January 30, 2009
Sometimes nicknames fit someone perfectly.
Monikers like "The Sultan of Swat," "The Rocket," and "The Human Highlight Film" captured the grandiosity and the explosiveness of each of their owners.
Ronnie Johnson isn''t a grandiose man. The 53-year-old from Chattanooga, Tenn., would prefer to focus on racing his cars and then working on them to get them ready for the next stop.
But after more than 30 years racing cars, Johnson has come to accept his fate and that he is known by many people as "The Chattanooga Flash."
"I don''t consider myself to be flashy in that manner," Johnson said. "(The nickname) just seems to draw a little too much attention and a little more attention than I would like."
Johnson hopes he can generate the right kind of attention this week when he competes in the NeSmith Chevrolet Dirt Late Model Series National Tour at the rescheduled Winter Classic today and Saturday at Columbus Speedway.
Round 2 of the 2009 season will be a 40-lap $2,500-to-win main event. The National Weather Service forecast Saturday is calling for sunny skies with a high temperature of 57 degrees, which is much different than the rainy weather that forced last week''s event to be postponed.
There will be open practice sessions from 5 to 8 p.m. today.
On Saturday, gates open at 9 a.m., with NeSmith Chevrolet DLMS Registration and Tech from 9:30 a.m. until the drivers meeting at 12:30 p.m. Hot laps will begin at 1 p.m., and racing is scheduled for 2 p.m.
Johnson said he will try to compete this weekend in the Super Late Model and in the Crate Series. Last week, he finished second in a Super Late Model event in Chattanooga.
Racing has been a fixture in Johnson''s life ever since he can remember. His father, Joe Lee, always was involved with cars and auto repair.
In fact, Joe Lee Johnson drove a Chevrolet to win the first World 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on June 19, 1960.
It didn''t take long for Ronnie Johnson to pick up his father''s love for cars and for racing. He said he started racing in 1973 only a month or two out of high school. Five years later, Johnson said he was racing seriously and competing in races throughout the Southeast.
He said he never would have imagined he would have stayed in auto racing this long, but he also admits he never thought that far ahead.
"I get up every day and (auto racing) is the only thing on my mind," Johnson said. "I have to figure out how to go to the next one and I try to analyze the last race and try to see what I might have done wrong and how I can get better."
Johnson met his wife, Pat, at Boyd Speedway in Chattanooga. They have been married nearly 30 years, and even though Pat doesn''t attend as many races today as she used to, Ronnie is still going strong.
Since the earnings he wins at races are his only source of income, he still tries to race as much as he can. Last year, he said he competed in 50 feature events. The year before, Johnson said he competed in 62 races.
Typically, Johnson said he will race in 50 to 80 events a year. He tries to stay two to three hours from his home in Chattanooga to cut down on travel costs.
The trip to Columbus is an exception because he considers Columbus Speedway and Magnolia Motor Speedway two of his favorite tracks.
This weekend''s competition will be the culmination of a long week that starts Monday with an assessment of the damage, cleanup, and maintenance. Several volunteers assist Johnson in the work, but he never knows when or who will be there to help on a given day.
Johnson said many fans don''t realize the hard work it takes behind the scenes just to get ready for a couple of hours of racing each week.
"The cars are never done," Johnson said. "In the middle of the summer there are sometimes Tuesday or Thursday races, and sometimes some Sunday races, so we don''t always have a full week to get stuff prepared."
Johnson also said he has to deal with times when he only has $90 for parts or tires and they cost $100. But he knew he wasn''t going to get rich at this level of auto racing when he first started.
"There is very little money made at our level, if any," Johnson said. "In my situation it is just an attempt to break even."
Johnson said he remains active because he loves to be his own boss and he loves to compete.
That shouldn''t be a problem considering Johnson is the defending and two-time champion of the Winter Classic. He was inducted into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame in 2004.
Through it all, The Chattanooga Flash nickname or saying has stuck with him. The moniker signifies someone who is exceptionally quick at what he does.
Even though he might not be crazy about the nickname and the lightning bolt that usually accompanies it, he has more than lived up to it with approximately 500 victories to his credit in nearly 36 years of racing.
"As long as I enjoy the sport I will continue to do it," Johnson said. "I don''t have a retirement timetable. This is not a sport with a pension plan, but I am definitely not complaining. I was well aware of that before I got started. It is definitely more of a passion for those of us who are involved."
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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