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Johnsons get 15 back

Posted: May 21, 2009 9:04 p.m.
Updated: May 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
Don Johnson won his first auto racing championship in 1961. He won four in a row at Saugus Speedway from 1969-72. Back then he raced a blue and yellow 1957 Chevy convertible with the No. 15 on it.

It’s the same number his son, Rod Johnson, ran on his cars at Saugus Speedway and Toyota Speedway at Irwindale. Two weeks ago, Don Johnson’s grandson finally got to run a race car, or truck in this case, with the family 15 on the side and roof.

R.J. Johnson, a driver from Canyon Country, won his first NASCAR Super Trucks race of the season at Irwindale after changing the number on his truck from 88 to 15. The new number seemed to make all the difference in its debut.

“It was just really neat to see the 15 with the yellow and blue with my name on it,” said R.J. Johnson. “Winning was icing on the cake.”

R.J. Johnson wasn’t able to run the 15 on his truck the past two years at Irwindale because another driver had it. Joe Herold, a driver from Poway, ran the No. 15 truck in the Super Trucks division at the track.

But every year, Rod Johnson, R.J.’s dad, registered his truck with the No. 15 as his first choice. His second choice has been 88.
Herold has not been racing at Irwindale on a regular basis and when it came time to register this year, the 15 was available. Only the Johnsons didn’t know that until the third race of the year.

Rod Johnson said his son didn’t receive the prize money for the first two races of the year. When he asked the track officials why, he was told the checks were issued to the driver of the No. 15, but there was nobody racing a No. 15 truck.

Before claiming the number, Rod Johnson said he called Herold to make sure it was available. Herold told Rod Johnson that he wasn’t going to be racing much at Irwindale this year, so the number was all his.

R.J. Johnson didn’t waste time winning with his new number. He won the Super Trucks race on May 2, but his good fortune was short-lived. R.J. Johnson finished 13th in his second race with the new number. The fuel pump broke on his truck. He went from leading the race to the back of the field and struggled to finish the race.

Still, R.J. has been impressive in his short time in the Super Trucks, especially with the family 15.

“He’s really surprised all of us,” said the 77-year-old Don Johnson who lives in Sand Canyon. “He learned fast. He was a week old when he went to the Saugus race track. He was one week old when he first went, so he’s been there his whole life at the races.”

Don Johnson started racing the No. 15 in 1967 at Saugus Speedway and other tracks throughout Southern California.

“I liked Parnelli Jones back in those days,” Don Johnson said. “He was 15 so that’s where the 15 comes from. I had it since 1967. From ’67 on, I’ve had it. We had it up to last year when we quit running the Super Late Models. I’ve had 15 everywhere I’ve raced up until that time.”

Oddly enough, Rod Johnson won his only championship at Irwindale racing a car with the No. 74 on it. It was a car Don Johnson helped put together and maintain, but it was owned by Chatsworth Machine. Dave Phipps used to drive it, but when Irwindale opened in 1999, Rod Johnson drove it in the NASCAR Super Late Model division and won the first championship at the track.

Tommy Fry took over the car the following year and Rod Johnson went back to racing his own familiar No. 15 car. He won a few more races, but did not win another track championship.

Now it’s R.J.’s turn to carry on the family tradition in the 15. He’s had mixed results so far, but his grandfather is confident R.J. will do his family proud.

“He talked a good story, but he hadn’t really raced much,” Don Johnson said. “It’s so amazing he’s backed it all up. He’s had a lot of good help around him. Not me so much, I’ve kind of backed off a little bit.”

Tim Haddock can be reached by e-mail at tim@haddockinthepaddock.com. Go to www.haddockinthepaddock.com for videos of interviews from the drivers at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale and updates from the NHRA races at Bristol Dragway and comments from the drivers in the NASCAR Camping World Series East-West race at Iowa Speedway.

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