Familiar Name, Familiar Car on Track as Johnson Continues Comeback
Red River Valley late model racing legend Mitch Johnson stepped away from racing after the 2013 season. But in Sept. 2020, the racing bug bit again.
Johnson got the chance to race Ryan Corbett’s late model at the John Seitz Memorial Past Champions race at River Cites Speedway in Grand Forks in 2020 – his first racing in seven years. Two weeks later he drove Jeff Provinzino’s late model at the Jamestown Stampede.
The retirement was over.
“That was the undoing of it,” Johnson said. “Within a week, Matt Aukland found a car on the internet like an old Swartz car that I used to race, down in Nebraska. After the Stampede, when I raced Provinzino’s car, I went and got this car. That’s how it happened. It’s an inexpensive car to start out, and I still had the engines from the past.”
Back on the track was the familiar green and red #00 late model sponsored by Northwest Auto Body that race fans in the region had known well.
Johnson’s comeback season of 2021 was shortened to a half dozen shows because of a workplace injury. This year, he’s been able to race 13 shows so far.
“I would assess it about a 5 ½ out of 10, I’ve finished the most of the races, not very well,” Johnson said of his comeback. “The driving and setup are definitely different than it used to be, and I’m not as young as I used to be.”
Johnson is one of the most decorated late model drivers in Red River Valley history with around 250 career feature wins. He is a 2016 River Cities Speedway Hall of Fame inductee, a 9-time winner of the Jamestown Stampede, a former Wissota national champion, was the inaugural winner of the John Seitz Memorial at River Cities Speedway, won the World of Outlaws race at Minot in 1989, and also won the $10,000-to-win Dacotah Rumble at Brown County Speedway twice (and also won half of it one year when it was two shows). He has 13 NLRA Late Model wins.
This season, he has five top fives in 13 starts, including a solid fourth place finish at Sheyenne Speedway in Lisbon on Sunday.
“Some nights are better than others,” Johnson said. “The first few nights, when I started to get comfortable behind the wheel and then the next few nights when I was comfortable behind the wheel but I didn’t go any place, I was sort of disappointed. I try to finish every race just to get the laps in. It hasn’t been as easy as I thought, to be honest.”
He said there are differences from when he quit in 2013 to today’s world – especially with car setup and how the drivers drive the cars.
“The guys drive them in so deep,” Johnson said. “We used to, the first few laps of the feature, we used to sort of maintain and start picking the cars off. Now it’s boom, if I start in front it seems like I’m in fifth place by the second or third lap. That’s what is the hardest adjustment. The guys really drive hard.”
At a recent night at I-94 Sure Step Speedway, in the pit area with Johnson was his brother, Ken (owner of his long-time sponsor, Northwest Auto Body) and Ron Olson, father of the late Fargo racer Troy Olson. Those two were key people in helping Mitch Johnson get behind the wheel of a race car way back in 1977.
There is discussion between Johnson and his brother about maybe upgrading equipment for next season.
“We’re talking about maybe getting a different car for next year,” Johnson said.
He said he plans to around about 10 shows the rest of the 2022 season, including the Seitz Memorial and the Jamestown Stampede, two events he’s won in the past.
Of all of the approximately 250 feature victories piled up in a 38-year racing career, one stands out – winning the World of Outlaw show at Minot in 1989.
“That was the biggest win. I won $10,000; I passed (Rick) Aukland on the last lap,” Johnson said. “We were always good rivals. To me that was my favorite.”
Wissota/NLRA Late Model #00
Residence: Hickson, N.D.
Sponsors: Northwest Auto Body, Sanders Metal Products, Dakota Bumper, Dietrich Construction.