Although he probably spent half of his formative years in victory lanes when his father, Jack, was winning stock car races all over the Northeast. Ronnie Johnson has never taken winning for granted.
He knows it’s important to savor every win, because you never know when the next one will come along. But, as he found out Sunday, some victories are more important than others.
Johnson won the season opener at Utica-Rome Speedway Sunday, the first time he’s been to victory lane at that track since 2011. It was an emotional win, for a couple of reasons.
First, he dedicated the victory to Ed Keyser, who died on April 15. Keyser was the father of Carole Palmer, who, along with her husband, Alton, have been big supporters of Ronnie Johnson’s racing operation in recent years.
“Carole and Alton helped me go to Syracuse [for Super DIRT Week] in 2005; they bought me tires,” Johnson said earlier this week. “They worked with my father for a while and they had a good relationship, and my relationship with them has grown ever since 2005. Sunday was emotional for all of us. That night and that win were for Carole and Alton.”
Johnson has also been driving Palmer’s back-up car at Fonda while he waits for his own new car to get finished.
But there was another reason that Sunday night’s victory was emotional. It’s no secret that Jack Johnson is suffering from some serious health issues, and although he’s still able to get to Fonda Speedway on Saturday nights to watch Ronnie race, he no longer makes the trip to Utica-Rome, so he wasn’t there to enjoy Sunday night’s victory.
“It’s tough on all of us,” Ronnie Johnson said. “He’s still the backbone of this operation. He’s the reason we’re doing what we’re doing. To head out on Sunday and leave him behind was hard, but we still have to do what we have to do. You know my dad. He’s hard-core, and he raised us to race. There’s no in between with him. [Racing] is what we do, and we have to go on.”
Johnson won Sunday night’s race in his own big block car, and it ran so well that he thought about taking it to Albany-Saratoga Speedway tonight. But then he had second thoughts.
“I’m not going to take it to Malta,” he said. “The way it’s been at Malta, there’s a 50-50 chance you’re going to come out of there in one piece. I wrecked more stuff last year at Malta than I did in the rest of my career. That’s the way my year went.”
Ronnie Johnson has already accomplished a lot during his racing career, which got a late start because he was perfectly content working as the crew chief on his father’s cars.
Although Ronnie Johnson has over 60 career victories, he’s has some pretty lean seasons, including the 2012 campaign, when he was two races.
Johnson burst onto the local racing scene in 1997, competing in the sportsman division at Albany-Saratoga and Devil’s Bowl. In just his second start at Albany-Saratoga, he won for the first time in his career. When the season was over, he has 11 victories, and the sportsman championship at both Champlain Valley Racing Association tracks.
He moved up to modifieds in 1998, and has been there ever since. Although he’s spent the majority of his career at Albany-Saratoga and Fonda, he did campaign at Lebanon Valley for three seasons, when he was driving for Bryan Goewey.
He has also made two impressive runs during Super DIRT Week, finishing third in the Eckerd 200 in 2005 and fourth in 2007.
But right now, he’s trying to wrestle the Fonda Speedway crown away from Stewart Friesen. Johnson won his first modified championship at Fonda in 2011, but relinquished the crown to Friesen last season, and Friesen looks awfully tough again.
“I’m off my game because I’ve been trying things to beat him,” admitted Johnson. “If you try different things and don’t hit them right away, you go backward. I did it for half of last season, but then got it straightened out and I had some seconds to him in the second half of the year.
“I feel I can beat him, but right now, he’s on his game, and his confidence is sky-high.”
Some Johnson trivia
If Johnson is racing on July 3, don’t bet against him.
Johnson recorded his first career modified victory at Fonda Speedway on July 3, 1998; drove to his only modified victory at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in the Let Freedom Ring 100 on July 3, 2007; and won one feature at Lebanon Valley in 1999, on July 3.
Of Johnson’s 18 modified victories at Albany-Saratoga, one came as the result of a disqualification. In 1999, he was awarded his only win of the year at the Malta track when winner Ken Tremont Jr. was disqualified for having an illegal tire.
With a break in the weather, all four area tracks will be in operation for the first time this weekend.
Albany-Saratoga and Glen Ridge will hold their season openers tonight. Racing at Albany-Saratoga starts at 7, while the first green flag will drop at Glen Ridge at 7:30.
On Saturday, Brett Hearn will be shooting for his third straight win at Lebanon Valley, trying to match the three-in-a-row he started off the 2012 campaign with. There will also be a small-block modified dash, paying $200 to win. Racing gets under way at 6 p.m.
The CRSA sprints will be on the racing card Saturday at Fonda Speedway. Racing will begin at 7 p.m.
Reach Gazette Sports Editor Tom Boggie at 395-3160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.