Billy Johnson watched as Joey Logano swept the NASCAR Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series races at Watkins Glen, supporting the Ford Performance drivers as they took on one of the country’s most fabled road courses.
Johnson wouldn’t stand in victory lane with him that day and his name wouldn’t be in the headlines – most fans probably don’t even know his role in the story.
Johnson, a 28-year-old of Wellington, Fla., is one of Ford Performance’s secret weapons.
Johnson isn’t a stranger to Ford Performance fans who follow sports car racing. He’s one of four drivers who have the honor of racing Ford’s all-new Shelby GT350R-Cs in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
Since the twin GT350R-Cs debuted at Watkins Glen in June, they’ve earned two wins and two poles with Johnson, Scott Maxwell, Austin Cindric and Jade Buford behind the wheels. Johnson has 17 wins in the IMSA series.
A few years ago, Ford Performance asked Johnson to help develop a curriculum that would prepare Ford’s NASCAR drivers for the series’ road courses.
He would work with the instructors at Ford Performance’s racing school at Miller Motorsports Park’s 511-acre facility near Salt Lake City.
“Obviously, these guys are talented, especially the Sprint Cup drivers,” said Johnson, who has competed and led races in the XFINITY Series as well. “They are very, very good racing drivers.
“The key is to focus on certain aspects of driving that they do not have much seat time in. They have the skill, talent, and ability, they just need some practice and a little direction to focus on some of the nuances of road racing.
“The running joke that NASCAR drivers only know how to turn left has a small nugget of truth in it. They are very good at turning left and comfortable sliding the car at 180 mph, which they do every week.
“One exercise we run is to take them out on the skid pad to get some seat time and comfort sliding the car to the right.
“They know what to do, but the conditioning of feeling the car sliding the opposite direction is one example of the small things that pay off in a big way.”
Johnson has worked with approximately 20 Ford oval drivers since he developed the curriculum and feels that successful drivers need to have patience, the ability to adapt, work hard, be confident and dedicated.
The program has been successful with multiple wins at the Cup and XFINITY level since its creation four years ago.
“A successful driver is successful for a reason.” said Johnson, who had a strong showing in his first career oval start in an XFINITY car at Loudon, N.H. “To get an oval driver to do well on road courses just requires focusing the talent and past experience on the right things and fundamentals to be successful at road racing.
“They drive these cars every weekend and are very comfortable and experienced with how the car and tire reacts. That’s a big part of the reason why so many oval guys have won road races in the past decade, because once they figure out how to drive a road course, they are very fast.
“When they come in for training, there’s a little bit of classroom talk, there’s some specialty driving exercises to knock off the rust, then we have a lot of on-track driving and ‘mock’ races where I’m in the cars with them and mixing it up and messing with them. It’s very in-depth training.”
While most of the training time is spent behind the wheel of a car, they take time out each day for some cross-training and more racecraft practice in go karts.
“Anyone who has gone to a go kart track with a group of their friends knows where this is going,” Johnson said.
“While it starts off as serious with some of the closest and greatest battles, skillful passes, and best racing you can imagine, just like the end of a short-track or road-race, once someone gets bumped wrong, the gloves come off and the ensuing mess is hilarious and epic.
“It’s just phenomenal and the entertainment value would trump any reality TV show out there. We really need to videotape this.”
While NASCAR heads to Ford’s backyard at Michigan International Speedway this week, Johnson will be back on the track with the Multimatic Ford Shelby GT350R-C team at Virginia International Raceway on Aug. 21-22, 2015, where he’ll try to earn the Shelby’s third win.
“I have had the honor to work with the fantastic instructors at Miller Motorsport Park (MMP),” Johnson said.
“From the instructors to the mechanics who work on the cars, to the people upstairs at MMP and Ford that helped orchestrate the event, they are all a great bunch of people who have been a huge part of the program’s success and I’m grateful to be in this position with Ford and to have played a part in the success.”