Jimmie Johnson – The Offroad Years and the “Laughlin Leap”
Before four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson became a stock car driver, his fame was earned in offroad competition in stadiums, on offroad speedway circuits, and in major offroad classics. Johnson competed in MTEG, SCORE, SODA, and CORR before moving on to stock car racing.
Johnson’s early success came in Mickey Thompson’s stadium offroad series, contested under the banner of MTEG, the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group. MTEG’s stadium efforts began June 23, 1979 with an event in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Olympian Bruce Jenner won the celebrity event driving a Jeep CJ7. The event included a race for pickup trucks (dubbed Grand National pickups) won by John Baker in a Dodge D50, a race for single-seater limited buggies won by Glenn Harris in a Funco, races for limited and unlimited two-seater buggies, each won by Monte Crawford in a Chenowth, and a feature event for unlimited single-seater buggies won by Rick Mears in a Funco.
The MTEG event schedule grew to a multi-venue series format in 1984, with the Los Angeles venue being joined by the Hoosier Dome and Pontiac Silverdome.
In 1991, when Jimmie Johnson became a driver in the Superlite class, the series had grown to a ten-event, ten-venue schedule with only one event at the original venue, the Los Angeles Coliseum. In Johnson’s rookie year, Greg George was the star of the Superlite class, winning six races. Jimmie won the season’s tenth and final race, at Oakland Stadium, and was also named the 1991 MTEG Superlite Rookie of the Year.
Jimmie was a Superlite competitor again in 1992, and opened the 1992 MTEG season with a victory in the Anaheim Stadium event. Jimmie’s rivals took the next two events (Marty Hart on February 22 at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, Terry Peterson on March 21 in the Seattle Kingdome) but Jimmie won at Texas Stadium in Dallas and at the Los Angeles Colisuem on July 18 to post his second career two-race win streak. Tim Baker won September 26 at Mile High Stadium and 1991 champ Greg George took his first 1992 victory October 3 at the Las Vegas Silver Bowl. Jimmie then took his fourth 1993 victory in the season finale October 24 at Candlestick Park as he led the 1992 Superlites season in wins by taking victory in half of the season’s eight events with the other four wins split among four drivers! Jimmie won the 1992 MTEG Superlite championship! Johnson’s 379 points clearly outdistanced runnerup Rennie Awana’s 245 and Greg George’s 190.
Johnson contested the Superlite class for the third consecutive season in 1993. Greg George opened the season with consecutive wins at Anaheim Stadium on January 30 and at Jack Murphy Stadium on February 20. Jimmie Johnson answered with the third consecutive-win streak of his MTEG Superlite career by winning March 20 at the Seattle Kingdome and May 1 in the Sun Devil Stadium event. Greg George struck back with another consecutive-win streak, taking the May 8 Rose Bowl and June 26 Rice Stadium wins. Sean Finley ended the eight-race streak of wins by either Greg George or Jimmie Johnson by winning September 11 at the Las Vegas Silver Bowl. Johnson then won October 9 at Mile High Stadium, scoring his third Superlite victory of 1993. Tim Baker concluded the 1993 season with a victory November 6 at Candlestick Park. Jimmie Johnson ranked third in 1993 MTEG Superlite points, with Greg George winning the title with 334 to Sean Finley’s 261 and Jimmie’s 242.
Jimmie Johnson moved up to the Grand National Sport Truck category in 1994 with the Chevrolet team. Ricky Johnson won the season’s first two events (February 12 at Anaheim Stadium, February 26 at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego) for Chevrolet before Rod Millen answered with consecutive wins for Toyota (March 12 Seattle Kingdome, April 23 Las Vegas). Roger Mears, Jr. gave Nissan a victory in the June 18 University of Utah Stadium event in Salt Lake City, but Jimmie Johnson ended the three-race streak for the Japanese trucks by taking his first (and ultimately only) Grand National Sport Truck win October 1, 1994 at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. Rod Millen won the season’s final race, at Mile High Stadium on October 8, in his Toyota. Millen won the 1994 GN Sport Truck title with Toyota teammate Ivan Stewart second and Ford’s Rob MacCachren third.
With the demise of the GN Sport Truck class at the conclusion of the 1994 season, Jimmie Johnson returned to the Superlites for 1995. Jimmie won the season-opener January 21 at Anaheim Stadium. Sean Finley then won the season’s second race February 25 at Jack Murphy Stadium and future Jimmie Johnson stock car teammate Casey Mears won the March 18 Seattle Kingdome event. Jimmie Johnson was leading the MTEG Superlite points at that point. Unfortunately, the MTEG series was discontinued thereafter and Jimmie was the final Superlite champion.
Johnson also contested the SCORE (Short Course Offroad Enterprises) offroad series in 1995. Johnson won the Full Size Utility (Class Eight) class in the January 29, 1995 SCORE Parker 400 offroad classic driving a Chevrolet pickup and went on to be named the 1995 SCORE Rookie of the Year.
Jimmie also competed in the SCORE Trophy Truck class in 1995 for Chevrolet. In the July 1 Fireworks 250 in Barstow, California, Johnson and his Chevrolet led Robby Gordon’s Ford F150 through seven laps but retired from the event eventually won by Paul Simon in a Ford F150. In the September 10 Laughlin, Nevada Desert Challenge, Johnson finished thirteenth in Trophy Truck, a lap down. However, the SCORE results note “In a new competition exclusive to this race, Jimmie Johnson flew his Chevrolet truck 86 feet over the “Laughlin Leap” to win the $7500 added prize for the longest jump over the manmade obstacle built at the finish line in full view of spectators.”
Jimmie’s Chevrolet Trophy Truck failed to finish the 1995 Baja 1000. Johnson concluded the 1995 SCORE Trophy Truck season seventeenth in the point standings with 65 points Ivan Stewart won the title with 324 points for Toyota over Ford F150 driver Jim Smith (247). Dodge driver Walker Evans ranked third at 239 points.
Jimmie Johnson’s 1996 and 1997 efforts concentrated on the SODA (Short Course Off Road Drivers Association) series, a series of offroad events held on offroad short course venues, some constructed as part of existing speedway facilities. Johnson also appeared in a broadcast role on the ESPN telecasts of the events. Johnson competed for Chevrolet in Class 8 pickup trucks for Herzog Motorsports; his main competitors were 1996 and 1997 Class 8 champion Scott Taylor driving a Ford and future fellow NASCAR competitor Brendan Gaughan driving for Chevrolet.
Johnson’s 1996 season ended with a major victory! Following the conclusion of the regular-season SODA point championship schedule, SODA held a season-ending, two-day Winter Championship at Glen Helen Raceway Park in San Bernardino, California. Johnson won the first Class 8 race on day one, December 7, over fellow Chevrolet driver Dan Vanden Heuvel and Ford driver and regular-season champion Scott Taylor. Jimmie then won the afternoon day one Class 8 race, again over Vanden Heuvel, with Brian Collins third in a Chevrolet podium sweep. In the multi-class Heavy Metal Challenge races, Jimmie finished third in the morning race won by Greg George in a Dodge over Curt LeDuc in a Jeep. In the afternoon Heavy Metal Challenge race, Johnson was victorious over LeDuc with Vanden Heuvel third.
Jimmie did not reach the podium in the morning December 8 Class 8 race won by Scott Taylor with Vanden Heuvel second and Jim Smith third in a Dodge. In the afternoon Class 8 race, however, Johnson led a Chevrolet podium sweep, with Brian Collins second and Vanden Heuvel third. Johnson concluded the event by taking second in the afternoon Heavy Metal Challenge won by LeDuc in a Jeep with Greg George third in a Dodge. Johnson’s three wins in four Class 8 races over the two-day event made him the 1996 SODA Winter Series Class 8 champion!
Johnson scored seven 1997 regular-season SODA Class 8 victories for Chevrolet. He won Class 8 both days in the May 24-25 Lake Geneva Raceway, Wisconsin event, beating Scott Taylor and Vanden Heuvel on May 24 and Brendan Gaughan and Bruce Shilts on May 25 in a Chevrolet podium sweep. Johnson won the June 7 race at Langlade County Speedway in Antigo, Wisconsin with Brendan Gaughan winning the second race. In the June 21-22 Crandon Raceway, Wisconsin event, Johnson finished third in Class 8 on June 21 with Brendan Gaughan’s Chevrolet first and Scott Taylor’s Ford second. Jimmie didn’t make the podium on June 22 as Gaughan won again over Greg George’s Ford and Scott Taylor in another Ford.
Johnson won again on July 12 at Lake Geneva (over Scott Taylor’s Ford and Jed Flannery in a Chevrolet) and finished second on July 13 to Taylor with Brendan Gaughan third. At that point Jimmie led the Class 8 championship point standings, but by only four points over eventual champion Scott Taylor. The August 2-3 Bark River Offroad Raceway event in Bark River, Michigan produced wins for Brendan Gaughan and Scott Taylor. Taylor won the August 16 Class 8 race at Luxemburg Speedway in Wisconsin but Jimmie then won the August 17 Class 8 race. The August 30-31 Crandon events saw Gaughan win the first race and Greg George’s Ford take the second Class 8 win. Jimmie won the September 13 and September 14 Class 8 races at Sunnyview Expo in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Prior to the postseason 1997 Winter Championship at Glen Helen Raceway Park in San Bernardino, California, SODA folded and was replaced as sanctioning body by CORR (Championship Off Road Racing). CORR renamed Class 8 as Pro 2. Jimmie and his Chevrolet won both Pro 2 races on December 6 and both Pro 2 races on December 7 as he “swept” all four Pro 2 events and won the 1997 CORR Winter Series Pro 2 championship title! Dan Vanden Heuvel finished second in the first three races with Brendan Gaughan third; in the final race Gaughan took second with Vanden Heuvel third.
All told, ARA has been able to document twenty-six Jimmie Johnson offroad victories during the 1991-1997 period: nine in MTEG Superlite, one in MTEG GN Sport Truck, one SCORE Class 8 win, ten SODA Class 8 triumphs, one SODA Heavy Metal Challenge victory, and four CORR Pro 2 wins.
NOTE: Our effort to produce the most thorough description available of Jimmie Johnson’s offroad career has sought to clear up some inconsistencies in the various bios currently posted on the web. This effort has been aided by the fact that ARA received an MTEG Media Guide shortly before the demise of the series and this authoritative source has been invaluable. ARA also appreciates the assistance of SCORE Media Director Dominic Clark in clearing up some questions with official results material and his research of several key questions. The demise of the SODA series left its history spottily documented; while our efforts have been successful in documenting most results of the 1997 series additional resource material regarding 1996 would be welcome. ARA welcomes the input of anyone with further information!