Ronnie Johnson of Chattanooga, TN had already established a brilliant career in Dirt Late Model Racing before he ever ran his first race under the Crate Racin’ USA banner in 2005.
Three Southern All-Star titles in 1985, 87, and 88; two Dirt Track World Championship Race wins in 1992 and 1994, and several other big wins were the highlights that earned “The Chattanooga Flash” a 2004 Induction into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame. By that point in Johnson’s career, things seemed to be winding down in his career.
With the cost of dirt late model racing on the rise, Johnson could no longer afford to stay on the road weeks at a time and maintain a program where the engine bill alone for a season was well into six figures.
Crate Racin’ USA, now known as the NeSmith Chevrolet Dirt Late Model Series, was founded by Mike Vaughn of Cartersville, GA in 2005 and he developed a traveling series for dirt late models powered by a $5,000 Chevrolet Performance 604 Circle Track Engine that was built and sealed at the Chevrolet factories to prevent any expensive modifications.
Johnson embraced this concept of economical dirt late model racing, and in doing so, would reinvent his Hall of Fame dirt late model career. Chevrolet Performance embraced Johnson as their Research and Development Driver, as he gave valuable feedback to Chevrolet Performance Engineers on the 604 Engine, and helped them with a later project involving the $10.000 CT 525 Engine.
The Chevrolet Performance CT 525 Engine is a an economical all-aluminum racing engine based off of the production LS3 engine that came in the Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet Camaro, and the Chevrolet SS at Chevrolet dealers worldwide. It was also a factory-sealed engine designed to keep costs down.
While doing the R&D work for Chevy with this engine, Johnson won a lot of high paying super late model races along the way against specially built engines costing four and five times more. In 2013, Vaughn launched the Chevrolet Performance Super Late Model Series for dirt late models powered by the Chevrolet Performance CT 525 Engine.
Johnson has made headlines in both divisions over the past ten years, and has put himself right back into the middle of the limelight of dirt late model racing. For 2014, Johnson won his second straight $20,000 NeSmith Late Model National Championship, and the $10,000 Chevrolet Performance Super Late Model Series National Championship.
Johnson will be honored for his pair of National Championships at the NeSmith Racing Annual Awards Banquet on January 24 at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame and Thunder Road Museum in Dawsonville, GA. The Top 10 drivers in the NeSmith Late Models, Chevy Super Series, NeSmith Chevrolet Weekly Racing Series and the NeSmith/AR Bodies Street Stock Division will also be honored.
Johnson owns several NeSmith Late Model Career and Season records. Johnson is the series’ leader in all-time career wins with 25 victories. In 2014 Johnson became the series’ all-time career lap leader with 645 tours at the head of the pack.
The 2014 season also saw Johnson set a new record of eight wins in a single season, lead the most laps with 200, completed the most laps with 919 out of a possible 920, and he was the Hard Charger in the series having passed a total of 101 competitors. In 21 NeSmith Late Model races, Johnson had eight wins, 11 top five finishes, 18 top ten finishes and two fast time awards.
In the Chevy Super Series, Johnson won three of nine races, finished second three times, and finished third on one occasion. His only DNF was caused by a wreck not of his own making. Not a bad season for a driver that saw his 59th birthday last month, and shows no signs of slowing down!
Aside from Johnson’s 40 years of racing experience and exceptional talent, one thing that makes his 2014 success a phenomenal story, as that he did it without the latest and greatest technology. The two series leveled the playing field with economical sealed engines, but the rest of the race car was open to some high dollar components, especially with shocks.
The latest and greatest packages for adjustable gas shocks are now over $5,000 a set. The cost of the latest rolling chassis is climbing well over the $30,000 range. Johnson drove to a pair of dirt late model national championships with a 2006 and 2009 race car equipped with old style oil shocks. Johnson said if someone gave him a set of the more expensive gas shocks, he wouldn’t use them.
He towed his race cars to the tracks, not with a $350,000 toterhome and double stacker trailer, but rather with a 30-year-old converted furniture trailer. Johnson is no doubt “Old School,” but it is a style that works for him, and his results this season back that up. Johnson makes being eccentric admirable and just plain cool!
If you’re looking for Ronnie Johnson at the track before hot laps, the chances are pretty good you won’t find him. For years, Johnson has showed up at the tracks more times than not with qualifying in progress or later. Johnson prefers to have his race cars ready to turn its fastest laps with the first ones on the speedway by dialing them in at the same shop he has worked out of for 40 years..
He makes it all work. In 2007 Johnson showed up just before the Consolation Races in Loxley, AL, started in the rear, just made the show in the consy, started 21st in the 75-lap main event and won it!!
His once jet black hair has turned a distinguished shade of gray through the years of his Hall of Fame racing career. While there may be some snow on the roof of the man that will turn 60 at his next birthday, the competitive fire inside of Ronnie Johnson still burns hot with the desire to win, just as it did when he was 19.
At this point in his career, Johnson savors each win, and sometimes even gets emotional. He knows that win could very well be his last. While Johnson is enjoying his successes of today, it might be a little premature to say that he is in the “twilight” of his career. After a phenomenal 2014 season, Ronnie Johnson is not showing any signs of slowing down!
The first four events of the 2015 NeSmith Late Model season will take place in January at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, FL. The season opener will be on January 28 with a 40-lap $2,000-to-win race followed by a 50-lap $2,500-to-win race on January 29, and a 50-lap $3,000-to-win race on January 30.
The 100-lap $10,000-to-win 10th Annual Chevrolet Performance World Championship Race for the NeSmith Late Models, rescheduled from a November 22, 2014 rainout, will be run on January 31 as a non-points race. The first 16 starting spots for this race were determined by preliminary Heat Races on November 21, 2014.
For more information and rules about the NeSmith Chevrolet Dirt Late Model Series, visit the series web site at www.nesmithracing.com, or visit the series on Facebook at NeSmith Racing. Becoming a fan of the NeSmith Racing Facebook page will make you eligible for special prizes that will be given away each month. You can follow us on Twitter @NeSmithRacing.
-Roby Helm Press Release. Photo Credit: Roby Helm