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Continental Tire IMSA Spotlight: Mike Johnson

This week’s Continental Tire IMSA Spotlight: Mike Johnson…

Photo: Juha Lievonen/Stevenson Motorsports

Photo: Juha Lievonen/Stevenson Motorsports

IMSA Spotlight: Mike Johnson
Team Manager, Stevenson Motorsports
Follow: @StevensonAuto

Stevenson is coming off one of it strongest runs of the season at Lime Rock. Has it given the team a boost for the rest of the year?

“I know it’s hard to see but we have had strong runs at every race this year, with both cars. They have led laps at almost every event, and have been consistent front runners for pole. We just haven’t finished races the way we used to and that has probably been the most frustrating thing of all.

“DNF’s are very rare for the Stevenson team, and we have had three already this year, plus two serious mechanicals at Daytona. Throw in a few flat tires at the Glen, and the frustration adds up.

“However, coming off two podiums with the No. 6 car and now only being two points out of third in the championship has definitely boosted our confidence going into the final four rounds of the championship, but to be honest, I don’t think this team will really hit its stride until we win a race and we need to get the No. 9 on the podium as well where it belongs.”

What are you expecting for Road America?

“The good news for Road America is that we have tested there, so we should hopefully roll off the truck in a great place. This is just what we need as a team, since we have not rolled off the truck very well this year, especially at Detroit, Canadian Tire and Lime Rock.

“We have moved some people around in our engineering department and we have been able to get the cars going fast in a short amount of time. Road America is unique in that it requires a really good car in braking, handling and top speed.

“The Audi is maybe the best in the field at braking, and it definitely has the downforce for the big corners. Top speed unfortunately has not been our strong suit all year, so it could pose a challenge for us.

“Right now, the GTD field is so tight that track position is becoming more and more important since passing is so difficult with great drivers, ABS and downforce. Our plan at Road America will be to have fast cars and hopefully get them out front so they can stay there.

“Since the beginning of the year, we have been getting killed in the pits, which always make us fight an uphill battle. Some of it has been us for sure, but our car fuels the slowest of all the GTD cars and we lose about 2-3 positions per stop.

“IMSA recognizes the problem and hopefully we’ll see a change for the rest of the season.”

How has the transition been, in not only returning to top-level IMSA competition but also switching brands?

“Really it’s been no transition at all. I raced cars in ALMS for years, and helped at Paul Miller and AJR a few years ago, which made us a bit more familiar with the different regulations and procedures.

“The biggest thing is that we stay another day, and when we watch the CTSC teams load up, we laugh that it could be us heading home. As a team though, we love endurance racing and there is nothing better than competing at the Rolex 24, Sebring 12 Hours, and Petit Le Mans. Two of those races are brand new to most of the team.

“If we could choose, we’d have an eight race season with nothing shorter than six hours like the WEC or ELMS. When you do the short races like Detroit and Long Beach, it takes you longer to set up your pits than the race even lasts, which doesn’t make sense for an endurance championship.

“As for the Audi, it is an amazing piece of machinery. The crew came to grips with the car in no time as you’d expect, since at the end of the day, both the Camaro and the Audi both have all the same parts, just bolted in different places.

“The biggest difference with the cars is that we helped build and develop the Camaros from day one, but with the homologated Audi, there isn’t as much to do.”

How did you get your start in racing?

“I started going to SCCA races with my father when I was about 10 years old, then I crewed on his ACRL team and then started driving Spec Racers when I was 16. Then a few races in SRF and Formula Continental before going into USF2000 from ‘96-‘98. That series was amazing with 60+ cars at some events and amazing group of drivers that are still winning races today.

“When I drove the car, I also worked on the car, drove the truck, did all the travel and basically managed my own team, which was the only way I could afford to compete against the teams spending three times as much as I did.

“While I never won anything outside of club racing, I was a consistent top-5 finisher and other drivers began to recognize that I could operate a decent program on a budget, so I started running cars for other drivers in 1999 and then in 2000 we moved to GRAND-AM with the Lola B2K/40.

“Three years there until the horrible accident at Homestead and then a year with Intersport and TPC, then Krohn/TRG, then a year of commentating before joining John and Susan Stevenson in 2007 where I have been ever since.”

What has been your most memorable race? 

“Out of a couple hundred races, it’s hard to pick one. Obviously winning the Rolex 24 as an owner at 27 years old in our first attempt was pretty amazing, and anyone that wins at Le Mans like we did in 2004 with Intersport will put that on the list, but I would say the best ever was Montreal in 2008.

“Everyone remembers the cars running out of fuel and Leigh Diffey calling the wrong winner in DP, but the same thing was going on in GT. We had just won our first race ever as Stevenson Motorsports the race before at Mexico City and became “the little team that could” and then at Montreal with just over an hour remaining, we pitted for fuel and everyone else decided to stretch it.

“At the time, I thought it was the right decision, but we ran around in 10th place for an hour and I was starting to get nervous. With three laps to go, we were in ninth place, and I figured it was over, so I started apologizing to the team and felt horrible that I ruined what could have been a great result.

“Then cars started running out of fuel and with two laps to go we were sixth. With one lap to go we were 3rd and we came out of the last corner on the last lap in third and ending up winning by a few car lengths.

“It was John and Susan’s first win, since they were not at Mexico City and I think everyone jumped out of their skin. Maybe not the most amazing race of our lives, but definitely the most memorable.”

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