About the only thing her previous off-road competition experience taught Nicole Johnson was how to be upside down.
After that, everything about short-course off-road racing was new to this rock crawler. In rock crawling, the object is to clear a course of extreme obstacles. While there is a time limit, it's not about being fastest; it's about doing the course correctly, not hitting any course markers, and completing it without using reverse or the winch. Or, you know, ending up on your lid. Her husband, Frank, is her spotter, a crucial role in the sport of rock crawling.
Entering her first Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series race for Rounds 5 and 6 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Limited Buggy class, Johnson had a pretty steep learning curve ahead of her. “Everything we learn in rock crawling is 100 percent opposite of this,” says the mother of two from Las Vegas, noting that in rock crawling they add lead shot to the tires to help keep them on the rocks. Heavy wheels and tires are a retardant where speed is the objective.
Johnson got her first taste of speed competing in the King of the Hammers race in California. For the past two years she's been the fastest “Queen,” meaning the quickest female competitor in this half-desert, half-crawling competition. But her rock crawler doesn't go very fast – most of them are geared very low – so to further feed her need for speed, she decided to try short course.
In some practice leading up to the event and during her first weekend of competition, she received quite the education. First lesson: if your oil pressure gauge reads zero, don't assume it's a problem with the gauge, or you won't get far in the race. Other courses in the school of hard knocks include how much better the car turns with grooved front tires (if you don't master the homework, the buggy will turn too well and flip you on your lid). More lessons came in the form of contact with concrete barriers. But those lessons are taken to heart on the Johnson Motorsports team.
“I'm frustrated with myself that I either made the mistake or I didn't learn the concept sooner,” she says. “But just like in rock crawling, whenever I've made a mistake, it's an experience you can't replace without making a mistake. So I'm usually grateful for it after I settle down and think about it.”
That said, there were several little epiphanies during her first weekend of competition, Johnson notes. “I'm totally learning about the lines, about the clutch and the rpm and keeping it in its power band in the turns. And combining that with being on the right line and not being afraid of that gas pedal. That car was made to be driven [with the accelerator] just mashed, and it really is my friend. So I'm getting a little more gutsy each time and trying new things.”
A Saturday night putting in a new engine – see oil pressure gauge lesson above – looked like it might end in frustration when Johnson hit a concrete barrier hard in Sunday morning practice and bent the bumper and front suspension beam. It was a low point in a weekend of ups and downs, the sort that, combined with the other lows, makes one rethink their choice of sports. But, Johnson says, quitting is not what you do in racing.
“I just had to sit, get my head back in it and say, ‘I am going to finish the race. I don't care about anybody else. I'm just not going to hit them, I'm not going to hit the wall, I'm going to finish the race.'” That's exactly what she did. She was the last car on the lead lap, but she finished, and had dropped eight seconds off her lap time from Friday afternoon qualifying. “I was clean and I'm learning and it's fun as heck. I was really proud of myself for holding it together long enough not to spin or roll or take someone else out. It felt satisfying after how much we went through this weekend.”
The lessons learned were almost too many to count, she says. Nicole, Frank and her father/crew chief Tom Jardin will look over their notes, see what setup or gearing changes might need to be made, and apply those for next time. Next time? Yes, the final lesson of the weekend was that this stuff is addictive, and she's hooked.