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Method Race Wheels Heritage Series #4 / Chevy Lightning

Media day at the 1995 Laughlin Desert Challenge with Team Chevy on display.  Photo: Rory Ward collection.

By Rory Ward

The year was 1995, the Trick Trucks (TT) were now into their 2nd year and the series was booming. Larry Ragland was just starting to get comfortable with his new Chevy TT affectionately known as “Arnold”. His old class 8 truck known as “Butch” would be raced by some rookie driver.

With the factories really getting involved, Chevy wanted a double threat in the desert so they called some kid up from the minor leagues who was running one of their stadium trucks in the Mickey Thompson series to see what he could do. His name was Joey….uh……..Jason…….no…..oh yea, Jimmie……Jimmie Johnson. The kid had been doing pretty well out in the stadium stuff with his Stadium Super lite, then worked his way into the Grand National Sport Trucks. Jimmie had also been dabbling in the desert with the Arciero’s in a class 10 buggy, then eventually in the Nelson & Nelson class 8.

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Chevy decided to put Jimmie behind the wheel of “Butch” in the TT class starting at the 1995 Baja 500. Some people in the desert racing community thought this kid was out of his league, sure he was a pretty good stadium racer but the desert is a totally different animal. The kid did not have a ton of experience out in the sticks and had only driven a few races behind the wheel of the class 8. The TT was going to be a pretty big jump and into the shark tank filled with guys like Gordon, Stewart, MacCachren, Ragland, Evans and Simons. Boy, I sure hope those Chevy executives know what the hell they are doing.

A couple things Jimmie had going for him was the truck he was driving, Butch, was a proven winner. Larry Ragland had stacked up an impressive amount of wins and championships in this old beater (sarcasm) and the truck was all figured out. Also, with Larry as a teammate, he had a great resource when it came to asking for input on the handling characteristics of “Butch”. Lastly, it turns out that this Kid had an abundance of natural talent, and Chevrolet knew it.

That 1995 season would be filled with a lot of ups and downs for Jimmie and the team. He started out at the Parker 400 in a Nelson & Nelson built class 8 truck and won in his first race. The following race in San Felipe the fuel cell fell out of the truck resulting in a DNF while Larry Ragland would chalk up his first win in the TT class in Butch. The Baja 500, Larry Ragland’s new TT “Arnold” was now ready and Jimmie would slide into Larry’s old class 8 truck “Butch”. He proved very early that he could run with the big boys, even in an older race truck. Jimmie had an event filled ride at the Baja 500, starting with running out of fuel, shredded tires that tore up some stuff and then a small fire that turned into a small grass fire at a refueling stop. Jimmie’s response after the race….he said it was the “Most fun” he had ever had in a long time. Jimmie always seemed to find his way to the front or in the lead pack, but sometimes that young enthusiasm gets the best of you. At the Fireworks 250, Jimmie started first off the line and held the lead for quite a while until he got into some lapped traffic and tangled with a slower TT, causing him to crash.

Both drivers were struggling with their new rides and at the Laughlin Desert Challenge a new Livery was introduced. Both trucks had the same design and colors but they were flipped to possible help identify them out on the course…I’m speculating. Larry had a good run finishing in 4th place as Jimmie won the “Laughlin Leap” which put $7500 in his pocket. As for the race he had to replace a transmission and ran out of time resulting in a DNF.

Larry Ragland fought brake and driveline issues to win his 2nd Baja 1000 Overall.  Larry and “Arnold” would win 3 more Overall Baja 1000 titles in 1996, 1997 and 1999.

At the season finale at the Baja 1000, Jimmie had his sights set on being the first one to La Paz. He was getting more and more comfortable in the truck and was running a strong pace. By the time Jimmie reached the southern portion of the course near Loreto, Jimmie was getting tired but he kept digging. Problem is, Baja is dangerous, and when you are tired, Baja bites…..and Baja bites HARD.

Jimmie hard on the noise at the Baja 1000 and running in the lead pack.  Photo: Carrera Photo.

Story has it Jimmie was running hard and holding down 3rd place behind teammate Larry Ragland and race leader Ivan Stewart, but those heavy eye lids were taking their toll. Traveling at a high rate of speed, to Jimmie’s horror the road looked straight but actually dropped into a dogleg around some huge boulders and popped back up on the other side. Jimmie went straight, smacking the boulder, ripping the front corner off the truck and then rolling violently. After the truck settled, both driver and co-rider were ok, but Jimmie got his bell rung pretty good, good enough he probably needed to visit a hospital for observation. Well, this is Baja. Jimmie and his co-rider were out in the middle of nowhere, no radio communication and it was the middle of the night. They couldn’t get help even if they wanted to. When they finally got a hold of their crew, teammate Larry Ragland was fighting for the Overall lead and they needed all hands on deck to make sure Chevy got their win. They did.

The crash site located south of La Purisima about 800-ish miles into the race. The hood was used as a makeshift “caution” sign to slow down oncoming racers to slow down for the accident scene. Photo credit unknown.

Jimmie got to spend the better part of 24/36 hours out in the desert to contemplate his racing career. From what we know now, Jimmie moved on from desert racing that year and went short course racing with team Herzog and Chevrolet. That led to an ASA ride, which led to a NASCAR Busch series ride, then of course to a pretty good NASCAR ride in the Lowe’s car. I’m not sure how that all worked out for him in NASCAR as I don’t really follow that series, but from what I heard he actually won a few races……and maybe a Championship?

A young Jimmie Johnson (3rd from right) looks on as the crew figure out how to get the race truck out of the desert.  Photo credit unknown.

26 years later, some kid has been playing around in the desert trying to make a name for himself, getting a little help from his dad who has proven himself in the sport. AJ Jones, son of TT racer Jesse Jones has been racing in the highly competitive 6100/TT spec class. If you’re not familiar with the class, it’s pretty much a half a step down from a TT. Like Jimmie Johnson, it seems like this kid came out of nowhere and started making a name for himself. A very impressive win at the 2019 Baja 1000 and 7th Overall in a very stacked field of Spec TT’s. Results like this gets you noticed and Can-Am came calling for AJ to drive one of their UTV’s at the Dakar rally and finished 2nd in class.

There are some similarities between Jimmie Johnson and AJ Jones desert careers. AJ will be driving a proven Mason 4WD TT and one of the most competitive trucks out there. He will also have the resource of driver input from one of the best TT drivers out there, his dad Jesse. A great truck and all the practice in the world will get you nowhere without natural talent, and AJ has shown in a short period of time that he can wheel a truck with the best of them. Maybe that Chevy Lightning Livery will produce some positive results as it did for Larry and eventually Jimmie.

Are we saying that AJ is the next Jimmie Johnson? Ask me again in 26 years…….

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AJ Jones qualifying at the 2021 SCORE Baja 400. Photo: HighRev Photography

Curtis Guise

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Great job on this story @Rory!

Here's a shot of AJ from today by @havahockey
score-baja400-qualifying-2021-race-dezert-37.jpg
 

nimrod

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That truck is so awesome looking! Love the throw back!
it would be so cool if he and his dad raced the Baja Mil together again!