Special to the Sun
Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010 | 1:50 a.m.
He began as a pony in the Bullring, a preteen kid who happened to get a race car for his 12th birthday.
Justin Johnson hadn't raced before. Not bikes, not go-carts and certainly not anything with four rubber tires and a motor.
"I could barely reach the pedals," he recalled.
That was 12 years ago. Since then, he's reached the pedals and hasn't let up, full throttling his way through a racing career that he hopes one day will lead him to the neighboring Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"It's the heart of racing," Johnson said of the Bullring, a .375-mile track that's part of the speedway facility. "It's a training ground where you learn everything. There's a lot of kids coming out of there that are racing for their careers."
He won 21 of 28 races at the Bullring his first season in the Bandolero car that was a birthday gift from his father, who was an official at the old Craig Road Speedway.
"In the beginning he just wanted to see if I liked the racing stuff because he was interested in it his whole life," Johnson said.
And so the young Johnson raced, week after week, winning more than he lost, until one day he crashed.
"When you get into your first accident, as a racer, that's going to tell you if you're going to be a race car driver or not based on how you respond," he said.
As his car sat idle, battered and bruised from metal and concrete, Johnson realized racing was more of a calling than a passion.
"Basically, I got back on my horse and started racing again," he said. "That's what separates a racer from a non-racer. I knew I had what it took to go further. As a young kid, you can either get scared or you can get going after your first accident."
Johnson raced at the Bullring for a decade. After the Bandolero cars were the Legend cars, then the Late cars, then the Super Lates, where he was trading paint with future NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star and native Las Vegan Kyle Busch.
"Watching those guys, Kyle and Kurt, on television has definitely given me inspiration to make it to the top and race them again," he said.
These days, Johnson races the No. 90 Vision Aviation Racing car and shares his time on the track throughout the West Coast, primarily competing in Irwindale, Calif., and the Bullring.
"What we see in Justin is not just the ability to race a car, but we also see an ability to communicate effectively with a team and represent our sponsors well," said Tom Davis of Vision Aviation Racing.
Davis, who is Johnson's boss, oversees much of the Vision Aviation Racing operations. He's also a man who handpicked Johnson not only to race for his team, but to mentor his son.
"The one thing that stood out to me about Justin is that he's a good person in general," Davis said. "We liked what we saw from him, what we heard, and it doesn't hurt that he has a willingness to get down and dirty to make his car go fast."
Davis' 17-year-old son, Dusty, is following in Johnson's footsteps.
Dusty began racing go-carts while moving up the ranks before crossing paths with Johnson one recent Friday night at the Bullring.
"I didn't know him personally but I had heard of him," Dusty said. "I knew he was good and I knew he won."
So, as Dusty struggled with the jump to the Super Late division — "Is it the car or is it me?" he wondered — Johnson let the youngster take his car for a few laps around the Bullring on the same night Dusty wrecked his car.
"He became my teammate that night," Dusty Davis said. "He was on the radio as I drove around the track, helping me with my lines and turns, and he just made a big impression on me that night."
With a vacant spot on their racing roster, Tom Davis called Dusty and offered him a spot.
"We wanted to grow as a team and we knew Justin could help us do that," Tom Davis said.
Since joining forces, Johnson and his team have their sights set on winning a championship at the half-mile Toyota Speedway at Irwindale before moving up to the NASCAR West series and possibly beyond, to trucks, to stock cars and the Cup series.
"There's a lot of good drivers out there," he said. "You have to keep working hard, keep putting your time in and eventually you'll be at the right place at the right time."
Hopefully, for Johnson, that time will come sooner rather than later.
"It's the competition, it's the adrenaline, it's just something that's in us race car drivers that gives us the want to move forward with our careers and for me, it really all began here," he said.