Rick Johnson was one of the great AMA motocross and Supercross racers of all-time. During the 1980s, he won seven AMA national championships and was part of four winning U.S. Motocross des Nations teams. In all, Johnson tallied an amazing 61 AMA national wins and earned championships in AMA Supercross and both 250cc and 500cc motocross. He retired as the all-time AMA Supercross wins leader in 1991 (his record was later broken by Jeremy McGrath). Johnson would likely have had even more impressive numbers had injuries not forced him into retirement when he was only 26.
Johnson was born on July 6, 1964 in La Mesa, California. His father was an avid motorcyclist and bought his 3-year-old son a minibike from Sears.
"My parents couldn’t pull me off that little minibike," Johnson recalled. "I just enjoyed riding whenever I could."
His older sister, Laurie, also rode, but gave up the sport when she became a teenager.
Johnson started competing in a few TT races when he was 7, before the neighborhood family that took him to the races moved away. He was 9 when he first raced motocross. Johnson smiled when he recalled that he finished last in his first race. He grew up racing in the early heyday of Southern California motocross. The sport was exploding, tracks were being built everywhere and Johnson recalled how exciting it was to be a part of a new and burgeoning sport.
By age 12, Johnson had become one of the top minibike riders in California and at 13 he moved up to the bigger bikes. He was befriended by Broc Glover and started training with the pro. Johnson’s family couldn’t always afford to get him to the important amateur events, so Glover was instrumental in helping Johnson get his first support ride from Yamaha.
In 1980, Johnson turned 16 and earned his pro license. He failed to qualify for his first pro race, the 1980 San Diego Supercross, although he proudly remembers battling with Marty Smith and George Jobe in the last-chance qualifier.
In 1981, Johnson hit the AMA national circuit in earnest with help from Yamaha. He had good success in his rookie season, earning two podium overall finishes in the 125cc class and even getting a moto win in front of his hometown fans at the final race of the 125cc series in Carlsbad, California. Johnson would later call his first national moto win one of the most memorable races of his career.
Johnson finished ranked seventh in the 125 outdoor nationals and earned the 1981 AMA 125cc Motocross Rookie of the Year Award.
Johnson came into his own during the 1982 season. Racing in the 250 class, he took his first national win in the 250 opener at the Hangtown National near Sacramento, California. He went on to earn a slew of top finishes that season, including another win, this time at Mt. Morris, Pennsylvania. Johnson had a solid series points lead going into the final national of the season in Castle Rock, Colorado. In that final event, he broke a front wheel on his bike and lost the championship in heartbreaking fashion to Honda’s Donnie Hansen by just three points.
Johnson suffered through an injury-plagued year in 1983 – first breaking his collarbone at the Supercross opener in Anaheim, California, and then dislocating his hip during the outdoor national season.
By 1984, Johnson’s fourth year on the pro circuit, he finally began steer clear of injury and the wins started piling up. He finally won his first AMA Supercross National at Seattle in February of that year and went on to finish second to Johnny O’Mara. The outdoor season was outstanding. Johnson won four 250cc nationals en route to winning that title – his first AMA national championship. He capped off the season as a member of the victorious Motocross des Nations team that competed in Vanta, Finland.
Johnson’s final season with Yamaha was in 1985, and he remembers it as a sort of sophomore jinx after winning the championship the year before. After the disappointing ’85 campaign, he was ready for a change. Johnson had been talking to Kawasaki about moving to its factory team, but after the 1985 season he was unexpectedly told by Kawasaki that they were going to go with younger prospect Ron Lechien.
"I was livid," remembers Johnson, after being snubbed by Kawasaki. "It turned out OK, though, after Honda’s motocross racing manager Roger DeCoster called me and asked me to come test the new Hondas to see what I thought."
Johnson was impressed with Honda’s new racing bikes and signed on with Big Red for the 1986 season.
Johnson’s change of scenery didn’t necessarily bring him happiness at first, though. He felt like an outsider. Teammates David Bailey and Johnny O’Mara were best friends and trained together in Olympian-like fashion.
"I went to train with them and they about killed me," Johnson joked. "Plus, David and Johnny had the Honda test track really dialed in, so I felt slow trying to keep up with them there. I decided it would be best if I just went off and trained on the tracks I knew and did my own thing."
The opening race of the 1986 season was the Anaheim Supercross, and it will go down in history as one of the best Supercross races of all time. It was a Johnson and Bailey battle throughout, with Bailey coming from behind to eventually take the hard-fought win in front of a sold-out and enthusiastic crowd of over 60,000. Even though he lost, that race proved to be a turning point for Johnson.
"I knew it was my fault alone for losing that race in Anaheim," said Johnson. "I knew then that if I was going to beat Bailey, I would have to ride wide-open for 20 laps. He was smother and a more gifted rider than I was, so I had to go out there and treat each race as if the championship was on the line."
The strategy paid off for Johnson. He went on to win six of the 12 Supercross nationals that season and beat Bailey for the championship. He then took all but one of that year’s 250 motocross nationals, easily winning the title. He also finished second to Bailey in the 500cc class and was named co-winner of the AMA Pro Athlete of the Year with Bubba Shobert (the two would share the honor again in 1987).
The rivalry between Johnson and Bailey was one of the best in the history of American motocross. Unfortunately, the rivalry proved to be short lived. Just prior to the start of the 1987 season Bailey was paralyzed in a practice crash.
Bailey’s untimely exit from racing affected the entire sport, but it was especially hard on Johnson.
"When David was injured, it took away the biggest reason I got up every morning," Johnson remembers. "Maybe I wouldn’t have won as many championships with David around, but I think the two of us took the sport to a new level and I would much rather have had him to race against for a few more years. I considered us like the Ali and Frazier of motocross racing. We despised and respected each other at the same time. When David got hurt, it took away a lot of my motivation."
In 1987, Johnson finished second to Jeff Ward in AMA Supercross, and went on to again dominate the outdoor national season – losing just once in both the 250cc and 500cc class and winning both titles convincingly.
Perhaps his most memorable Motocross des Nations came that year in Unadilla, New York, when the U.S. team with Johnson, Bob Hannah and Jeff Ward won before a home crowd.
"The look of pride on the faces of the fans when the 'Star Spangled Banner' was played is something I’ll never forget," Johnson says, who with the rest of the team was invited to the White House to meet President Ronald Reagan after the victory.
Johnson had made the transition to stardom in motocross and the various companies involved in motocross racing eagerly sought his endorsement. Johnson’s good looks were used to sell all sorts of racing products. His most famous and controversial ad came in 1988, when he posed nude sitting on a rock for a Fox Racing advertisement in a takeoff of Rodin’s "The Thinker" sculpture.
"I caught a lot of flack for that ad from some circles," recalls Johnson. "But to this day, when I make appearances people show up with that ad almost 15 years later and want me to autograph it. I see someone unrolling a poster and think to myself, 'Oh no, not the one where I’m naked.' But that kind of thing really started the whole motocross-in-fashion thing and put it much more into the mainstream."
1988 proved to be another stellar season for Johnson. He won the AMA Supercross title, the 500cc Motocross Championship and was a part of the winning Motocross des Nations team for the fourth time. Johnson also became more of a thinking rider during this time and largely shed his reputation as a wild rider.
Johnson was on a roll and he began the 1989 season with a five-race Supercross winning streak. In February of that year, Johnson broke Bob Hannah’s record and became the all-time wins leader in AMA Supercross with 28 career victories.
Just a few weeks later, Johnson suffered an injury that would ultimately lead to his premature retirement from motocross racing.
It was in Gainesville, Florida, during morning practice for the Gatorback Nationals. Danny Storbeck came off a jump and landed on Johnson’s right arm. The impact badly broke Johnson’s wrist. He would never fully recover from the injury.
Johnson came back to race before the end of the 1989 season, and while he turned in some brave performances, he would not win another race that year. He visited half a dozen doctors trying to see if anything could be done to repair his wrist, but they all said the same thing – the joint would have to be fused.
To show the depth of Johnson’s talent, he returned in 1990 to win two more nationals – the 250 national at Gainesville, Florida, (one year after his injury at the very same circuit) and the 500cc national at Unadilla, New York. This despite riding with a right wrist that he could hardly move and a hand that would totally go numb after just a few laps of racing.
Johnson contemplated retirement after the 1990 season, but he did well at a few of the European exhibition Supercross races during the off season and decided to go ahead and attempt to race in 1991. However, the hand and wrist were getting worse and he crashed numerous times during the early rounds of the ’91 Supercross season and announced his retirement at the 1991 Daytona Supercross. He was just 26.
"I didn’t have any second thoughts about retiring from motorcycle racing," explained Johnson. "I just couldn’t ride up to my standards because of my injury and I was starting to have success racing off-road trucks. So it was the right time for me to leave."
Johnson went on to have success in off-road truck and stock car racing. He took wins in the famous Baja 1000 twice and was American Speed Association (ASA) stock car series Rookie of the Year in 1999.
Johnson was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Stephanie, and their children. He is president of a popular web site devoted to motocross and Supercross racing.
Inducted in 1999