes we lose guys when we really don’t want to.
One of the things I remember growing up was that I always wanted to be as successful as Steve Kinser and win 30-something races a year but I also wanted to mimic the sponsorship and the presentation of Sammy Swindell. It goes back to the TMC days when he had the black car and the blinging truck and trailer. I try to be a combination of those two. I want to be fast but I also wanted to look good. We try to work hand in hand with each other crew guys to achieve that. We try to teach them up.
As the years go by you realize that you can’t do this all on your own. You have to have a great team. You have to embrace each position on your team. You have to break everything up and designate job. The ones who want to improve and step up the ladder don’t always have a place to step up within our own team so when another opportunity arises for that member of our team to take on more responsibility we try to support them in that opportunity.
One crew member in particular who’s been around a long time with us is Philip Dietz. Phil is like a brother to me. We are technically cousins actually. Phil has been with me since 1994. He was young and had moved to Texas and would help me every time they would come to town. He’d get the summer months off and he’d come help me. The first year that I drove for The Shop Motorsports in 2000 Philip came in worked with us. He was still in high school and he slept on the floor for 3 months just to have the opportunity to go racing every weekend. We spend a lot of time together and we’ve raced a lot together.
There are some years that it didn’t work out in terms of bringing Philip to a team I was driving for and he took another opportunity with Gary Wright for a year. When we first started Jason Johnson Racing we really couldn’t afford to pay Philip what he was really worth and we were late starting the race team. About a month before we got it going he had an offer from Kasey Kahne Racing and unfortunately he had already committed to them. As bad as he wanted to stay with us, it was 100% right for him to go and take that opportunity and I think it helped him grow into the crew chief that he is today.
Philip can run a race team just like I could run a race team back in 2006. I’m very thankful for Philip and one thing I’ve always heard from most of my successful partners on this team is that you ALWAYS hold onto that key person. You always hang onto that person who has your back through thick and thin that always believes in you even when you bust your ass, run like a dog or miss a show. That’s who Philip is for me. Philip is a 100% Jason Johnson believer in racing and in life. Even though we work together every day we still spend a lot of time together. We enjoy working out together, eating together and he’s truly a brother to me.
I had become very comfortable racing ASCS and we had made the decision in our head that we wanted to lead the series in championship wins. After winning our fifth championship we had gotten to a point where the only major 360 win we had never pulled off was The 360 Nationals at Knoxvillle. We had won almost every important 360 race at some point and we started looking for a new challenge.
Becoming an Outlaw
We wanted a new challenge and we wanted to see if we could compete with the best in the business and race with The World of Outlaws (WoO). It was a big challenge and we didn’t really know if we were ever going to get that opportunity but we had a lot of great support and then Priority Aviation came on board in 2014. The owner of Priority Aviation; Richard Marshall expressed his interest in racing with the WoO. We didn’t quite have all of the resources to do it and he stepped up, helped out out and challenged us to get more support from our other partners.
We reached out to everybody who was involved in the team from Fischer Body Shop right through to Mesilla Valley Transportation (MTV) and proposed our vision of where we wanted to be, racing with The World of Outlaws and what we wanted to achieve. We set a benchmark of what we needed to accomplish and every single one of our partners was behind it. Everyone was willing to help out to help us achieve what had become a common goal.
When we started at the beginning of last year we thought we were ready. We had just come off of 5 ASCS National championships and we thought we were prepared. We weren’t.
Probably the biggest challenge for Philip and I is that when you race with The ASCS you’re running a spec headed motor. You run it 15-25 nights or however long you plan to run it and then you put the next one in while saving a fresh one for your big races. With The WoO not only do you need to have a big track motor and a short track motor with you, you’ve also got to have a West coast car, you’ve got to have a car for Eldora-type places and you need a car for slick tracks. You’ve got different offset wheels for the West coast, different headers and mufflers and then you go to the East coast and you need 7 and 8 inch offset wheels and different equipment. We thought we were ready but it was definitely an eye opener to get out here.
Last year we did a lot of things that we had always done and we had kind of become set in our ways. We’d put a motor in and just run it out for 15 nights or whatever we could run it and then we’d put another motor in. Through the year we started figuring out which combinations worked better on short tracks and big tracks. We learned that it’s not like The ASCS where the same combination worked everywhere, we had to be adaptable. We tried to simplify things and have gotten to where we will be build 5 of the same cars but we make 1 or 2 adjustments potentially with our wing or maybe with lead or something.
Picking the Right Partners
One of the biggest things I felt we improved on from last year to this year was in product sponsorship selection. In the past I’d made decisions with my car owner’s hat on and with my budget in mind. I wasn’t necessarily making the right decisions on the components we used on our cars. Philip and I sat down and we decided that as a team we needed to work with companies that could better our team and could bring value to our team. Once example is Willie Kahne at FK Shocks.
We switched over to Factory Kahne shocks this year. Willie Kahne has been on The World of Outlaws tour for several years and was a crew chief himself and as a result we find it very easy to communicate with him. We can call him and we can tell him we are at Eldora, the track is doing this, the car is doing this and he can provide us with a tip or something to point us in the right direction. We can call him the next week in Chico, California and tell him that it’s super heavy and he can help dial us in there or make suggestions.
We have a long-lasting relationship with Maxim and we had them go back and build us a car similar to the one Steve Kinser had all of his success with.
I think when you choose loyalty and don’t get caught up in the sponsorship aspect of running the team your team gets stronger because you are working with people that actually believe in you. They may not have the cheapest product or a free product but they are the people who believe in you and want to see you succeed.
We have had several highlights over the course of racing with The Outlaws. An interesting thing for me has been being able to work with different drivers. Obviously getting hurt at Placerville wasn’t a highlight but to know that you’ve had Jason Meyers climb in your race car really helps your team. He struggled just like I was and he brought a lot of insight to our team. We made a great friend that we still lean on today after Jason drove for us.
Jamie Veal came from Australia and brought a vast amount of knowledge to our team about how they race short tracks. He taught us quite a bit as well.
Obviously Sammy Swindell is full of knowledge as well.
One thing we learned though was that all 3 drivers liked different things. There’s no secret to this, you have to do what works for you. We could go down and switch cars tonight with Daryn Pittman or Donny Schatz but it doesn’t mean you’re going to win because you’re just not the same driver. You have to learn what works for you.
I was very pleased to run 2nd at The Kings Royal and we locked into The Knoxville Nationals last year after running 2nd on our preliminary night. We had a top 3 runs at Dodge City and Skagit so we did have some good runs that were confidence builders for us last year.
We are at about the halfway point of our season right now (Kings Royal). Our team sets down goals at the beginning of the year because it’s obviously very easy to get beaten down out here. One of the things we want to do is be a top 10 team on a consistent basis. Some nights we run 5th and some nights we run 14th but on average we’re about a 10th place car. A lot of people get confused on what it means to be with The Outlaws. I think you have to build on consistency to be an Outlaw.
The second half of this year we want to be consistently a top 5 car which is very, very difficult to do. Just being out here on The World of Outlaws tour doesn’t make you a World of Outlaws driver and it doesn’t make you a World of Outlaws team. It makes you a part of their association and one of their guys but it doesn’t classify you as a World of Outlaws driver or team.
In our eyes a World of Outlaws driver or team is a team that denies victory to all of the locals. It is being the driver and team that wins their fair portion of the races throughout the year. Those are the drivers and teams that make The World of Outlaws who they are. When you stop and look at Donny Schatz winning four championships and Brad Sweet, Shane Stewart and Daryn Pittman winning 6 or 7 races each, those are The World of Outlaws drivers. Those are The World of Outlaws teams in my eyes.
We still have some work to do to get to that point but truly, that is the ultimate goal.