The 4th Turn: July 1, 2021

~ By Tom Boggie

Former President Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far,” in a speech in 1903.

If you change that to “Speak softly and sit behind a good big block,” you could be describing Ronnie Johnson.

Ronnie Johnson has always been a man of few words, just as his father Jack was. In fact, Ronnie has inherited all the good traits of his father … humble, hard-working, quietly intense, maybe a little bit stubborn. Like his father, he doesn’t say a lot, and when I have interviewed him, which probably number somewhere around 100 times, he chooses his words carefully. I don’t care if he’s just had his worst night at a track or just had one of his best nights. His demeanor doesn’t really change.

I was recently scrolling through Ronnie’s Facebook page and came upon a posting from Feb. 26, entitled Flashback Friday. Ah, there’s the Ronnie Johnson I remember most, working on his father’s race car.

Look at all the dirt track drivers who have followed in their father’s footsteps, climbing behind the wheel of a race car as soon as they were able to reach the pedals. But not Ronnie Johnson. He wanted to be in the garage, absorbing all the knowledge that Jumpin’ Jack and his talented crew had to offer.

Ronnie Johnson wasn’t really a reluctant racer. Like many sons of racing fathers, he had a very successful go-kart racing career. But many casual race fans may not realize that Ronnie Johnson didn’t begin his open-wheel racing career until 1997, when he was 23 years old, competing in the sportsman division at Albany-Saratoga Speedway. He had been perfectly happy being the crew chief for his father’s cars. But in his second career start at Albany-Saratoga, he got his first career win, and finished the year with seven victories and the track championship. People began calling him “The Natural” and it fit.

He moved up to modifieds the next season and reached another milestone on July 3, when he chalked up his first modified win at Malta.

And now here we are, 24 years later. Same dedication to hard work, same loyal followers, and a heck of a week. After walking off with over $5,600 for winning the Bill Ag Memorial Elimination at Fonda Speedway on June 19, he came back with his first win of the season (and first since Aug. 16, 2019) at Albany-Saratoga Speedway last Friday.
And what did Ronnie want to talk about after his win? The people who have supported him.

“I’ve got a good team and a lot of support,” he said. “Not just financial support, but a lot of people who work hard. People like Gary Mickle, Frankie Witz and Chris Persons have really stepped up and they’ve given me the best equipment possible. I couldn’t ask for anything more from them.”

But then Ronnie took a second to reminisce a little bit.

“You know, things in life change. Years ago, I could get up in the morning and be in the garage all day and work on the car all week if I wanted to. I can’t do that now, and I don’t race as much as a I used to and it shows in my results.

“We needed this. This is for the whole team. A lot of guys helping me started out with my father in the ‘70s. They’re the foundation of my whole team.”

One of the best parts of Ronnie’s win Friday was the bonus money that was put up by some of his father’s old buddies and backers. Larry Lawler had his Jumpin’ Jack replica 12A at the track and paced the modified field. Before the race, Lawler, Witz, John Engle and Bryan Rounds put up a $500 bonus for the leader of lap 12.

It looked that bonus was going to wind up in the pocket of Elmo Reckner, who was out front and flying early. But after a restart on lap nine, Ronnie rocketed by Elmo coming down to the flagstand to complete lap 12 and snare the bonus. After the feature, Jumpin’ Jack’s old buddies were delighted to get their picture taken in victory lane with Ronnie, flashing those Benjamins around.

If you have been watching any of the Stanley Cup playoffs, one commercial that runs a lot is a montage of NHL players being interviewed and each quick clip contains them saying one word, “We,” stressing that hockey is the ultimate team sport.

On Friday, as I was talking with Ronnie Johnson in victory lane, he only used the word “I” once, when he said, “I was trying to cut his lanes off,” when he was describing how he held off Anthony Perrego’s late charge. The rest of the time he said “We,” or “The whole team.”

Speak softly, indeed.

THEY SAID IT
Some other quotes from last week’s action at Albany-Saratoga.

“It’s been a lot of hard work, and a lot of sleepless nights.” That was from Nick Lussier after picking up his first sportsman win since August of 2015.

“It wasn’t too long ago that I’d sit in the stands and watch him. To come down here and take one from him is good for the 25 team.” Chad Jeseo, talking about outdueling Rob Yetman to win the pro stock feature, his third win in a row and his fifth of the year.

“Hey, it was still running.” Al Relyea after bringing his heavily smoking car across the finish line first in the street stock feature.

“We’ve been struggling the last few weeks, so we just came back with what we started with and it really helped the car.” Zach Buff after recording his third win of the season in the limited sportsman feature.

AROUND THE TRACKS
LJ Lombardo and Andy Bachetti won the double modified features at Lebanon Valley last Saturday. Lombardo had a rough night at Albany-Saratoga Friday, not even making the feature after failing to answer the call for the consy. Bachetti’s win at the Valley came in his back-up car, which the team rolled out after Bachetti blew an oil line in the first feature. Bachetti’s win was the 199th of his career.

For the second time this season, Keith Flach rolled his car in the first turn at Albany-Saratoga. Last Friday, it happened in the first modified heat. Flach jumped the cushion in the third turn and took some serious air, but gathered the car back in and hit the throttle heading down the front straightaway. But when he got to the first turn, he again jumped the cushion, and this time, the car rolled and ended up on its side. But most of the damage was cosmetic, as he returned to the heat race after a quick stop in the hot pit.

Jack Lehner, coming off his first career win the previous week, also had heat race problems. He and Neil Stratton tried to squeeze into the same lane in the first turn on lap six of the third heat, but Lehner wound up taking off the left front tire when he hit the tires that jut out from the concrete barrier. Lehner came back to win the consy and finished 12th in the feature, after starting 25th.

Dylan Madsen, who is the limited sportsman points leader at Albany-Saratoga, locked up the championship at Orange County Speedway in Middletown with a second-place finish last Saturday on what was graduation night for the division. Madsen indicated after the race that he might start making some Saturday night stops at Devil’s Bowl.

Speaking of the Bowl, Demetrios Drellos lost his point lead with a 12th place finish last Saturday. That allowed Vince Quenneville Jr. to move to the top of the standings. Justin Stone picked up his first career win in the sportsman/modified feature.

Johnny Scarborough won Sunday night’s DIRTcar Sportsman East Region series race at Glen Ridge Motorsports Park, outrunning Justin Buff. “We were catching Scarborough at the end, but I ran out of laps,” said Buff.

How about the job 12-year-old Brock “Bam Bam” Pinkerous did in the sportsman feature at Albany-Saratoga last Friday, finishing second to Lussier! And that was after chalking up his first career heat race win.

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