This is the first in a two-part series detailing the daily challenges sprint car racer Chase Johnson faces in order to live a complete life after being involved in a crash that resulted in the death of two people. The second part of the series will follow in January.
Chase Johnson arrived at the track with the same butterflies floating through his body that always appeared before a race. Bursts of excitement, much like those that appear while ascending on a roller-coaster ride just waiting for the impending drop, coursed through him.
Johnson, who was a 17-year-old senior at Petaluma High School in Petaluma, Calif., was a rising star in the sport of winged sprint car racing. He was coming off his first track championship at Petaluma Speedway the previous year, when he also won two races and garnered rookie-of-the-year honors in the Civil War Sprint Car Series.
His breakout had begun and Johnson was excited to step outside his comfort zone of racing locally. He was going to tackle the 2013 season — his fourth year of racing a 360 winged sprint car. Not only was he prepared to race more often, Johnson was set to graduate from high school in only a couple of months. He had a beautiful girlfriend and a fulfilling family that supported his every move.
“At the beginning of 2013, I definitely felt the best I’ve felt in my entire career,” he said. “We were going to go after a championship in the Civil War Series that year. I was definitely feeling confident. At the time I was one of the youngest drivers competing that was winning races and championships. A lot of eyes were on me to continue doing bigger things that year.”
Johnson ventured to Marysville Raceway, which was then known as Marysville Raceway Park, on the afternoon of March 16 for the first race of the 2013 season. The quarter-mile oval was the site of the Civil War Sprint Car Series season opener, but it quickly morphed into a horrific scene that resulted in two deaths during a life-altering moment for a teenager who had the world at his fingertips.
“During the third lap of hot laps was when all the disaster happened,” Johnson said. “Basically, what happened was the quick release on my steering wheel malfunctioned. After further research, that’s not really a normal thing that happened, but it’s known to happen with quick releases. It happened down the front straightaway. At the time at Marysville there was no exit gate. The wheel came off in my hand and I lost all control of my car. That was heading into turn one. I just remember hitting the brakes as hard as I could.”
Johnson’s race car was at full speed when the steering wheel came off in his hands. His car jetted straight toward turn one, which is where the cars exited the track to return to the pit area. Despite riding the brakes, Johnson’s car flew off the track at great speed and careened off a wall, which knocked the sprint car onto its left side as it skidded into the middle of the pit area.
“It was a little black,” he said. “I have a couple of visions in my head of the scene. I have a couple of visions of what went on, kind of like you do of a normal crash. You don’t exactly know what happened, but you have little pieces of when your eyes see something.
“At that time when the crash stopped I didn’t really know exactly where I was,” Johnson continued. “I remember sitting there, the car was on its side. You hear voices and panic, people yelling and screaming. At that point when I heard all this commotion going on, it wasn’t good at all and I knew I was in the middle of the pit area. As I climbed out of the car, I got a better look at where I was and the scene around me. I remember my dad helping me get out of the car. … I really have a vivid picture in my brain of the scene around me. My dad pulled me out of the car and you could tell by his voice that something was really wrong. He tried to make sure I didn’t see what was going on and brought me inside our trailer. You could hear sirens going off and people yelling and running all over the place. I just remember sitting on the floor in the trailer for I don’t know how long. Everything went by so fast. It felt like seconds.”