Let’s face it, nothing is easy. Success in life is difficult at best. Success in racing is even more difficult, with many added adverse factors playing into the mix. Many realize, and I have written at length about the “Lucky Sperm Club” that exists for nature and racing’s chosen few. But for others, sometimes hard work, winning races — and being in the right place at the right time — can actually play out to one’s advantage. Billy Johnson, an American factory Ford GT World Endurance Championship (WEC) driver, racing in the LeMans 24, is pleasantly, one of those success stories, giving hope to those with personality and talent — that they having a fighting chance to move up.
Making his debut as a Ford factory driver in last year’s 24 — which was also Ford’s 50th Anniversary of participating in the legendary endurance race — they almost won it — but for a “back lit” number panel on the car. “We were in car #66 and finished finished fourth. It would have been historic 1,2,3 on the podium for Ford’s 50th Anniversary, had we not had to serve a penalty — despite Ferrari didn’t serve theirs. Had we not served the penalty, we would have been at the front battling with car 68 for the win.”
The issue was a light panel, displaying the car number. “According to the FIA rulebook, you have to have all your lights on your car working. There is a panel on the side of the car that is back lit for the car number. One of our panels went out. It did not make the car unsafe. The FIA required us to come in and repair it, which put us down two laps.”
The disappointment of this particular foul has not damaged the 30-year-old racer’s resolve. If it is any indicator, at the last WEC race at Silverstone in England, his car and team scored a 2nd place, and stood on the podium. Billy is very happy to be running in 2017 with the same trio of drivers from last year. The #66 Ford tribe includes Johnson, German Stefan Mücke, and Frenchman Olivier Pla. “We all have similar driving preferences and the way we want the car. This is rare, but we all have a strong connection and friendship. Its a great team to be driving with.”
One can truly say he belongs there and has merit to be there. In the past 10 years, Billy has more victories and top-3 podium finishes than any driver in the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge (CTSCC) Series with 23 wins, 49 podiums, and 60 top five finishes. The GT ride came through racing and winning a championship with Multimatic Racing’s Mustang program. Multimatic is also the development team behind the street and racing programs for Ford in both GT and Mustang.
Billy has even been a serious contender in the NASCAR Xfinity series too. He falls into a class of driver, termed by NASCAR aficionados, as a “road course-ringer”. He drove for Roush Fenway Racing in the Ford Mustang and challenged for wins at Montreal and Road America. Billy also made his NASCAR oval debut, in the #16 Boston Strong Mustang, at Loudon, NH, where he finished an impressive 15th place on the lead lap.
Billy Johnson, originally from Torrance, California — now residing in Florida — started racing in 2000 at the age of 13 in go-karts. Since, he has won numerous championships at the local, regional, and national level. By 2003, Billy had moved up the ladder to cars and won the Skip Barber Racing School scholarship. Simultaneously, Johnson won another scholarship from BMW AG for the inaugural season of the Formula BMW USA championship in Europe. Competing in a very competitive field in 2004, the hot shoe finished 5th in the Formula BMW championship and was awarded Sportsman of the Year.
Johnson’s mother is Japanese. He reasons with that DNA, he had always been attracted to tuner cars and Ford has just grown that interest. “I love tuning cars and have an import tuning background. I was really surprised, when I moved over to Ford, how much market support there is for the Mustang. It is easily, hands down, the most modified and personalized car in history. There is so much aftermarket support for the car that its right up my alley. There are also the Focus ST and RS and the Fiesta ST, which are essentially factory tuner cars coming from a domestic brand. This all caters to the background of what I grew up with, doing Time Attack events, tuning, and modifying cars.”
Johnson describes his current ride. “My daily driver is a Mustang GT. At his point I haven’t done too much to the ‘company car’. But I have done a GT350R Wing, some speed suspension components and bushings, subframe isolators, new Continental Extreme Contact Sport tires, a GT 350 blower valence, and a Borla quad exhaust. I get a little more power from the exhaust and have tightened up the handling to this point. My car is pretty mild compared to my wife’s Rousch Mustang which has over 600 Horsepower. She is a bit of a car head too,” chuckles the racer.
For 12 years, Johnson had a modified turbocharged Acura NSX, which set numerous Time Attack records. He also ran a tuned BMW M3. His uncanny ability for tuning has led him to be quite the “shade-tree” engineer, and his feedback to the numerous teams he raced with have enjoyed the benefits. However, he did not study engineering. Billy is a graduate from Cal State University, Fullerton with a degree in Business Administration. He had been advised by many mentors to focus on business, as “this is a race driver’s best asset in the modern world.”
Outside of competing at the highest levels of motorsport, Billy’s work is lent to test driving for Ford Motor Company, Multimatic Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing. He also does OEM tire testing and demonstration days. Aftermarket tuning companies seek his skill and expertise for setup and chassis development. Larry Holt at Multimatic was key the last few years with Ford and the development of the Ford GT.
He lends this skill to the Ford team too. However, his position is “third driver.” This gives him great opportunities to run the long endurance races, but sits out the shorter ones. He however tests regularly. He commutes back and forth to Europe for the races. “I don’t live there, but between racing and testing I am there quite often. If you are doing a full championship it would be important to be there. I am the third driver. Stephan and Olivier do the entire championship while I focus on a lot of development work that I am good at, such as set up and running the car on old tires. This is not a negative! The first two drivers qualify each race with a “combined” lap time, so they have to focus on running the car on newer tires. They look to me for setup as tires wear and the car changes during the course of a race.”
Considering the cost and the “participation” factor of competing at this level, Johnson is quite fortunate. Consider also this is not “pay to play” but an actual paying gig. “If you just look at the other drivers, everybody is just a mega-superstar. You have IndyCar stars, sports car stars, you name it. It is definitely a real big honor to be one of the drivers amongst that level of talent.” Does he get different treatment as a third driver? “It’s proportional. Out of three sets, I may get one set of new tires to their two, but they have to also run on older tires as well.” He clearly is not complaining.
Fifty-one years ago, when Ford began its factory World Endurance effort, the basis was a bitter rivalry between Edsel Ford and Enzo Ferrari. Those men are now in eternity, but a certain rivalry certainly remains. There is national pride, brand pride and the reverberating egos of those long-gone men. What does the rivalry look like some fifty years later? “There is still a rivalry,” says Johnson, “it’s historic. Ford bringing back the GT and racing on an International scale has added to that. But the teams actually get along well. As a joke on April Fools Day, the teams swapped cars in the garages. While there is still heavy competition on track, it’s not personal. Once the green flag drops, we are competitors.”
Johnson has been one of the lucky ones. His talent would still go nowhere without the support of others. “My career path was really based on where the opportunities were as I didn’t come from a name, I didn’t come from big money to choose what I wanted to do. Jean Marchioni helped me in karting and transition into cars. When I went to Europe to race Formula BMW, my family did not have the money to do that, so I was fortunate that Tom Milner (Principal of PPG Paints) helped make that drive possible. Karl Thompson at C360 Racing invited me to co-drive with him in what would be Johnson’s first sports car drive. Larry Hahn, got me my first full-time ride with a small team which then led to the Roush ride with Jack Roush Jr. My path has been paved with the help of really amazing people.”