ST. PETERS, Mo. – Sam Johnson completed his dream ride of a rookie season in midget-car racing during last week’s 78th annual Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway, which marked the final race of the year for the USAC P1 Insurance National Midget Series.
The 98-lap Thanksgiving night classic at the beachside fifth-mile oval brought down the curtain on Johnson’s first year with Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports.
The 16-year-old moved up from the go-kart ranks last offseason to join the Toyota Racing Development family, driving for one of the premier teams in the country as he began to chase his dreams on the national stage.
Though his year started out slow, Johnson stayed humble and soaked in as much knowledge as he could each race, eventually gaining speed and qualifying a career-high third at Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway on Nov. 17.
Johnson then made his first Turkey Night A-main start last Thursday, finishing a gritty 23rd but showing pace late in the feature and even throwing a slider against then-leader Kyle Larson in an attempt to keep from being lapped.
“The beginning of the season was a little rough, but we got better and better as the year went on,” Johnson said. “We tore up a few cars early on, but rebounded I feel like, the more comfortable I got in the seat. The more laps I’ve gotten, the more I feel like I’ve found my way. Track time has really helped me and I feel like we’re doing pretty well now and starting to hit our stride as a team.”
Though he didn’t quite crack the top 10 in any of his 10 USAC feature starts this season, Johnson did finish fourth overall in the rookie-of-the-year standings and scored a highlight 13th-place run in the Jason Leffler Memorial on Oct. 21 against a stout field of competitors.
Of all the things he learned through the season, one lesson in particular stuck out for the young gun.
“The biggest thing I’ve had to learn this year is not to overcorrect the car when it’s in the bite (grip),” Johnson explained. “You’ve got to stay on the gas if the car is tight, and if you’re in the slick it’s loose, so it comes down to throttle control and technical things that I haven’t dealt with as much until now.”
Though many pundits second-guessed Johnson’s leap into the big leagues so quickly, the Missouri teenager said he hasn’t noticed the perceived challenge as much as he thought he would.
“People say that moving from go-karts into midgets is a big jump, but to be honest, I really haven’t noticed it too much,” Johnson noted. “I jump back to go-karts every once in a while, and the biggest difference for me is being sideways in the corner versus being straight in the karts.
“Speed-wise, it’s definitely a change, but other than that I feel pretty comfortable between the two.”
In regards to his plans for 2019, Johnson said that his plan as of now is to return to Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports for a second full season on the midget side, with a possibility of some sprint car seat time as well if the right opportunities arise.
But heading into the start of the winter season, with a hometown race – the Gateway Dirt Nationals – and his Chili Bowl Nationals debut ahead of him, Johnson said he’s intent on enjoying the journey.
“I didn’t even know what I was going to be doing (in racing) a year ago at this time, so this has all been a huge step for me and a little overwhelming at times,” admitted Johnson. “I was still racing go-karts at that point, and I had no idea that a jump like this was even possible.
“It’s been an amazing ride and I hope that this year is just the beginning of what’s in store.”