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Privateer Profile: Keith Johnson

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Thirty-one year old Keith Johnson from New Mexico just made the decision that every rider thinks will never come – the decision to hang up the boots. After a long career that saw him ride for Factory KTM, Star Racing and many others, the Albuquerque native’s last race was the Las Vegas SX finale. It didn’t work out so well for him there, but I thought that after all he’s done, he deserved a little send-off. Guys like KJ don’t get a lot of attention, but he and his privateer buddies are the lifeblood of the sport. Try holding a race with just factory riders sometime, it wouldn’t be pretty. So this week’s Privateer Profile is dedicated to Keith Johnson.

  • Keith Johnson is calling it a career
Racer X: So Keith, you told me in Vegas that there would be no more racing for you and I ran a little tribute for you in the column…
Keith Johnson: Yeah, I saw that. Thanks, but you ran a photo of my brother.

Yes, we did. We couldn’t find any of you because you didn’t end up racing. What happened?
Yeah, my last supercross was a little bittersweet because I went out with a bang. I felt pretty good in practice and saw my name on the board. I was pumped about that and tried to step it up a little bit more but the famous little kicker bumps leaving the stadium that Las Vegas has came up and bit me.  I caught my rear wheel on one and endoed. The left side of the rhythm section wasn’t as good and when I moved over to avoid the big hole that had developed in between the jumps, I must have went too far and didn’t bunny hop over it good enough and didn’t get enough air. So I clipped the jump, dislocated my shoulder and broke my humorous where it goes into the shoulder socket.

Ouch, so that pretty much reminded you of why you quit.
Yeah, pretty much. I’m afraid that if I had done good and qualified I would’ve come back for another try, but this sealed it. My favorite part of the whole deal was that I was about the fifth or sixth guy to crash there and rather than fix the left side where there was no take-off, they just asked the camera guy to move so that he wouldn’t get hurt by a flying bike.

Talk about the decision to hang it up, it had to have been tough.
It was getting to a point where the risk vs. reward wasn’t worth it anymore. It was getting to the point where if I got hurt I wouldn’t make any money. I just decided that it was a good time, I felt at peace about hanging it up, so that’s what I did.

What are you going to do now?
Last year I got hurt at Salt Lake City and worked the whole summer at the family dealership that my Grandfather started [Bobby J’s Yamaha] and we talked about possibly opening up another shop on the other side of the city. I started learning as much as I can and went to school and took some classes to help me with that side of things and in the next year or two we’ll open up a new shop.

How is it working at a shop?
I like it because it keeps me around motorcycles because that’s my passion and I enjoy it. I really like motorcycles and everything that comes with it. I also like to do it to keep the family business going; we’ve been doing it for a while now.

Aren’t you guys the oldest Yamaha dealership in the country?
Yeah we are. We started selling bikes in 1953 or so and I think we’ve been selling Yamahas since ’58.

  • Johnson racing arenacross in Greensboro, NC
What are some of your career highlights?
I would say that supercross-wise, it would be 2003 when I was the top privateer and I think I finished tenth in the overall series or something like that. The U.S. Open Four-Stroke championship, I won something like seven or eight arenacross wins as well. In the nationals, I finished top ten in the 450 class a few times and it’s been a good career.

I was checking out your website, keithmx.com, and saw that one of your best finishes was at Southwick, which is weird because all you New Mexico guys hate the sand.
No, I love the sand. That’s not true, that’s one of my favorite tracks actually. It’s the best. That was my best finish I think, I also passed out at Southwick one year! (Laughs)

Oh yeah, I remember that. Remember when I worked for you in 2000?
Yeah, that was also bittersweet because I hadn’t gotten hurt much before that and didn’t have a lot of fear really. That first race you worked for me I came from the back to get twelfth or something like that and rode pretty good. I felt like I had to speed to take the next step, then later on at Dallas I had barely ridden since my injury and came out to get another decent finish. That was without much riding, that was cool and then that summer during the outdoor nationals I started thinking about whether I wanted to break both arms again so soon. It was tough.

Sorry about taking you out to that track where you did that.
That’s ok, it was my fault really.

Who do you want to thank after all these year?
Of course my family and my grandparents, without Bobby J’s Yamaha there would be no way that I could afford to have gone racing all these years. My wife Jennifer for supporting me my whole career, the guys that have always stuck behind me, like FLY Racing, Enzo suspension, Bridgestone, Gaerne, Pro Circuit. I want to thank Team Faith for taking me arenacross racing and finding me something that’s a lot of fun to do.  It seems like whenever I call these people up, they help me out no problem.

What about your brother?
Yeah him too, I want to thank Kevin for being the little brother that’s always trying to beat the big brother, but I squashed him down 90% of the time.

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