Michael Johnson quickly exited his flaming No. 31 K&N Pro 4 truck in Round 14 of the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series at Las Vegas. Being in burning or crashing vehicles isn't out of the ordinary for Johnson, but that's work – this racing stuff is supposed to be fun.
Crashing, rolling, sliding, jumping and, sometimes flaming…for most people who drive as part of their job, these are the things they hope to avoid with their vehicles. For Johnson, it's all part of a day's work. Johnson, who also races in Pro 2, is a Hollywood stuntman. He's not the typical utility stuntman who fakes a fight, falls out of buildings or runs around on fire – hence his quick exit from the burning truck – but rather does his stunts behind the wheel. He's recently been working on Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but most of his work is for commercials, including those for Mercedes-Benz, BMW and GMC.
But racing or working, many of the same principles apply.
“It is a dream job that I get to play both sides of the coin,” he says. “I get to use what I teach myself in racing, that transfers over to the stunt driving. That is a big benefit for me. It's helped my confidence and, obviously, rolling the trucks in racing transfers over. I flip cars on TV shows, which transfers over to racing and vice-versa. I really enjoy what I do for a living and I also enjoy being able to take that and pursue a racing career as well.”
He's far from the only guy to mix racing and stunt driving. Talent behind the wheel applies in both. People like Rhys Millen, Sam Hubinette, Tanner Foust and Brett Smrz – whose father, Gregg, has worked together with Johnson on movies – have mixed the two. Johnson says several of his stunt driving buddies could come to a Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series event and run in the top 10, and many of the racers in the paddock would have no problem being successful as stunt drivers. “One hand feeds the other,” he says.
“Setting up ramps and lining up jumps – what I do here makes it so much easier. We did a 125-foot jump in Suburbans off a freeway into boxes for Transformers and everybody's looking at it…for me, I just line it up like any of these guys would a giant tabletop. You come out here and do it all weekend long, and you can transfer that into lining something up, knowing how a truck compresses, how to set up a car, knowing how it's going to land, how to counterbalance the rear. There's a lot that transfers over that really helps out.”
Where the stunt driving rolls over into racing is the variety. One day Johnson may be driving a '72 Cadillac with one functioning brake. Then the next it's a brand-new BMW. One day it's wet pavement, the next dry dirt.
Johnson got his start in short course thanks to Alan Pflueger, whom he met through a mutual friend, Mouse McCoy, off-road racer and producer of the Baja 1000 documentary Dust to Glory. McCoy and Johnson go way back and raced motocross together and then started in trucks together. Johnson worked on the documentary through Pursuit Systems, which supplies camera cars and gyroscopic mounts to the film industry, piloting a buggy with a camera mounted to it that was actually entered in the race.
Pflueger and Johnson met through the production of the documentary, and it eventually led to a trophy truck ride. When he showed up to his first short course race with Pflueger, he realized he'd found his calling.
“I love the intensity of how fast the action is, how bar-banging close you are,” he explains. “In desert it's a different element – you have so many miles to sort things out. I love that longevity of being in the seat. But the actual heart-pounding, bar-to-bar banging with your buddies…. To be able to come out here, race competitively be able to bang bars and have all the different elements…it's good exciting racing.”
Running two trucks is demanding, but it's made easier by the fact that he's driving Carl Renezeder's second Pro 4 – the one that Pflueger used to drive. Harder is coordinating his work schedule so he can race.
But that's the only downside, he says. “You get to come out here on a weekend, you get to play in the dirt, you get to be with your buddies, you get to meet new people. You really can't ask for much more.”