Around 10:15 a.m. on Sunday, I was scrolling through Twitter and came across a highlight video from the 2016 Knoxville Nationals A-Main.
It was one of most intense and enjoyable moments in my 41 years of watching dirt-track racing. The electricity, the heart-pounding action, the sport’s biggest stage, and the celebration. Jason Johnson’s epic win over Donny Schatz had it all.
I didn’t need a video to jog my memory, but it seemed appropriate. Johnson did something few in Sprint Car racing could do: He gave everyone involved in the sport a lasting moment to remember forever.
But Johnson was so much more.
The World of Outlaws announced Sunday morning that Johnson, affectionately known as the Ragin Cajun because of his Louisiana roots, had succumbed to injuries he suffered in a horrific crash Saturday night at Wisconsin’s Beaver Dam Raceway. He was 41.
Johnson, who resided in Missouri, was battling for the lead on a restart and flipped violently heading into Turn 3. He was extracted from the car and airlifted to Aurora Summit Hospital.
After the announcement of his passing, social media lit up with condolences and prayers for the family. There were stories of racing exploits on the track and kindness off, giving all who read a glimpse of who Johnson, the man, was.
I didn’t know Johnson personally. There were post-race interviews and a few discussions off the record, but I never had the pleasure of going to dinner or simply hanging out with him. That’s kind of taboo in my business.
But here is what I do know. And if there is nothing else, if not another word is spoken, it’s enough for me.
Johnson, the racer, was dedicated and talented. He ran his own team up-and-down the road with the World of Outlaws, a tall order in this expensive game. Not only did he compete, he succeeded at the highest level.
Before running full time with the World of Outlaws, he was a five-time Lucas Oil American Sprint Car Series Champion. His 360 Sprint Car exploits were plentiful and warranted him moving up in class to take on the best.
Johnson did that and more. On the surface, 12 World of Outlaw wins might not seem like a lot, but he’s only been full time since 2015. Besides, anytime you reach double digits against the traveling band, you are doing something special.
Then there was Johnson’s 2016 Nationals triumph. He battled lap after lap with Donny Schatz, the best Sprint Car driver in the world and arguably all time, and won in a thriller that won’t be forgotten by fans in attendance or watching on Pay-Per-View. It was the type of run that borders on legendary.
But Johnson’s contribution off the track, in his personal life, far exceed any trophy or first-place check. It’s the true measure of a person.
Johnson was a true family man. There wasn’t an interview I did with him that he didn’t mention his family, whether it was his wife Bobbi, his son Jaxx, or his parents, and the support they gave him.
In my business, you learn what is genuine and what is lip service. Johnson’s words were never forced or scripted. When he mentioned his family and the people who were behind him, it came from the heart.
That was the real Jason Johnson. If you only knew him as the guy ripping around the cushion in search of glory, you missed out.
I’m lucky to know people who knew Johnson. The acts of good will he showed people he called, “Friend,” will never be forgotten.
It came in different forms. Whether it was helping a photographer with his motorhome, inviting someone to dinner, or simple advice about being on the road, Johnson was a good guy who displayed kindness.
Johnson didn’t have to do that. He was a star in the Sprint Car game — especially after winning the Nationals — and could have kept to himself or been a loaner basking in his own success.
But that wasn’t Johnson. Not even close.
Instead, Johnson was a good Sprint Car driver and an even better human being. A true ambassador for the sport.
In the upcoming days, there will be many stories of Johnson’s racing exploits and taking time for family, friend, or fan. It will further add to his legacy as a person, but none will surprise me.
It’s the Johnson I know. The one who will be remembered.