"When I talk about it, it’s almost like a book that I read and not a real thing.” And so begins my conversation with Ricky Johnson, an iconic racer who dominated motocross in the late eighties.
Johnson was making a reference to his own racing career and comparing it to his life today. During his time on top of the sport, the Bad Boy possessed a dominant combination of speed, charisma, confidence, and style. Those characteristics helped Ricky earn a total of seven AMA National Championships and established him as one of motocross greats.
After his career ended with a very well-documented wrist injury, Johnson went on to race trucks and still continues to race on four wheels to this day. Despite being in his fifties now, Johnson is still just as outspoken and engaging as ever. Check out this interview and recent podcast we did with Johnson a few weeks ago.
Racer X: I know you’re involved in a lot of different things, but what are you up to mostly these days? I’ve seen you doing some color commentary for Red Bull, as well as some TV work.
Rick Johnson: My primary job is working with the military. I started a company a couple years back with a partner who is retired from the special forces. I met him when I was doing my own driving and riding school program with the special forces. Basically, we train a lot of the soldiers and ally soldiers on how to drive and ride motorcycles, as well as to drive off-road vehicles with a focus on car control and things like that. That’s my primary gig. Then obviously I still do a little bit of TV commentary where I can. I did some work just recently for Mint 400. Then I did the TORC [The Off-Road Championship] series last year and a few different things for the Red Bull Signature Series. So I’m keeping my hands in a lot of different stuff. At this time, I’m also currently racing trophy trucks for Larry Connor and Team C Racing, so we’ll race the Baja 250, 500 and 1000. Then working with my son, Luke. He’s racing trucks as well. He was the short course champion last year. He and I race together in the desert as well. So, I am keeping busy.
That sounds like a pretty full plate! The military training sounds pretty cool. How does that work? Do you guys have your own fleet of vehicles?
Yeah, it started originally with a friend of mine that I was actually teammates with, Rob Latham. He’s a professional shooter and one of the fastest pistol shooters in the world. So we started talking back right before 9/11 how I felt that riding motorcycles would help the Special Forces guys in certain situations. So he made an introduction to a certain group of guys. They came out to California and they tried me out to see if I knew what I was talking about or if I was just some ex-racer that was going to make them try to jump double jumps and stuff. Through my experience with doing the Yamaha riding schools and my own coaching and stuff, they liked the program. So from there, it went from motorcycles to quads to side-by-sides to cars to now heavy vehicles. I also want to thank my partner in American Off-Road, Jeff Benrud. He won the Baja 1000 Moto Ironman class last year.
We’re currently the instructor portion for what they call the Flier 1.1, which is the Hummer replacement. It’s the new military vehicle. So we do have a fleet of cars that we use, from Crown Vics, to front-wheel drives, all-wheel drives. We also work with Polaris. We have what they call M Razors, which is what the military uses for Razors. We have six of those. We also have a bunch of different motorcycles. I use everything from Honda XR400s to Yamaha WR250s. I want the guys to be completely rounded. I think putting them on a brand-new bike, electric start, and fuel injection is not teaching them how to be a complete rider. So I make them learn how to find the top end center, go past it, kickstart a four-stroke. So if anything happens in a bad scenario, they can get on any bike and be familiar with it.
That’s pretty cool. Do you guys have a dedicated facility, or do you do it at different locations?
We work a lot out of Fort Bragg. A lot of guys work up there. My partner lives in Rayford, which is right by Fayetteville, North Carolina. So we work up in Uwharrie National Forest for some of the four-by-four and recovery. We work at a couple different tracks back there. One is called Outback facility, and they got a bunch of trails and Jeep trails and a sand motorcycle track, mud bogs and all different stuff. So they’re able to do it. It’s a really cool just old-school riding park. I think you pay five bucks to come in. The track’s not watered. The track’s not grated. Track’s rough. Kind of like the shit that I used to ride on back when I was racing.
Let’s talk about your family—I know you have three kids, and your son Luke is doing well racing trucks.
Steph and I are coming on 28 years of being married. I always joke with my wife because it seems like it’s been a couple months, but Stephanie and I got married in 1990. We’ve been together for 30 years now. Our oldest son Lucas went through fab [metal fabrication] school because he wanted to race and wanted to continue to pursue that dream of being a driver. So I said, you have to learn how to work on them. So he went through what they call The Fab School in California. He has a prep shop and he builds race cars and works on them, and he also races them. He’s the [TORC] Pro 2 Champion 2017. He races for John Langley, Zach Langley, and Morgan Langley from COPS Racing. That’s the TV show COPS. The Langleys produce it and have done so for a long time. So he races for them down in Baja and also some of the California off-road races.
Our little son Jake graduated from CSU [California State University]. He played lacrosse and got a construction management degree. He was a big lacrosse player in college. Now he’s currently building high-end houses up in LA. Our daughter, Kassidy, is the youngest of the bunch and recently graduated from the Art Institute with a degree in design. Currently she’s getting ready to move to Oregon to work with Laird Hamilton, and for whom is somebody that’s really helped me lose some weight, start eating healthy and really helped turn my life around.
I saw some of your social media posts where you speak to making some changes in your life, and most recently your Instagram post where you are sitting in the ice water tank. Can you speak to some of the changes you made?
Absolutely. For one, I grew up racing in the eighties and the huge craze was carb loading. We had triathletes in Southern California, and bagels were the big thing. Eat bagels in the morning and have pasta for dinner, but don’t eat red meat because it’s going to make you eight pounds heavier. I believed it, but I was a completely different person and very athletic at that time. I would get up and run in the morning, and then I would go do motos. Two days a week I would do weights. The other days I would do dumbbell aerobics or just always doing something. So when you’re using that much energy, it’s okay to have those glycogen levels and sugars and stuff in your system because you’re burning them off. Now fast-forward, my knees need to be replaced, my wrist is fused, I can’t ride motorcycles the way I want to. I can’t run the way I want to. I have to cycle a certain way. I have to do all these certain things. But my appetite never changed, so I started stacking on pounds.
With that, it was embarrassing. It was difficult. What I loved about Japanese people is they don’t hide anything, and sometimes in the translation, they don’t know how to be polite. They’re very polite people, but I had it a couple times: “Rick, you’re so fat.” So I tried cutting back, eating less and trying to do more. I was just hungry all the time. It wasn’t until I hooked up with Laird Hamilton again [that things started to turn.] I met him a long time ago. John Desoto put on the Aloha Supercross back in 1989 and I met him then with Jerry Lopez. I reintroduced myself to him down at the Baja 1000 this year. So we started talking about the whole ketogenic diet and burning fat for energy and how they used it during the race. It helps your brain focus better, do all this stuff. So that was my main reason, as I want to be the best driver. The system that I had, I wasn’t falling out of the seat, I wasn’t getting tired, but I did find myself getting hungry during the race. You’re out there for 16 hours, depending on the race, and you find yourself getting hungry. If you’re thinking 2 percent “I’m hungry,” then you’re not thinking 100 percent on racing. So I wanted to look into that.
I got off of sugars. I got off the carbohydrates as much as I could and started implementing more good fat into my system. Avocados, coconut oil in the morning, and then I started looking at some sort of intermittent fasting. Meaning eat dinner, get up in the morning and have coffee with coconut oil and Laird’s superfood. I found that I’m not hungry. I can make it past lunch and I’m okay. Literally the first 15 pounds just jumped off. The next ten pounds came off quick. Now I’ve plateaued a little bit but lost 25 pounds, so I’m at 205, somewhere a little bit below that. I have a lot more energy. I don’t bonk during the day. I’ll be honest with you, with the other system of drinking energy drinks and stuff like that, you find yourself crashing midday and wanting to take a nap. So it’s helped me a bunch.
Making changes like that can be really hard, especially sticking with them for the long haul.
Yeah, but I feel so much better. Reading into what Wim Hof does. He’s the guru—they call him the Ice Man—on inflammation. I was getting hit from all different angles with the sugar as inflammation, all these different things. So I was taking Celebrex and blood pressure medicine. Before that, I was taking Ambien to sleep because my brain wouldn’t shut off. So all of these things have literally changed my life. I joke about it, but it all starts with a cup of coffee. How you start your day and when you start it, and you have something that’s good to your body and good for your mind and good for everything, it makes the rest of the day seem kind of easy. I was a total Starbucks-aholic. I would go get my foofoo drink, my grande soy sugar-free vanilla latte with cinnamon on top.
Switching gears here a little bit, you worked as a trainer to some of the top racers for a while, but it seems like you’re not that closely aligned to any top-level racers right now. Is that by design?
They don’t take you up on it. It’s crazy because you watch all these other sports and they have people that coach them and do all the different stuff. I think that they think I’m going to compare what I did in the eighties to what they’re doing now, which is a completely different ball game. I’m not going to teach them things I learned that worked on the bikes back then. Riding position, fork setup, suspension, motor, all of that. If you watch a supercross in the eighties, the bikes that we were riding and the Flexi forks and the two-strokes, how the power hits versus a fuel-injected 450 with mega stiff suspension, and the tire performance has jumped up so much. The performance, how hard these guys can lean on the tires, is crazy. So when I try to offer these guys help, I kind of feel like these guys are like, “Thanks, old-timer, but I think I got it.” I’m like, okay.
I felt that I did a great job with Blake Baggett. He went from not qualifying at a couple races and not making it into the top fifteen to we had him on the podium. He was so strong in the 250 class because he could be really hard on the clutch and really hard on the throttle, but then when he got on the 450, he was riding it like a 250. He didn’t make the transition. So we changed what he was doing. But now they have taken notes, and then feel that they have it figured out, so they move on. I was okay with that. But it all started when [former Suzuki team manager] Mike Webb called me and said, “Hey, do you think you can come out and maybe help Blake off some starts?” So I went out and watched him and I said, are you okay with me giving you a couple suggestions? So we did some things with what he was doing with the clutch, the throttle, where he was looking, throttle response and all the different stuff, and he made some big strides. He’s doing great now, so he’s taken some of the stuff that everyone’s given him and he’s doing really well.
Where do you and your family call home now?
I live in Murrieta. I live right up above the Lake Elsinore track, a place called La Cresta. A lot of pro racers cycle up here. It’s a beautiful little place that’s kind of up on a hill. We love it here. It keeps me grounded.
Looking back at your two-wheeled career, what are some of the biggest highlights for you, personally?
The things that I think of, like flash photos from throughout my career—there are plenty. One is just being a kid and racing and having parents that took me out and got me motorcycles and let me pursue that. Just being at Indian Dunes or Saddleback or Carlsbad or wherever and just going racing. One of the bigger things was winning the last moto of my rookie year in 1981. Mark Barnett got hurt and Johnny O’Mara won the first moto. I won the second moto. That feeling of having all those people there and riding the track really well and having my lines and stuff, that was huge.
The other thing was winning a championship in 1984 with Cliff Lett as my mechanic. He helped get me involved with Yamaha. Winning on a production bike and it coming down to the last moto and crossing that finish line at Washougal was huge. For supercross, I’m going to say that the two best races that I ever had as far as physically being strong and racing hard was 1988 Daytona Supercross. That one race was probably the most dominant performance that I had. I also had a good one in Seattle in 1989 before I got hurt. I was feeling good. Nationals, I had some really strong rides at Hangtown. My 500 [FIM Motocross World Championship Grand Prix] win at Carlsbad, it was the last one and definitely monumental. Obviously, all these little snapshots of the Des Nations. 1984 with Johnny, Jeff, and David, and then also Broc [Glover] when he came in and substituted for David after he got hurt. Also racing with David and Johnny in ’86. And then with Bob Hannah and Jeff Ward at Unadilla in 1987. Going to the White House to meet President Reagan. Man, we had some great times. When I talk about it, it’s almost like a book that I read. It’s not like a life I lived because I’m not past it or beyond it—I don’t want to brag about it, but I’m not embarrassed of it. That’s just who I am.
Over the course of your career, how was the money?
It’s never enough! But it doesn’t really matter. If you have ten bucks, you spend $15. If you go to buy a house, you’re supposed to be looking in the $150,000 range, but you look at $500,000 houses you want. It doesn’t matter what you have. You’re always wanting to be one step ahead. I was blessed to be introduced to Dave Stephenson, and now his son Ryan Stephenson, who still helps us with that. If I didn’t meet Dave, I wouldn’t have a cent. I would have pissed it all away—I can promise you that. I’m not saying it would have been on drugs and parties, but I was the kind of guy who would be buying expensive stuff brand-new and selling it cheap when I got bored. But over everything, from riding gear and contracts, I was able to put a couple million dollars away in my pension. We have tried to work that back and forth, but it wasn’t a ton of money.
It was good, don’t get me wrong. In fact, at the time it was awesome. That’s when Honda would pay $100,000 for a championship bonus. Now I think it’s $100,000 a win, and a million dollars to win the championship. Still, to buy a house now, that same house cost you that much more today. The $250,000 house when I was growing up in California is now a three-million dollar house. So it’s all relative. I’m not bitter and I’m not like, I’m rich. I made a little money, but I have to work every day and think about where I’m going to make my next paycheck. But we have a beautiful house, we eat well, and I have the toys that I want to have. But if you said, hey, I’m going to give you two million dollars—you want it? Damn right. I’ll take it!
If you made a million dollars back in 1986, it seems like it was way more money back then, but I guess its all relative to the times.
Exactly. I think one of the guys that was ahead of the curve was Bob Hannah. He said to all his factory rides, “I want you to pay me over the next ten years.” So the tax implications were a lot smaller and he didn’t have the money to spend up front. At one point, he was getting paid from Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki. I thought that was pretty bitchin!. The other thing is when I was doing this, the bond market was really strong. You could go buy bonds for ten, 15 percent. So it was guaranteed money. You just put your money away and you made good money on it. Now you can’t find those. So investing is completely different. The environment has changed and all that. It’s funny how it’s fleeting, how it’s gone. You thought you were going to be respected forever—it just goes away. You walk through the pits and you get a couple of old dudes that say, “I was a huge fan of yours back in the eighties.” That’s it. That’s about all you got! [Laughs]
What is your opinion on the move that Marvin Musquin put on Eli Tomac last week?
I was in France and they booed me because I beat [Jean-Michel] Bayle or knocked over Jackie Vimond. I get it. Or if I beat Alex Puzar in Italy or whatever. Everybody just needs to understand, the French have a word—panache. They need to race with all their heart and put everything on the line and don’t make any damn excuses. If you make a mistake, a.k.a. Marvin, he jumped to the inside. He was going for an aggressive move and took him out. He didn’t mean to take him out, I don’t think, because if you watch it, he’s on the brakes really hard. Just say, “I meant to hit him, just not that hard.” Don’t bring up Zach. Don’t start throwing everybody else under the table, under the bus. “What about Zach Osborne?” No, no, no. Let’s talk about you. Just fess up to what you did. “Eli, if you’re going to come take me out, okay. I get it. I’ll be ready for you.”