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Outside their CCRI classrooms, the Johnsons are living in the fast lane
Jan. 11, 2016
Note: This is the first in a series of profiles of faculty and staff who have interesting skills and pastimes outside of their work at the college. Nominate yourself or a CCRI colleague for a future feature.
“Catching on fire was a little unsettling, yes,” says Bill Johnson matter of factly, talking about one of the more tense moments of his car racing career.
He’s sitting at his breakfast nook, his chocolate lab Pansy nosing around the kitchen for some attention, while his wife, Kay, chuckles in a corner, as if it’s no big deal. So you caught on fire once! You win some, you lose some, right?
Students at the Community College of Rhode Island will know these two as mild-mannered professors, Bill in the Biology department in Newport and Kay in Computer Sciences in Warwick. Married in 1982, they’ve shared the interesting hobby for quite some time now, although Kay says she officially hung up her helmet in 2014. They only last for about a decade, she says; she started joining Bill on the track in 1994.
“There aren’t a lot of women who race cars – though there are more now than back then, I suppose,” says Kay. “I didn’t really have an interest in it before Bill. But I figured if I was going to be at the track anyway, and he was encouraging me, it might be fun.”
With Bill riding shotgun as her instructor, she’d mostly drive the silver Porsche that now sits in one of the couple’s many garages, nothing more than a donor car for parts after it burned up – with Bill in it – at Watkins Glen in upstate New York. “I cracked up the car a few times,” she admits with a shrug.
These days, it’s just Bill who keeps the rubber burning – and faster than ever, thanks to his most recent acquisition, a white 1984 Porsche born out in California before traveling to the Northeast, where it raced successfully until its driver had one of those aforementioned dust-ups. “It was a mild accident, not too bad,” Bill says. “The driver took it off the track and took it apart. After it was sitting for about seven or eight years, he realized he wasn’t going to put it back together.”
This time, it was Kay’s turn to co-pilot. When Bill heard that the driver was offering the newly tuned-up engine – a $20,000-ish value – for $4,000, his interest was piqued. When Kay encouraged him to buy the engine, and then eventually the whole car for only $6,000, he knew he should seize the moment.
“I thought she was drunk!” he jokes.
“You know what? I was nuts,” she says.
As those with a passing familiarity with racing will know, drivers employ teams of people to keep things running smoothly. In the Johnsons’ case, the small team of hired hands is supplemented by one mostly made up of family members – Kay, who Bill says offers tremendous support, and their son, Carter, who helped his father drag home and piece together the white car.
After they had finished paying off the initial cost and invested in repairs, and after Bill’s silver car burned up at Watkins Glen when the fuel rail came unattached, it was time to take it out on the track. His first race in the new car was in 2013 at Summit Point, a track out in West Virginia.
He spends part of the visit in his fireproof racing suit, deftly climbing into and out of the claustrophobic cockpit for a photo op. To get to the car, Kay leads visitors through a labyrinth of garages holding various vehicles – a green 1927 Bentley sits in a corner, a 1971 Mercedes 280 SL idles under a tarp. “Bill’s toy boxes,” as Kay calls them, are organized neatly; the walls are lined with shelves of tires, rims and old license plates.
“My interest in cars goes back to when I was a little kid; my father was always around cars. We’d go to car shows,” he says. “In the early ’90s, a friend of mine told me I should go to one of those high-performance driving schools. It’s a pretty safe environment; you ride with an instructor. Eventually, Kay said, ‘Why don’t you race?’”
It’s easy to see how much the hobby means to Bill. Back in the kitchen, he points to a national championship award he won with the dearly departed silver car. “Every year, I’d improve it. It got to be a pretty nice car,” he says. “I did well with it, I won races in the rain with it,” he adds.
On his YouTube channel, there are a few clips from his vantage point. The car is surprisingly quiet, and there’s no narration; he doesn’t often talk to himself, he says, unless he’s really distressed at his performance.
For the most part, the videos are all winding road and swiftly adjusting hands on the wheel, with the occasional Porsche’s taillights out the front window. He talks through what it’s like to engineer the perfect pass, to take certain turns, reminiscing about this or that track. “This one scares the bejeezus out of me,” he says of Mosports, a track in Canada.
Later, watching the same video: “The trick to fast lap times is to carry speed through the corner. It’s not like driving a straight line, not like drag racing,” he says, explaining how turns and straightaways work, the dynamics of the car, how the formulation of the rubber tires means they become tacky or slippery at certain speeds in certain conditions.
“It’s great fun,” he says, watching himself cross the finish line on the GoPro footage. He estimates that he can get up to speeds of 130 mph on the racetrack in that car. “It’s just the most thrilling thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
He estimates that he runs about eight races over three weekends each season. Earlier this year, his first was at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, where came in fourth out of 10 in a hard-fought sprint race.
“The second race was exciting because a wheel came apart during the race. Needless to say I didn’t finish, but had a wonderfully exciting 23 laps and was awarded the Worker’s Choice award for the best driving in my group,” he reported. He also set a new personal best for the track, cutting .3 seconds off his old record, which he set last year. “Racing is good!”
In May, he raced at Watkins Glen International, a race track used by NASCAR and other groups that is a 3.4-mile road course with about 11 stories of elevation.
“The racing was great fun, and although I didn't win any of the races, I had a spectacular time,” he said. “Perhaps the most notable thing was that during the 90-minute enduro race I got to the grid late because of a tire issue. So I started in 57th place. I worked my way up to 30th place during the first 60 minutes. Unfortunately, my exhaust system supports broke and I had to stop racing. But what a thrill!”
The thrills kept coming for Johnson; the 2015 season came to a triumphant close when he came in first place out of 36 competitors in the Canada Region in the 944 Cup. “It was a very special end to a great year of racing,” he said.