Ricky Johnson gears up for Frozen Rush's off-road racing madness
When Luke Johnson turned four years old he didn’t get a soccer ball, a LEGO set, or an action figure. He got a go-kart…and a motorcycle.
“It was a legendary birthday,” says Luke, now 22 and a Pro-Lite truck racer.
Most parents would cringe at the thought of giving their toddler even one, let alone two, motorized vehicles.
But most parents didn’t get their first Mini Bike when they were three and have not won seven AMA Super & Motocross national championships, been inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, or earned the nickname Bad Boy. Luke’s dad has.
Ricky Johnson is one the most iconic figures in racing whose resume is more multifaceted than the gifts he doles out. From motocross, to stock cars, to off-road trucks, the 50-year-old Johnson has won so many medals that he’s considering giving some away to make room in his Southern California shop.
“He [Johnson] was definitely one of the guys I had on my wall growing up,” says freestyle motocross legend Brian Deegan.
Deegan will get the chance to beat his idol and seven other of the world’s best drivers at Johnson’s latest pursuit: the Frozen Rush.
This Friday at the Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, Maine, spectators won’t brave the cold to watch skiers or snowboarders race down the mountain or perform tricks in a halfpipe. Instead, they’ll see 4,000-pound, 900-horsepower Pro 4x4 off-road trucks equipped with 700 half-inch ice spikes on each tire. They’ll probably hear them first. The trucks will reach speeds of up to 90 mph as drivers navigate berms, drifting turns, a 70-foot over-under jump and a 100-foot gap jump.
That’s the Frozen Rush.
The name fits. “I knew it was going to be cold but not that cold,” says driver Todd Leduc. Leduc raced in the inaugural event last January, when temperatures were in the single digits with subzero wind chills. It was so cold that the event coordinator, Pete Brinkerhoff, took a picture of the thermometer in his rental car so his friends back in Reno wouldn’t think we was exaggerating.
Brinkerhoff and Red Bull first came up with the idea while brainstorming for an athlete project for Johnson in fall of 2012. The result was the first and only snowbound short course off-road truck race.
“It’s a different beast,” Brinkerhoff says of bringing the off-road trucks that typically race in the deserts of the Southwest to the slopes of the Northeast.
The field for the event is made up of the top four drivers in both the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series and the The Off Road Championship (TORC), who square off in a single-elimination bracket.
“It’s the best of the best,” driver Scott Douglas says. “Everyone has a lot of championships and a ton of experience.”
That includes Johnson. But despite his more than thirty years of racing and countless wins, he says still gets anxious before each event.
“Every race to me is the like the Super Bowl,” he admits. “I’m nervous every time—not so much of getting killed or hurt, but I’m afraid of failure.”
Johnson has had those nerves since he approached the starting line for his first “expert” race in Barona Oaks, Calif. He was nine and “scared to death.”
The start flag dropped. Johnson was in the back of the pack. He then got a glimpse of another racer behind him on the left. Johnson resolved he wouldn’t finish last. He completed one lap…then two. On the final lap Johnson glanced to his right and the racer was still there. But Johnson didn’t look back. He made a final surge and only after crossing the finish line turned around to see who had tailed him the whole race and taken last place.
It was his shadow.
Johnson would soon go on to beat other racers.
He turned pro in 1980 at age 16. He won his first pro race at Carlsbad (Calif.) raceway in 1981. He became the all-time AMA Supercross leader in 1989 and he had his eye set on another checkered flag as he prepared for the Gatorback National 250 outdoor championship.
Then came practice. Danny Storbeck, a Honda support driver, came down from a jump and landed on Johnson’s arm—breaking the navicular bone in his wrist. The injury required surgery and five pins to put the wrist back together. Johnson rode on. But while he raced for two more seasons and won a handful of events, he wasn’t the same rider. He decided to retire from Supercross in 1992. He was 26.
Although the injury cut short Johnson’s motocross career it also allowed him to open up. He was no longer obsessed with beating Jeff Ward, David Bailey, or Broc Glover. He let more people in. He married his wife, Stephanie in 1990. Luke was born in ’92, then Jake in ’93 and finally Kassidy in ’95.
“If I had stayed in motocross, I probably wouldn’t have gotten married, because motocross requires a very selfish life,” Johnson said in an interview with RacerX in the fall of 2013. “So maybe I wouldn’t have committed to her, and if I hadn’t, maybe I wouldn’t have my beautiful kids.”
When asked about the injury and the detour of his career, Johnson says he wouldn’t change a thing.
And he has continued to win, except on four wheels instead of two. From the Baja 1000 in 1997 and 2003 to back-to-back TORC Pro 4x4 Championships in ’11 and ’12, Johnson has never strayed far from the podium.
“Necessity is the biggest thing,” he says when asked how he has achieved success in so many types of racing. “When a door opens I take it and don’t hesitate”
Others have noticed.
“One of things I’ve learned about Rick is that he’s so competitive and has always tried to reinvent himself and evolve,” says Brinkerhoff. “He’s always asking where can we go from here.”
The most recent answer was the Frozen Rush. When Brinkerhoff first proposed the idea back in October of 2012, Johnson’s response was as quick as his reaction at the starting line.
Brinkerhoff: Do you think a Pro-4 can make it up and down a ski slope with studded tires?”
Brinkerhoff: Do you want to?
Johnson: Absolutely. Let’s do it.
A plan was in motion. After Johnson performed a demo at Mount Snow, Vt., in January 2013, the stage was set a year later for the inaugural Frozen Rush.
When Johnson arrived at Sunday River last January and saw the course, he was more excited than Luke on his fourth birthday. “I was just like a little kid seeing all the presents under the Christmas tree,” he recalls. “I couldn’t wait.”
Maybe he was too eager. Johnson crashed during his qualifying run and had to settle for the sixth seed. But by the time the main event started Johnson did what he has done his whole career.
He adapted. He defeated Carl Renezeder in the first round and then fellow Red Bull driver Bryce Menzies to advance to the final.
“I’m racing a damn truck on a ski slope,” Johnson said after beating Menzies. “How awesome is that?”
But Johnson wasn’t content. He faced his longtime rival Johnny Greaves in the final. Though Greaves completed the course 0.2 seconds faster than Johnson, Greaves also knocked over one of the gates in the slalom section. The infraction resulted in a five-second penalty and Johnson's doing victory donuts, after which he mounted the roof of his truck.
This week Johnson has again made the trek from California to Maine to defend his title.
But everything isn’t the same. This time Luke has come along for the trip with the rest of the Johnson family. And unlike last year’s event, when the snow spray forced the trucks to start 25 seconds apart and race on time differential, this year the drivers will go head-to-head.
“It’s a cross between hockey and motocross,” says Douglas. “The Frozen Rush is definitely a contact sport.”
Johnson makes a different analogy, comparing the sport to MMA. “We have rules but you can still drop an elbow.” he says. “There are going to be plenty of collisions. The new format will definitely be a factor.”
But he also contends that the most challenging element won’t be the contact, the snow, or even the numbing cold (the forecast for Friday is snow showers and a low of 3 degrees). It’s the driver’s vision.
“The snow is all white so you can’t see the course that well and it’s easy to lose track of where you are,” Johnson says.
At least he won’t have to worry about his shadow.
Red Bull Frozen Rush will be streamed live Friday, Jan. 9 at 12:30 p.m. EST on redbull.com/frozenrush.