In 1971 a seven-year-old motocross rider made his racing debut on the Lake Elsinore TT track.
“We went up there and rolled around for last place,” he said.
The novice knew that the other riders had started faster.
“They were gone,” he said.
The young rider thought that he was ahead of one racer he saw. Then he discovered that the image was matching his own moves.
“I realized that I was racing my own shadow,” he said.
The rider was Ricky Johnson, who would eventually win 64 national-level races sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association including 26 Supercross wins.
Johnson won seven AMA season national championships including two Supercross titles. After a wrist injury ended his motorcycle racing career he switched to four-wheel racing, winning the Cajon Speedway’s Sportsman Stocks season championship in 1995 before an off-road career which included two Baja 1000 victories.
Johnson was inducted into the AMA’s Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999 and into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2012.
On February 13 Johnson added another Hall of Fame honor, as the San Diego Hall of Champions inducted him into the Breitbard Hall of Fame during the annual Salute to the Champions banquet.
“It just was an honor to be recognized by the people of San Diego,” said Johnson, who grew up in El Cajon and now lives in Orange County. “I’m very proud of San Diego, and to be acknowledged by the San Diego Hall of Champions means a lot to me.”
The Lake Elsinore TT track closed shortly after Johnson’s debut there, but the experience of racing his own shadow taught Johnson a lesson.
“If I can match the best of me I’m doing good,” he said. “No matter how fast you go, how slow you are, you’re always having to beat your own shadow.”
The faster Johnson’s shadow went, the faster Johnson went, and Johnson adopted the mentality of racing against the best of himself.
“If I do that then there’s a chance that I can be a real good competitor out there,” he said.
Although the last-place finish led to a break from racing for a couple of years, he returned to competition at the Four Corners track in Ramona.
“Once we went pretty much every weekend from then on we were at some motocross track,” he said.
AMA Hall of Fame member Don Vesco lived in Murrieta during the last several years of his life but owned a Yamaha dealership in El Cajon during Johnson’s youth.
AMA Hall of Fame rider Broc Glover is also from El Cajon.
“It gave me every opportunity to do what I needed to do,” Johnson said of growing up in El Cajon. “San Diego has a great bunch of guys for us to look up to.”
Ricky Johnson is unrelated to current stock car racer Jimmie Johnson, although Jimmie Johnson’s father was Ricky Johnson’s mechanic and Ricky Johnson changed Jimmie Johnson’s diapers in the 1970s.
Ricky Johnson is also in Montgomery Middle School’s Hall of Fame.
“I wasn’t exactly a very good student,” he said.
He did receive “A” grades in Terry Love’s physical education class.
“The one thing I could do was go fast, and Coach Love encouraged it,” Johnson said. “Coaches play a very special role in our lives.”
Johnson attended Valhalla High School but did not graduate. He received his AMA pro license when he was 16 and obtained his first national-level win at Carlsbad Raceway when he was 17.
“San Diego was perfect for a guy who wanted to grow up to race motorcycles,” he said.
Johnson himself became a father figure to La Mesa’s Edward Muncey, whose own father was killed during a 1981 hydroplane race. In 1982 Bill Muncey became the first motorsports racer to be inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame. Johnson is the second.
“It’s a very motorsports-rich environment, but there’s just been so many other athletes as well,” Johnson said of being the first motocross racer inducted.
“This means the world to me,” Johnson said of his induction. “This is a great honor to me.”
Johnson now teaches driving skills to military personnel during desert training exercises.