Ten wins not out of the question for Johnson

Look for Ronnie Johnson to win 10 modified races this year.
Ronnie Johnson sits in his modified on victory lane after a victory at Fonda Speedway last season.
Ronnie Johnson sits in his modified on victory lane after a victory at Fonda Speedway last season.

It’s a good time of year for going out on a limb.

Like so many other college basketball fans, I failed to cash in on my NCAA bracket (I had Wisconsin. Thanks, Badgers).

And in three weeks, the starting gate at Churchill Downs will open for the Kentucky Derby (I’m really starting to like Carpe Diem).

So what the heck, here’s another pick.

Ronnie Johnson will win 10 races this year.

Let’s make one thing clear. This isn’t Johnson’s pick, and considering he’s never won 10 modified races in a season, it looks like the ultimate long shot.

But I’m sticking with it for two reasons. One, Johnson is still one of the best drivers out there. And two, he’s long overdue.

Johnson is coming off a horrendus season. It began with a vicious opening-night wreck at Fonda Speedway, and got worse when mentor and close friend JoJo DeSarbo died. He won one race at Fonda, and that was the high point of the season.

But Johnson is good at turning the page, and he can’t wait to get started this year.

“I’m a competitor,” he said earlier this week. “I want to race to win, not just to be out there. Last year, I felt like we were going to go out on opening night and get a win, and I still think we were on target for that win. But in a blink of an eye, I trashed a car and hurt an engine. I blamed the rest of what happened last year on that wreck. We never got any momentum going after that.”

The “we” Johnson is talking about are his crew and car owners Alton and Carole Palmer. Johnson refers to them as his family, and there’s nothing insincere about his comments.

“I’ve got the best car owners you could ask for, my sponsors are second to none, my crew is second to none, my wife and my daughter are second to none,” he said. “I feel the same way I did last year, that I can come out and win on opening night. Then it’s just a case of keeping the car in one piece and building on that.”

Johnson and Palmer have put together quite a stable of TEO cars and JPM motors. When asked how much equipment he has, Johnson answered, “A bunch.”

“Between Alton and me, we have six cars at our disposal, although two are designated for Syracuse, and we probably have four or five big blocks and five small blocks,” he said.

Johnson wants to do a little more racing this year. He’ll definitely be at Albany-Saratoga Speedway on Friday nights and Fonda on Saturdays, and he may be making a return to Utica-Rome on Sundays.

“We want to pick and choose some other races,” said Johnson. “Our main focus is Malta and Fonda, but I might get in another dozen shows. It will depend how our weekends go. We might hit some Super DIRT Series races, and we’re even thinking about going to Charlotte at the end of the year.”

He admits he still thinks about DeSarbo a lot, but there’s a toughness about racers, and they know when it’s time to move on.

“I miss JoJo a lot. His experience in the shop, and the results he and my father put up, he was a huge asset to us,” Johnson said. “But I was born in racing and racing is my way of life, and somewhere along the line, you have to fill the voids.”

For the record, Johnson did have a season of double-digit victories. That was in 1997, his rookie campaign in a sportsman on the Champlain Valley Racing Association circuit. He sat in victory lane on the second night of the season, won seven features at Albany-Saratoga, as well as the track championship, and got four more wins at Devil’s Bowl.

“After that year, I thought racing was going to be easy,” he said with a laugh.

He moved up to modifieds in 1998 and began racing with his father, the legendary Jumpin’ Jack Johnson, and despite his driving talent and the fact that he’s probably one of the best wrenches in the business, victories have never come easy for the younger Johnson. He did sweep the McDonald’s Weekend races at Fonda in 2008, walking out with a two-day total of $14,500, and he picked up six wins in 2011, the season he won his only modified title at Fonda.

Ten victories won’t just fall into his lap, not racing against future Hall of Famers like Brett Hearn, Ken Tremont Jr. and Stewart Friesen night in and night out.

But he sounds determined, and he sounds confident, just like his father used to be when he’d sit in the shop in the spring and map out his season.

“I remember my dad would talk about winning 30 races,” said Johnson. “I think that bar’s a little too high now.”

But 10 isn’t out of the question.

What’s ahead

Both Lebanon Valley and Albany-Saratoga have practice sessions scheduled for this weekend. Lebanon Valley is scheduled to have cars on the track from 4-8 p.m. on Saturday, while Albany-Saratoga’s warm-ups are scheduled for 3-7 on Sunday. But with the way the weather has been, it might be a good idea to call ahead or check the tracks’ Web sites for cancellations.

If the weather improves, some area drivers will probably make the trip to Orange County Speedway in Middletown for the “Hard Clay Open” on Saturday. The 50-lap modified feature will pay $5,000 to win, and $500 to take the green flag.

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