Local man dominates stock car circuit

 

March 26, 2020

Dillon Johnson learned to race before he figured out how to walk. Now 23 years old and an up-and-coming stock car racer, in the last year he has claimed the track championships in Gillette and Sheridan, the Wyoming State Championship and ninth place in the Wissota National Points Championship.

Stock car racing is a lot like NASCAR, he says. “It’s basically the same thing: all we’re doing is turning left, but it’s on dirt.”

It’s been a family tradition for three generations. His grandpa raced back in the 1950s and 60s, when NASCAR was still on dirt; his father, local Mike Johnson, got into it when he was young.

“I’ve been into it since I was crawling, I guess. I just fell into it – it’s in the blood,” Johnson says.

He’s been competing since he was 17 years old. In his second year, he won the Wyoming State Championship for the first time in the hobby stock division.

“Then I went to open wheel modifieds, and I raced them for a few years and the cars were so expensive and were getting too tore up, so I got out of that class and went to street stock,” he says.

“My first full year in street stock was last year, I ran 32 races and won 30 of them. I won two track championships, I won the state championship and I ranked ninth in the nation.”

Johnson was 200 points shy of the national title. While that seems like quite a gap, it’s actually only the equivalent of two races – and not even first place wins.

The winner completed 69 races in 2019; Johnson was only able to complete 32.

“To win a race is 110 points, but even if I’d have finished dead last, I would have beaten him by one point,” he says. “You can’t control the rain-outs that happen around here and last year we had a lot of cancellations.”

The reason the gap was so small, he says, is that the winner averaged fifth or sixth place finishes.

“He had 37 more shows than me, and he only averaged a fifth or sixth place finish. When you go to average my points, mine was a first or second place finish every race,” Johnson says.

For the Wyoming State Championship, Johnson won by over 1000 points.

Moving Up

So far, Johnson’s racing has seen him compete in Rapid City, Gillette, Sheridan, Casper, Billings, Great Falls, Jamestown and as far as Iowa and Colorado. Stock car racing is a year-round affair, though drivers in this part of the world have to break when it snows.


“If there’s snow on the ground, you can’t race, so around here we don’t usually start racing until the end of April, or mid-April if the weather is good, and then we race all the way through the end of September,” he says.

No breaks are needed down south, so races continue all year round. That’s something Johnson will experience himself in 2020 as he leaves the street stock division and moves to the highest class in dirt track racing: late models.

Late models takes “an ungodly amount of money to race”, he says, but a big-name sponsorship has made it possible. Johnson was picked up by PennGrade Racing Oil this year after the national banquet.

“I’m building my late model right now, it should be done here in the next couple of weeks. I’m going to try to not spend as much money as what the big names are spending and still try to compete, and see how far my skill level gets me without spending too much money,” he says.


“I own Coyote Dirt Track Chassis, so I build race cars for a living.”

Johnson plans to keep his race car down south and travel back and forth to Wyoming, largely for the sake of his daughter, Addison, who lives in Sundance.

“I’m going to try to hit the big races this year and see how I compete. I got my foot in the door with that real big sponsorship from PennGrade Racing Oil so it’s looking in the right direction,” he says.

“I’m not rich by any means, I basically build everything myself. Am I going to be able to make it in this class? I don’t know, but I’m sure going to try.”

Lifelong Love

Johnson’s dad taught him everything he knows. Without him, Johnson isn’t sure he’d have made it this far. His talent helps, of course.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always been racing something, whether it be four-wheelers, go karts, dirt bikes. I was racing before I could walk – I was on a four-wheeler racing and I just have that natural talent to get in something with wheels on it and get it to the front,” he says.

It’s been a lifelong love for Johnson, but it hasn’t come without sacrifice. It takes a lot of man hours in the car and garage, he says; during the week, he might get home at 4 p.m. and stay out in his shop until 2 a.m., all while running between two and four races a week.

“If there are rain-outs here and you want to get that state championship, you’d better be traveling to another track in the state that is running,” he says. “A lot of travel time, a lot of windshield time and a lot of upkeep on the cars. It’s actually pretty stressful going for championships like that, rather than just going out and racing and having fun and enjoying the hobby. It’s like a second job, basically.”

It’s fortunate, then, that this is a job he can’t get enough of.

“When I get in the race car, I strap in and that’s my office – it’s my favorite job in the world. It’s a big adrenaline rush and being in that race car actually eases your mind and allows you to focus on everything around you,” he says.

“If you’re driving a street car, you’re pretty focused on what’s around you, but when I’m in a race car, I can see every single obstacle, every single rock on the track. My mind hits this whole different world when I get in that car, it’s kind of an amazing feeling.”

Local Legend

There was a specific moment during Johnson’s career when he realized he might have what it takes.

“It was my very first year and there’s a local legend who runs around here, his name is Chico McNeil. He’s in his 70s and he’s been racing his whole life,” he says.

“He races the class that I first started out in and my dad told me, ‘when you can beat Chico, you know you’re doing something good’. He said, when I could beat him I would be ready to face any other racing obstacle that gets thrown at me in life.”

By halfway through that season, he was beating McNeil every night. It wasn’t long before he was a quarter or half track ahead of everyone within two laps – it was already time to start moving up.

“The very first night I beat Chico, we raced door to door for 32 laps and I beat him by a fender length. We ran an inch between our cars and we never touched once, nobody drove each other dirty,” he says.

“He came up to me after the race and said, ‘You race like that the rest of your life, you’ll be going somewhere – I’ve never had anybody race me like that’.”

Next Generation

Johnson’s dad may have helped to get him where he is now, but there’s another generation now helping him stay on top. His daughter, Addison, is with him for many of his races – and may just have inherited the racing bug.

“I got her a go-kart three or four years ago and it was too much for her. It was more of an adult go-kart,” he says. “That little go-kart did 130 mph, so we would drive it together, I’d put her on my lap and operate the driver pedal and she would steer around.”

Addison wants to get into quarter-midgets, “Which is basically a go-kart with a full cage on it…and they maybe do 15 mph. It’s something safe and easy that she could get into and learn how to drive. We are working towards getting her one of those and she’s going to be eight in a couple of months, so she is at the age bracket to where she’s allowed to race now.”

Johnson’s happy about this, because there was a moment when her enthusiasm for the sport waned.

“I think I scared her a little bit,” he says. Addison was present when he wrecked during a race in Sheridan and had to be cut out of the car.

“They thought I had a broken neck, broken back and I had no feeling in my upper body, but they ended up giving me a bunch of steroids and I didn’t have any broken bones, it was nerve damage. It took her a while to come back into racing and start loving it again,” he says.

But love it again she did, partly because her dad got back in his car the day after he left the hospital. Though he was told it was probably too soon, “I ended up winning that night”.

“If I didn’t get back in the car that soon, I don’t know if I’d be where I’m at today – or if I’d ever get back in a race car. It’s one of those things that people say if you get in a bad wreck, you need to get back in the race car as soon as possible, or you’re going to be scared of it,” he says.

“It was easy getting in the car, but as soon as I hit the staging line everything started setting in. In the heat race, I was half-scared so I finished last; I went out for the feature and started last and within five laps I was still last with seven laps to go. At that point, whatever was in my head went away. I floored the car and ended up winning. I don’t know what was in my head, but it just vanished.”

It’s not the only time he’s wrecked, but it’s the only time he was hurt thanks to the safety equipment used for stock car racing. In fact, Johnson blames himself for the Sheridan accident because he didn’t have his neck brace on that night.

“People say it’s a dangerous sport, and it is,” he says. “But if you run the right safety equipment and your car is built safely, you’ll be alright…Safety equipment is a very important thing in this sport.”

For Johnson’s successful 2019 season, he was sponsored by Serendipity Floral & Gifts, Done Right Construction and his own business, Coyote Dirt Track Chassis of Upton. These will be joined by PennGrade Racing Oil and BS Vinyl Printing of Gillette for the 2020 season.

 
 

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