Eric Johnson rubbed his eyes as he rolled into Heartland Park Speedway in Topeka, Kansas. After 30 hours of driving from Shelton, WA, he was exhausted and weary. He looked around for a place to park. The advantage? His six-foot banged-up utility trailer was easy to park between the thirty-foot racing trailers of the high-dollar competitors from around the country. The downside? “These guys are intimidating”, he says. “I built my own engine, and they have the best in the country”.
Eric Johnson has been racing karts since he was a toddler. At age four, he raced go-karts in Western Washington, with his proud dad, Ernie, looking on. Eric’s dad Ernie was an adventurous soul, a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service during the week, and an enduro kart racer on the weekends. Nobody was more proud of Eric’s early success than his father. “We never had a lot of money”, said Eric, “but I always knew my dad and family were watching, and I wanted to win for them”.
As Eric grew older, he would actually race super karts against his dad. It was a family affair, as they traveled to Seattle, Portland, Laguna Seca, and even Canada to see the two battle it out. “It was hard to know who to root for”, said Eric’s sister Jenny, “but you couldn’t help but root for Eric, it’s cool to see a son edge out his father”.
In 2005, tragedy struck the Johnson family. Ernie Johnson was working on a fire in Grangeville, Idaho, when he succumbed to a heart attack. Eric, as well as the rest of the family, was devastated. “I decided to hang it up”, said Eric. “I couldn’t imagine racing, or doing much of anything, without my dad”, he said. “We rarely spent a day apart….and here I was without him, alone, at age 22″.
After two years of a racing hiatus, a local dentist, Dr. Bill Busacca, approached Eric about wrenching on his super kart for him. If you aren’t familiar with super karts, they look like a go-kart with an Indy Car body, and run at speeds in the neighborhood of 130 miles per hour. On a whim, Dr. Busacca had Eric race for him as well. In practice, Eric logged speeds as fast as former race winners. From that point on, Dr. Busacca was not only a sponsor, but one of his biggest fans.
In addition to the local dentist, Eric gained attention from another Western WA racer, Joe Street. They both sponsored Eric, and with the help of another local mechanic, Joseph Skillman, they built the kart that would propel Eric to not one, but four, national championships. Even though there were days when he was so poor that he had to sleep under his trailer in Wal-Mart parking lots, Eric was able to win the 2009, 2010, 2011, and finally, the 2012 National Super Kart Championships in Topeka, Kansas.
“It’s been unbelievable”, Eric commented, “to win four titles on a kart we built in my garage on a meager budget. I can’t help but think my dad is up there helping me.”
Here is a video of Eric racing at The Ridge Speedway in Shelton, WA: