off road racer ricky johnson interview

Catching up with Ricky Johnson


The aging process is painful for us all. But for 7 time Motocross champion Ricky “The Bad Boy” Johnson has had the additional hurdles of overcoming damage caused by a long career as a professional motorsports athlete. A toll few understand or talk about. With the help of some friends and a champion mindset Ricky has come out healthier, happier, smarter, and stronger. Now Ricky has taken his massive amount of racing and driving experience and distilled it down into teaching special forces operators, racers, and civilians how to drive and race off-road. From bikes to trophy trucks, and now UTV’s “The Off-Road Profesor” is holding court. Pay attention. 

Matt Martelli:

So what’s going on? What have you been up to?

Ricky Johnson:

Made it through COVID. Got the virus early, freaked out a little bit when I started watching people getting carried out of the hospitals with body bags. And at first, I didn’t know if I had the flu or if I had a bad cold or what it was, but it got a little trippy after about 10 days and it wasn’t going away. So was anticipating it going to get worse and it didn’t, and I healed up from it. It’s fine. It’s just a long, low-grade flu, and do what you need to do to rest, do what you need to do, and don’t get on a ventilator. I stayed away from hospitals because I thought, “Well if I am sick, I don’t want to get worse. And if I do have it, I don’t want to go on a ventilator, so I’m going to stay here.” So my wife prescribed me perfectly with zinc and elderberry and stayed hydrated and now we’re getting ready for the Baja 1000.

Matt Martelli:

You’ve always been one of those guys who hate to say this, but especially for your age is in really good shape, right?

Ricky Johnson:

Yeah. Well, I’m in decent shape, but that’s the thing is I compare my shape, you know what it’s like to be in fighting shape to roll around and stuff like that. But if you don’t do it, how quickly it falls apart. I mean, the structure goes down quickly. But for me, I always said I want to make sure that anything that happens to me in a race car is not my fault, meaning I don’t want to get 300 miles into my 500-mile run, and now all of a sudden I’m fatiguing and I’m letting off and I’m driving slow because I’m not in shape. So I never want to fall out of the seat, and I haven’t to this date. I’ve been tired when it’s over, don’t get me wrong, but between preparation and adrenaline, it’s carried me through. So yeah, this was just another thing. But at the time Covid was the unknown and that’s why I posted all the stuff on Instagram and stuff to show people it’s not a death sentence, just relax. The country and the world is making something that it isn’t.

Matt Martelli:

Do you think you got that physical discipline from moto?

Ricky Johnson:

Absolutely. In motocross, you can’t tap out. Well, you can, but you can’t have somebody come in and take over for you. You don’t have breaks. You go from green flag to checkered flag. When we used to do 45-minute motos, we would also do 30-minute motos plus two laps in 20 minutes in supercross. You were anaerobic over half of the time just because you had to exert that kind of energy. Being a kid and starting that at nine years old and having that feeling of pain and working through it, I’m not a tough guy, but I’ve dealt with pain my whole life, so I know how to manage it and not let it get the best of me. And so the same thing when it comes to a sickness or a Baja 1000, you just have to keep putting one foot in front of another.

off road racer ricky johnson matt martelli interview
Matt Martelli catches up with off-road champion Ricky Johnson.

Matt Martelli:

Totally. You’ve had this pretty remarkable career, obviously champion in moto, then you transfer that to short course racing and you’ve been desert racing as well. I think one of the things that I want to talk about is you’re one of the best instructors in terms of driving that I’ve ever met.

Ricky Johnson:

The thing is I struggled in school as a kid. I’m 56 years old and when I was a kid, they didn’t diagnose ADD and they didn’t diagnose dyslexia, you were just the stupid kid. And it was humiliating and embarrassing and I had a few teachers throughout my junior high and high school and elementary school days that would actually take the time to communicate with me in a different way and not just go, “This is the way it is, learn this way or we’re going to slam you in the dumb class.” So when I was a kid I thought I wanted to be a teacher so I could help people like me. People think it’s intimidating to be a small kid on a playground, but to be the dumbest kid in the class, now you’ve got women, girls, nerds, you’ve got everybody that can take shots at you and make fun of you. So it was really intimidating for me to go to school every day.

So why do I say that? Because I want to translate my driving and my riding to people that don’t understand it. You might be a book smart guy, you might be a surfer, you might be a car racer, you might be a skateboarder, you might be a BMX guy. I want to translate what you do in the car or in the truck to your thing. Like if I have a surfer, I tell them I don’t want small waves whipping, banging forth off the berm, I want longboard big waves. Just big, swooping, Jerry Lopez turns.

If it’s a short course, I might say I want you to go bang it off the lip like Kelly Slater, like a small wave but just bank off and get off the berm and go and change directions. So that’s the thing is taking all of my knowledge and try to help them. The same thing with the military guys, you talk to them about shooting, about when they enter a room they don’t come up to a wall and peek around, they look from back so they can see further around the corner and how they angle themselves and what they do with their breathing and all the stuff. So I try to take my whole life experience and make it to where it makes your recreation more fun.

Ricky Johnson BFG GatewayCO
Ricky Johnson is still a top competitor in trophy trucks.

Matt Martelli:

Well, you’ve had a pretty vast life experience when it comes to racing, particularly in that you’ve done some pavement racing, you’ve done, obviously moto, you’ve done off-road bike desert racing, desert racing in four-wheel vehicles, and short course racing.

Ricky Johnson:

That’s the thing, it helps me to pull from all of those. So if you get somebody like Johnny Campbell who’s absolutely the King of Baja, 11 Baja 1000 wins, and so talking to him, I can explain to him how to attack a berm in a car versus a bike. And everyone thinks it’s easy, no, it takes a while for you to learn. That’s the thing is having a lot of past experiences and also I’ve driven just about every truck on the market. There’s just a couple that I haven’t driven. They all have their strong points and their weak points. It doesn’t matter. Take the best of the best you can find of something from somewhere and apply it. Never stop learning. Knowledge is everywhere. That’s what I told Alan Pflueger one time when we were doing a short course. I’m like, “You need to drive that guy’s truck.” He’s like, “Ah, it’s a piece of shit. Mine’s way better.” I’m like, “That’s the biggest mistake you could ever make.” Because you might find one thing, that one thing, you know I like where the throttle is, I like how the brakes feel. I like the size of the steering wheel.

We found that out then I went from a 13 to a 14-inch steering wheel just because I liked it and I actually just stumbled across it in Mark Jenkins’ truck. So things like that, you have to try everything because even though your setup might be overall better, you might find one thing, seat position, you might find whatever it is, whatever it might be. So just find whatever you can and apply it.

Matt Martelli:

What have you been up to lately?

Ricky Johnson:

I have been focusing on the military special forces training, that’s my main job and there’s not a lot of publicity. What I can say and what I’ve legally written is that I can say we teach military special forces. I can’t get into what branch, who it is, photos, or anything like that. So, I’ll put some vague stuff on Instagram and things because I’m proud of what we do. My son, Luke, and I work together with Jeff Bennett, who’s my partner. He was a 25-year special ops operator, he also is Baja 1000 winner in the iron man class. He is a complete 100% badass.

Teaching the military guys a better way of driving, a safer way of driving, because the vehicles are new now. The old Hummers were basically like a big Jeep, an independent axle, big Jeep. Not a lot of horsepower, ram and jam, the harder you drove it, the better it was. The new generation of vehicles have open diffs and they work differently and you have to be smoother with them. If  it’s a JLTV, if it’s a M-ATV or whatever it is, you have to learn how to drive the different platforms. When we send our warriors off to war we want them to have a complete off-road driving skill set.

I am still doing a lot of testing and helping people with suspension set ups. I work with Alltech and also Todd at SDG with their drivers to properly set up their off-road vehicle suspension. I’ve worked with Jason Coleman, Mike Waltzer, Mike Osborne, recently just to name a few. Also the Scott Kiger and the  Coastal guys, I work with them as well. I love helping guys get the most out of their vehicle through a combination of training and set up which translates to success and fun racing. You know the saying the more you prepare and train, the less you bleed in battle. I also got to do a little stunt driving lately, I was one of the drivers in the new Ram TRX commercial.

off road racer ricky johnson interview
Ricky Johnson – Racer, Teacher, Stunt Driver, Health and Fitness leader.

Matt Martelli:

So teacher, stunt driver, racer. How do you cook, is your cooking good?

Ricky Johnson:

My breakfast sandwich is awesome. My wife covers lunch and dinners. We will have been together 30 years this December 1st. So I’m very proud of that.

Ricky Johnson with wife
Ricky Johnson with his wife Stephanie.

Matt Martelli:

That’s rad. Congratulations! Let’s talk about your son a little bit because he’s no slouch. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. A lot of people don’t know how good Luke is. 

Ricky Johnson:

The problem that Luke has is, part of it is a blessing and a curse, is being my son. So anytime that I recommend him for anything, people go, “You’re shoving your son on me and I don’t really want it,” and blah, blah, blah. That’s how it was with John Langley with Cops racing. John’s like, “Hey, what about this?” I’m like, “Well, I kind of got this deal, why don’t you have Luke do it?” Every time Luke qualified for John Langley was on the pole. Every time he handed it to him, it was in first place. But he’s a young guy, he’s aggressive, and made some mistakes. When we were teammates at Team C, both of us over drove the trucks in San Felipe, he got fired, I didn’t. I made a bigger mistake than he did, but it just is what it is.

baja off road racer luke johnson interview
Luke Johnson racing a trophy truck at the Baja 1000.

Ricky Johnson:

Now he ran last year with Mike Waltzer in the old Team C tool drive truck. They did phenomenally. He was physically, I think, fourth and finished fourth. So he did a good job. He’s going to be running with Mike again. Luke was a little bit like me, but a lot smarter than me.  He still struggled in school and wasn’t a four-year degree guy. So I said, “If you want to race go learn how to work on them and build them because you can always just buy a 16 car and you can go race it and enjoy it. It’s not just about being in the Trophy Truck class”. ” He loves racing, he’s bitten by the bug. 

Luke went to The Fab School and crushed it. Troy Johnson called me and said, “I want to talk to about your son.” I’m like, “Oh shit, what’d he do?” He said, “No, he literally raised the level of our expectations for the students from how he presented his work and took it very seriously.” So now we have a company, Johnson Off-Road that he’s prepping race vehicles, doing builds for side-by-sides, a little bit everything. He’s crushing it. I can’t wait to see how he does this year in the Baja 1000 because he’ll be in the all-wheel drive truck again and he hauls ass. He basicailly grew up in off-road racing so he is extremely comfortable in a vehcle. It’s basically an extension of his body. I tested with him in The Mason 4 Wheel drive trophy truck when we were doing the development work for Mason, he is fast. He’s got me beat in a couple of sections.

RickyJohnson BFG GatewayCO
Due to his extensive off-road racing resume Ricky Johnson is one of the foremost experts in vehicle set up for off-road racing.

Matt Martelli:

One thing that’s alluded you is a Baja 1000 win in a four-wheel vehicle, right? So what would that be like if Luke pulled it before you did?

Ricky Johnson:

I’d cry like a baby. I’d be so stoked for him. Do you know what I mean? It’s the same thing when the first time Ron Lechien beat me. I was coaching him when we were kids, we’re teammates and he was younger than me. The first time he beat me it hurts. The first time I beat Brock Glover who was my mentor was brutal. He didn’t talk to me after the race. I was devastated. Just like the first time Jimmie Johnson beat me, I brought him into this truck racing and the last race in Vegas we banged back and forth and Jimmie won his only truck race. So I jumped on the truck with him. People thought I was going to get up there and fight with him because he had to bang my door to get by me.

I would be happy and sad at the same time if Luke won the Baja 1000 before me. I want it because I’m a racer. That’s just to say if I was racing him, I wouldn’t get out of his way. I wouldn’t pull over as some fathers have done. I wouldn’t pull over for him. If he’s going to beat me, he’s going to beat me. He wants to, which is the natural course, the young lion has to take out the old lion. I’ll give him everything I can, if he beats me fair and square I’ll be the first to congratulate him.

Off-Road Destinations :Gateway Canyon with Ricky Johnson

Matt Martelli:

So let’s go back to physical discipline. You were showing me a product that you invented and talk about that a little bit.

Ricky Johnson:

I had a situation a few years back, got way fat because I grew up on the high carb diets and ate pasta and ate oatmeal in the morning and bagels and just everything that was supposed to be the best way to go, but that’s completely wrong. I wasn’t able to work out the way I did and put in the miles on a bike and do all the different exercises I used to, so I gained a bunch of weight, blood pressure went through the moon, pressure of life, all the different stuff just piled up. I was at a bad, bad spot. My doc says I want you hiking. So I’m hiking, I’m pissed off and depressed, I’m like an old man, fat, I’m hiking, this is ridiculous. So I about stepped on a rattlesnake so I grabbed a stick. I just thought, “Well, I’m going to have a stick in case I see this as something I can shoo it away. Anyhow, I started doing this stuff and I’m like, “Man, my hand feels like I rode motocross.” So the next day I go down and buy some dowels and I buy some knobs and then I start doing this a little bit more with them. I started to do a little bit more and I was going, “Wait a minute, I’m starting to get strength in my right hand,” which I haven’t had in a long time because my right hand is 90% fused. So I started doing different movements with the sticks, I started trying different grips, different lengths, different things, and came up with what we’re calling now Rick Stix with an X. And everyone kind of thinks oh it’s just another stupid thing, but every time I put somebody through a workout, it helps them. So like for Jimmie Johnson who’s going from NASCAR big wheel to Indy car with a small steering wheel and shifting with paddle shifts. He needed better hand strength. So I’m like “Jimmy use these to get the hand strength that you need, get the rotation strength, grip strength. You have that tiny wheel and you’re working your ass off.”  Moto guys need the same range of motion and muscle group strength.

Ricky Johnson:

What I found is that older people were liking them because I used two. It’s not just a walking stick, with two stix it gives you the stability that you need, and then when you start walking it incorporates your back and incorporates your lats and incorporates your triceps, you can do a lot of different movements. And then John and Cal and I grabbed a couple of skateboards and went out and did a session like we’re pushing if we were skiing. Every time you strike the ground it engages your hand, strengthens your arm, so you’re working the whole time but it doesn’t smoke you to where you’re anaerobic, but it’s a great recovery exercise. I also have a lot of different stretching routines that I’m working out with Laird Hamilton, Gabby Reece and Mark Roberts who’s my new co-rider. They are just phenomenal when it comes to the physical fitness side. It’s not a gimmick, I’m not just going, “Hi, how can I make these sticks and make money?” Because I don’t think that’s going to be the deal, but I know it helps people out.

Screen Shot at AM
Ricky Johnson shares his Rick Stix with people to help maintain fitness.

Matt Martelli:

A couple of years ago you were doing the Mint 400 live stream with me and you busted out this Laird Hamilton creamer, and I didn’t know what to make of it. At the time I was like, I already have creamer, what do I need this for? But it’s not creamer, it’s basically a superfood. So talk a little bit about that connection and nutrition.

Ricky Johnson:

I was friends with Jerry Lopez from 1989 when I got hurt the first time. Actually, the year before I got hurt in 1988, I went to Hawaii and met Jerry for the first time through Patty DeSoto and John DeSoto, they’re like my Hawaiian family in Oahu. I went to Maui, got to hang out with Jerry and we became friends. I obviously idolized him as a surf legend but he was a moto guy, I didn’t know it, so he looked up to me a little bit as well. In 1990, I did the Aloha Supercross and Jerry came into the pits and he brought Laird Hamilton. And Laird was young, he just did the North Shore movie. So I knew who he was. He was actually a real quiet guy. Him and I are the same age, he was really polite, he had a good time watching the race.

Ricky Johnson:

Fast forward, we don’t talk, we don’t see each other, anything. Four years ago at the Baja 1000 I saw they have Laird’s superfood there and just about that time is when I’m trying to lose my weight and do my different things and my wife actually bought me some of their creamer because she was trying the Bulletproof diet and learning about intermittent fasting. I meet Paul Hodge who’s Laird’s partner and I see Laird and I go, “Hey, Laird, Ricky Johnson.” I said, “I met you a long time ago, you won’t remember.” He goes, “I remember you.” And I go, “That’s cool.” He goes, “No, I remember you. It was at the Aloha Supercross, I was with Jerry Lopez and during the race, I was sitting on the 50th row and you came over and you pointed right at us.” I’m like, wow, he remembers everything. So he’s like, “Here’s my number, call me, let me help you out.” So they were helping me with ice baths, changing my diet, going to a more fat-based keto style diet, cutting out carbs, and doing different things. Well, I started shriveling down. Well at that race, Bryce Menzies hit me in the back, my transmission blew up, he was in my dust. He smoked me, he was going 120, I was going 80. He knocked the shit out of me. It wasn’t on purpose, but it was a hard hit. I have been nerfed plenty of times, but this was a hard hit.  I didn’t know what happened at first because right when I shifted it went boom, I got hit. And I thought, “Well, maybe my transmission blew off and blew my legs up,” because I couldn’t feel anything. Anyhow, through all of that I had to rehab myself with the ice baths and the stretching and the walking, and then also using the sticks and stuff to get myself back into racing shape.

Later we found out that I blew out a seven-centimeter chunk on my L5 vertebrae and it was pushing on my spinal cord so my right leg was going numb. I didn’t have drop foot in the right leg, but I couldn’t put any pressure on my toe. So it’s kind of a scary moment. Paul and Laird helped me through by doing pool workouts up at Johnny Campbell’s and doing different stuff, not just going the typical treatments like treadmill and  bicycle. I wore Paul Hodge out. I literally called him twice a day. “Okay. Well, I’m freezing. I’ve been in the ice for eight minutes, is that too long?” He’s like, “Well, how cold, was it 50?” I’m like, “No, it’s at 36.” And he’s like, “You’re about to go into hypothermia, straighten your shit out.” So through all of that, our daughter Kassidy, was working at Red Bull and couldn’t stand Santa Monica. So I approached Paul and Laird, I said, “Do you have room? You’re growing, maybe something could happen.” We drove up there, we saw him, she’s been there for three and a half years now. She does all the events and marketing for Laird Superfood. They also did really well on the stock market, it just went public and crushed it. I’m keeping my stock in it because they’re coming out with more stuff, plant-based proteins, and liquid creamers, and all kinds of stuff. So they’re not just a one and done. It’s a cool thing to be a part of.

Ricky Johnson laird superfood
Ricky Johnson integrates Lair Superfood as part of his daily routine.

Matt Martelli:

For somebody who’s had such a long career is still going, and I’ll add even as a racer, how important do you think nutrition is?

Ricky Johnson:

It’s key. The thing that I found is that I was so, and I didn’t even know, I was so addicted to sugar and glycogen. Whether it be cookies, snacks, I always thought I had to have something because my body was just screaming. I was like, ah, yeah, I could tell the first time I drank a Red Bull or something that I got the big spike and then the fall. You don’t realize that you go through these huge valleys and peaks throughout the day snacking. Your body is not meant to eat all the time. The bullshit of eating every three hours is wrong. You got to let your body track so I like to do a part of intermittent fasting to make my bodywork. Especially for these racers. The mental clarity you get when you get off the carbs is well worth it. I found myself using the goo blocks and all the different snacks to keep my energy up because I’d find myself driving going, I’m hungry, or I’m pre-running, and this is no bull shit and I guarantee a lot of other guys do the same thing. I’m pre-running, and I’m worried about missing my dinner. If something happens, I’m going to miss dinner and then I can’t have dinner. Now I’m like, so what? I’ll have breakfast tomorrow. Or, you know what? I can survive because once I learned about getting my body into ketosis and my mind, it really helped me out when it came to racing.

RickyJohnson BFG GatewayCO
Ricky Johnson shredding in a trophy truck at Gateway Canyon, Colorado.

Matt Martelli:

I think it’s one of those things that, obviously you learned it later on in your career, but especially with long-distance desert racing, having a ketogenic diet gives you a physical and mental advantage.

Ricky Johnson:

Talking with Victor Sheldon, who does stuff with Hammer nutrition, we’re talking about different things, I’m like, “I don’t get that high.” Between the breathing routines that I learned with Laird and Gabby. I also learned some Wim Hof breathing exercises, so that I can keep my blood pressure, and anxiety under control while I’m riding and driving. So even when I’m hammering through the massive whoops in San Felipe, I don’t breathe hard because I’m using longer breaths, slower breaths, deeper breaths, keeping my diaphragm full so it keeps my spine supported. There’s a lot of little different things that go into it, but the biggest thing about keto is that it’s all mental clarity.

Ricky Johnson:

You’re burning a lot of fat with energy, like your brain is micromanaging a lot of input:,spectators and bumps and what’s the thing doing, where’s my line, what’s the next horizon? You’re multitasking all the time. And I found that you would what they call lose your mud. You lose your drive.  Now I can stay in my zone for 12 hours if I need to. Diet is the fuel that you need to keep focused and make good decisions throughout the race.

Matt Martelli:

You mentioned your relationship with Jimmie Johnson. Do you see him ever sticking his toe back in off-road racing?

Ricky Johnson:

Maybe occasionally. I mean, he might come and do something here or there. He really didn’t like crashing and being stuck in San Javier back in the day and that really freaked him out. That was a lasting thing. He likes to know where his pit is and comes by every time. Now with him going to IndyCar I am not sure how much time he will have to spare.

We’re going to go see him for his last race in Phoenix. I put him in our little two-seater down in Charlotte to let him go have fun and he loved it. I think once he calms down and he quits aiming at the top he will come over to off-road racing.  If Ganassi wants to put you in a top IndyCar team, how could you not, you know what I mean? Let’s see where he goes with that, I think you’ll see him settle down and come back to off-road racing and have some fun.

Matt Martelli:

Well, it’s just interesting and especially now that Ganassi actually has an off-road team via Extreme E but no, that’s cool. Is there anything else that you want to touch on? What do you want people to know about? 

Ricky Johnson:

I still have my toe in the motorcycle industry. I love teaching and taking people on guided tours on adventure bikes. Now, do I want to take a long way around or the long way down? No, I like to do day trips and I like to have my bike so I can ride it. I don’t like to carry everything because I can’t move on the bike. I like to carry some stuff, you know what I mean? Like I’ll set myself up to do maybe a one or two day trip, carry a small tent, an air mattress, sleeping bag and things like that, and some parts,, but I don’t like to stray too far. Call me a glamper, call me a pussy, whatever you want to do. But I enjoy riding my bike and so if I have 400 pounds worth of shit on there, why don’t I just drive a Jeep or Bronco or ZR2 or something. So I get it, I respect it, but I like to ride.

Matt Martelli:

And you’re touching on a really good point because we’re seeing the rise of adventure bikes. Harley has an adventure bike coming. It just really shows the shift in people’s riding styles, which I think is good. So you’re doing trips and teaching with that, right?

Ricky Johnson:

Yeah. We got a place down in Ocotillo Wells because I can do everything. I’ve done the military stuff there, I had a class, a motorcycle class for five years, and also a side-by-side class for five years. I know the Ocotillo desert phenomena well. I can go from one sand dunes to rocks to sand washes to mud hills to… where I can take you in one day, there’s no other desert like it in the world. If you go to the High Desert, it’s High Desert. If you go to Glamis, it’s Glamis. Tt doesn’t have the diversity that it has here. I get a little burned on it because it’s our backyard, but the people haven’t seen it. I can take you there in a day on an adventure bike, go over to Slab City, go check out Glamis, go check out. There’s Salton Sea. There are all these things that people don’t see. I want to end up taking a lot of people and show them around. The bottom line is when they leave, they learn a couple of things, they had fun no matter their skill level.

If you are interested in contact Ricky Johnson for training or private guided tours you can reach him at: officialrickyjohnson@gmail.com

For Johnson Off-Road vehicle builds and car prep services you can reach Ricky’s son Luke Johnson here: project648@me.com or (949) 230-3912

Check out more on Laird Superfood here: https://lairdsuperfood.com/

Matt Martelli

Founder of Mad Media, a multidisciplinary creative and marketing firm and CEO of Off Road Racer and The Mint 400 Matt is one of the biggest influences in Off-Road Racing