With the news that Southwick was returning to the 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross schedule, we decided to look up New England motocross legend Keith Johnson. Johnson has been working nearly nonstop to rebuild and improve the historic track and facility, having taken over day-to-day operations nearly one year ago.
The historical importance of the Southwick facility is not to be underestimated. The track ranks right up there with places like Carlsbad, Saddleback, and Unadilla for bench racing and pure history. With its deep sand and constantly changing lines, the track has a long history of local riders carding heroic performances when the national comes to town. But, more importantly, the track has long served as the informal home base for motocross in New England.
Johnson (not to be confused with the Keith Johnson from New Mexico) himself was no stranger to Southwick—he had his first race at the track when he was just 6 years old and finished a career-best fourth overall in the 125 Class in 2001 at the venue—went onto have a distinguished professional racing career that lasted nearly twenty-five years (from 1988 through 2013).
Racer X: Keith, big news coming out this week with the announcement that the Southwick National is back. How did this whole thing come about?
Keith Johnson: Well, it was a long chain of events, but Mike Grondahl is the guy who really stepped up. As everyone knows, the land is owned by the [American] Legion, and there were differences between various people over the years, with the net result being that the track closed. There was nothing happening, there was no local racing, and the track was left as it sat from the last race. Mike came in; he had a love for Southwick. He was able to start fresh and design a lease with the Legion. He then had to go in and negotiate with the town and the Legion to get things all permitted and set up. And Mike is a busy guy—he didn't want to run things day in, day out. He was trying to find the right person to run it and spoke with a lot of people. He called me several months after he got the lease and asked me if I was interested. At that time, I said no, but then I started thinking about it and called him back. I asked some questions, we got together and talked, and worked out a deal.
So you said no at first?
Yes, I did. I had some stuff going on with my own business, and wanted to make sure it was done right. I hold Southwick in a very high place. It was always my home track and means so much to me. It is such a colorful important place, and I knew if I made the commitment, it had to be done right. But I also knew that it would be a lot of time and work. I have a family and three kids, as well as my own fitness business that I needed to consider. But we worked out a deal, and I took it over the operations last fall.
So what was your first step then?
Mike and I signed an agreement last November. The track had been sitting for over a year and was really, really washed out. We have some issues with drainage because of the hills. Even though they aren't really big hills, it really just washes out and the sand goes away in just one big storm. So we had some issues with the pitch of the land, irrigation, and drainage. First thing I did was call up Dowdy [John Dowd], and he and I went in and spent a full day walking around making a plan for how to move the dirt and fix some of those issues. Dowd is a great bulldozer operator, and he knows Southwick better than anyone. We then went in later in the fall with four dozers and an excavator and went to work. We spent weeks taking down fence and doing our best to try and fix some of the things with the track that have been problems for years.
You switched the direction of the track as well, right?
Yeah. We switched it back to the direction it started with. When the track was turned around, it was a great idea for something new, but ideally, the way it flowed was not as fun. And the thing is, no matter what jumps you make there, it gets too rough. You can do them in practice, but halfway through the day, it's too rough. So we spent some time trying to get it back to the original layout. We added some sections and took some out. It took a lot of work. We would have a race and would see what didn't work. So we are still tweaking things, but I think the place is much more fun to ride now. It’s funny, you push some tires ten feet one way and it changes everything. We have had nothing but compliments, and we keep pushing to make it better. That's not to say [former promoters] Ralph and Diane [Pitello] did a bad job or anything, but I think Dowdy and I were able to use our perspective as riders to make some good changes.
How involved is Mike Grondahl?
Mike is a super-busy guy, and we are together on it. But, he doesn't want anything to do with the day-to-day operations, so my deal is that I run all that. He's there if I need him. So, this year, we ran some regular events, including NESC, NEMX, the J-Day Series, and some quad events. He has a lot of other stuff going on, and between starting a trampoline gym, the Factory Connection team, Alias Clothing, and his son’s racing career, he has a lot of irons in the fire.
In addition to the track changes, what can fans expect to experience at the 2016 race?
Well, a big thing is the viewing at the track has always been difficult for the fans. You just can’t see all the sections, or even a few. So we spent three days taking down all the fencing and we are redoing that. We are really focused on being able to make a better fan viewing experience. We had what seemed like miles of six-foot chain link fence, and we are going to replace that with lower fence that is more visually appealing. We are planning a new tower, and to improve the grandstands as well. We want to make sure we have a good VIP fan experience as well, and we are looking at the options for those tickets. Right now, the track is pretty darn good, and I feel that we got that down pretty well. Now we need to focus back in on the facility. But we will be running it the old way. We also still have to put a tunnel or two back in, as the Nationals require access to the inside of the track for the Asterisk Mobile Medical crew.
So the big questions: Will we be seeing the return of the Frog Pond and the Buckley Berm?
[Laughs] Well, for sure we are trying to recreate some of that old Southwick feeling. The first twenty seconds of the track are almost all original. We tried to recreate as much as the original aspects, and we even brought back some of the old names, like the Camel Humps and the Anthill. Paul Buckley's Berm is still there in full force as well. However, the old Frog Pond is on the wrong side of the access road, at least for now. But as much as we can recreate, we will.
Talk a little bit about the process of how you guys actually landed the race?
Well, last fall, I got in touch with Davey [Coombs, MX Sports Pro Racing as well as Racer X] and let him know I had taken over. Things started out slowly, but he was certainly willing to talk about it, but indicated that the schedule was full. Then, later this summer, Mike called me, and I guess he spoke to Davey and things were suddenly moving since the Utah race was not coming back. Then Mike and I went to Unadilla and met with MX Sports to really talk about it. They came up in early September, and we rode around the track, and that pretty much sealed the deal.
Okay, now let's talk about you—you had quite the career as a racer and one that rivals John Dowd for longevity. You had some great rides at Southwick and served as a factory rider for both KTM and Cannondale. You also raced in Canada and won a ton of amateur championships as a vet rider. You had a great run!
Well, thanks. I turned pro in 1988 and was riding with #401. My first national was at Lake Sugar Tree in Axton, Virginia. I rode some nationals in 1989 and ended up with a KTM factory deal that lasted three years. Back then KTMs were not what they are today, and it took quite a bit of development. And in supercross, riding the KTM wasn’t the same as being on a Japanese bike. In hindsight, I might have done it differently, but we were getting better and better each season. But then I dislocated my wrist in 1993 at the Seattle SX. It was a really bad injury, and I was in a cast for months and had several surgeries. I wasn’t even sure if I could ride again, and it took several years to fully come back from that.
So, once I got better, I raced mainly around New England in the mid-1990s. With contingency and track money, I was able to make a good living racing locally. Back then, the OEMs would pay like $600 per win, so I could make $1,200 from them and then whatever purse the track paid. I was walking away with $1,600 or more per weekend. So I ended wining maybe seventeen or so NESC Championships. Then I got back into doing the Nationals, and the Cannondale thing came around.
Wow, that Cannondale deal. That should perhaps be left for a separate interview.
Yeah, for sure. Lots of stories there!
You scored a fourth overall at the Southwick National in 2001. Tell me a little about that.
I was riding the 125/250 Class, which was called the Lites back then. The class was stacked, and Larry Ward and I were on the Yamaha and pretty much battling for top privateer. I just had some good motos that day and scored a third in one moto and was good enough for fourth overall. That was certainly a highlight for me. Then, for the next few years, Dowd and I had that KTM team. Well, he put it together, and I rode for him.
You also raced in Canada, right?
Yeah. In 2004, I went to Canada and raced up there for three years. I had some good finishes and did pretty well. My main competition up there was JSR [Jean Sebastien Roy], Craig Decker, and Damon Huffman. But then, in 2006, I broke my leg and came home and retired.
Retired? But you kept racing, didn't you?
Well, yeah. I got a ride with Team Green—they were looking for a guy to run the vet classes at all the amateur nationals. I did Loretta Lynn's and the Mini Os and all that stuff. That was me and [Mike] Treadwell—we had a little team that was actually sponsored by Mike Grondahl. I did that Team Green deal from 2007 through 2013.
You did pretty well with it, right?
Yeah, I guess. I won seven or eight championships at Loretta's. But I think I ruined the contingency for the vet riders, as I was cleaning up. Kawasaki had such great bonuses and I could race four vet classes. It was really good.
What about your personal life?
Well, I also have a fitness business; it's called Fitworx and is designed specifically for weight loss, and perhaps for someone who might not walk into a big box gym. We are just now opening our fourth location, and I have a partner in that. Our locations are all in Massachusetts. I live in Carver with my wife and three kids, really close to the old Middleboro track.