Jimmy Johnson, at 19 years old, was finally competing in the Thunder Truck class in the Grand National Truck events in the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group race series. It was the “big time” for him as far as off-road stadium races were concerned.
He had already put in a couple of seasons in the Superlite class and won a lot of races.
It was during his first year of stadium racing, in 1992, when many first took notice of him as someone to watch. Gary Johnson, his dad, helped out in the BFGoodrich pits, busting tires and getting the rubber mounted and grooved for many of the teams for the evening's racing.
“We're going to send Jimmy to a driving school, and then when he gets out of high school, we're going to move on to maybe a series to prep him for the NASCAR or Indy circuit,” said Gary during a short dinner in the BFG pit hospitality area. Everyone within earshot listened intently. Some took him seriously, but some just rolled their eyes when a dad makes a claim like that.
Time would prove Gary right and the doubters wrong.
But we return to Las Vegas, and the last race of the '94 season, and what would turn out to be the last Grand National Truck race ever. This was the first season in the trucks for Jimmy. He was teamed with ex-supercross and motocross champion Rick Johnson on the Chevy factory team. Their adversaries were no less than the Toyota team (drivers Ivan Stewart and Rod Millen), Nissan (Roger Mears Jr. and Sr.), Ford (Rob MacCachren and Jerry Whelchel) and a few independent racers.
Rod Millen was running a very solid lead in points and had sewn up the championship at the Denver event, with one more race to go. Las Vegas No. 2 was the only time the series had two races at the same venue in the same season. MTEG was in financial trouble, with Danny Thompson at the reins, so a lot of things were done with dollars in mind.
At the Denver race, Jimmy had taken a hard-earned Third Place in the final race, so the Chevy team was confident they were competitive going to Las Vegas No. 2. This race, Jimmy had won the first of two heats, so he was definitely ready for the final—which started out with Ricky Johnson taking the lead, Ivan second, and Jimmy in third. Jimmy passed Ivan, and then Ivan promptly nosed it into a corner, and that put him and his Toyota way behind.
The track was drying out quickly, so the BFGoodrich tires were really getting some grip.
It was the Johnsons, Ricky and Jimmy, one and two, until three laps from the finish, when Jimmy took the lead and never looked back. It was Jimmy's first and last Grand National win. The next season, due to Toyota pulling out of the series, and Chevy, Nissan and Ford following suit, the '95 season started out as a former skeleton of its former self.
Six brave fullsize desert racers showed up at San Diego and Anaheim ready to sacrifice at least part of their trucks to the stadium circuit. They tried in vain to make a show of it, and it fell flat. There just wasn't the electricity in the air like the purpose-built trucks had. They had evolved over the past decade to be snarling, mogul-jumping rigs that stole the show and thrilled the fans in those prior seasons.
The '95 season shut down after the two events. Mickey Thompson's dream of Baja racing in a stadium was now relegated to the history books, YouTube videos, and the occasional magazine story, like this one.
Jimmy went on to race Crandon and Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) events against such midwest shortcourse titans like Jack Flannery and Curt LeDuc, and Jimmy won a couple of championships. He was racing for Herzog racing, and they went ASA Stock Car racing in 1998 with Jimmy as their driver.
In 2002, Jimmy graduated to NASCAR, racing for Rick Hendricks on the Lowe's team, eventually winning 7 NASCAR Championships. It seems that Gary Johnson knew all along.