This article is the first in a two-part series detailing the daily challenge Chase Johnson battles to live a complete life following a crash he was involved in that resulted in the death of two people. The second part of the series will be released in the January 2017 issue.
By Shawn Miller
Chase Johnson arrived to the track with the same butterflies floating through his body that always appeared before a race. Bursts of excitement, much like those that appear while ascending on a roller coaster ride just waiting for the impending drop, coursed through him.
Johnson, who was a 17-year-old senior at Petaluma High School in Petaluma, Calif., was a rising star in the sport of winged sprint car racing. He was coming off his first career track championship at Petaluma Speedway the previous year, when he also won two races and garnered the Civil War Sprint Car Series Rookie of the Year Award.
His breakout had begun and Johnson was excited to step outside his comfort zone of racing locally. Johnson was going to conquer the 2013 season – his fourth year of racing a full-sized 360ci winged sprint car. Not only was he prepared to race more often and further away from home, Johnson was set to graduate from high school in only a couple of months. He had a beautiful girlfriend and a fulfilling family that supported his every move.
“At the beginning of 2013 I definitely felt the best I’ve felt in my entire career,” he said. “We were going to go after a championship in the Civil War Series that year. I was definitely feeling confident. At the time I was one of the youngest drivers competing that was winning races and championships. A lot of eyes were on me to continue doing bigger things that year.”
Johnson ventured to Marysville Raceway, which was then known as Marysville Raceway Park, on the afternoon of March 16 for the first race of the 2013 season. The quarter-mile oval located in Marysville, Calif., was the site of the opening Civil War Sprint Car Series event of the year, but it quickly morphed into a horrific scene that resulted in two deaths during a life-altering moment for a teenager who had the world at his fingertips.
“During the third lap of hot laps was when all the disaster happened,” Johnson said. “Basically what happened was the quick release on my steering wheel malfunctioned. After further research that’s not really a normal thing that happened, but it’s known to happen with quick releases. It happened down the front straightaway. At the time at Marysville there was no exit gate. The wheel came off in my hand and I lost all control of my car. That was heading into turn one. I just remember hitting the brakes as hard as I could.”
Johnson’s race car was at full speed when the steering wheel came off in his hands. His car jetted straight toward turn one, which is where the cars exited the track to return to the pit area. Despite riding the brakes, Johnson’s car flew off the track at great speed and it careened off a wall, which knocked the sprint car onto its left side as it skidded into the middle of the pits.
“It was a little black,” he said. “I have a couple of visions in my head of the scene. I have a couple of visions of what went on, kinda like you do of a normal crash. You don’t exactly know what happened, but you have little pieces of when your eyes see something.
“At that time when the crash stopped I didn’t really know exactly where I was. I remember sitting there, the car was on its side. You hear voices and panic, people yelling and screaming. At that point when I heard all this commotion going on it wasn’t good at all and I knew I was in the middle of the pit area. As I climbed out of the car I got a better look of where I was and the scene around me. I remember my dad helping me get out of the car … I really have a vivid picture in my brain of the scene around me. My dad pulled me out of the car and you could tell by his voice that something was really wrong. He tried to make sure I didn’t see what was going on and brought me inside our trailer. You could hear sirens going off and people yelling and running all over the place. I just remember sitting on the floor in the trailer for I don’t know how long. Everything went by so fast. It felt like seconds.”
Johnson’s father – former racer Don Johnson – kept him from seeing the bodies when he climbed out of the crashed race car.
“When it happened, where the car went and where it landed, me making a dead sprint toward them, just the mayhem of the whole scene, you know it’s just bad,” Don Johnson said. “As a father, more of the protective side, I helped him get out of the car and I’m like, ‘You don’t need to see what’s going on.’ At that point I had no idea who was hurt.”
The uncertainty quickly turned to panic as the Johnson Family found out that one of the two bodies lying on the ground near the crash site was one of their own. Marcus Johnson, a 14-year-old cousin who raced go-karts and who was set to make his sprint car debut later that year, had been hit by Johnson’s crashing sprint car.
“I was praying and sitting on the trailer floor,” Chase Johnson said. “We got news that one of the people hit was Marcus. They were getting in the ambulance right now and going to the hospital. That’s really all the news we got of what happened of the current situation. At that time I was balled up on the floor of the trailer crying with the helmet on, head sock, shoes and suit – exactly how I hopped out of the race car. It was the first time someone told me he was hurt.”
Marcus Johnson was transported to a nearby hospital before he passed away that evening.
“We got word that he was on his way in the ambulance and we got someone else’s vehicle to go to the hospital and the truck and trailer stayed at the race track,” Chase Johnson said. “I wasn’t with him (when he passed away). I did get to see him before then. I got to go in the room and see Marcus before. My uncle was there with him every second of the way and never left his side.
“After everything happened at the hospital and we found out he had passed that’s when a couple of sheriff’s deputies were there. After talking to them I wanted to know what else happened. I had no idea if anyone else was involved or hurt. At that time they informed me another gentlemen passed away as well. That brought a whole additional level to the feelings I had. All these emotions that your family is having, there’s another family across town that is having the same feelings. The guilt fell all on me. I didn’t know how to handle it all. It was very easily the worst day of my life.”
Dale Wondergem, who was a 68-year-old race car owner, was pronounced dead at the race track.
Johnson strapped into his sprint car that afternoon with all the confidence in the world. Only moments later that world was shattered as he was forced to navigate the emotions surrounding the death of two people, including his beloved cousin.
Johnson soon learned that the worst day of his life would lead to many others of that magnitude as guilt drove him into a depression that only began to improve once he made the toughest decision in his life – to climb back into a sprint car.
This article is the second in a two-part series detailing the challenge Chase Johnson battles daily to live a complete life following a crash he was involved in that resulted in the death of two people. The first part of the series was released in the December 2016 issue.
By Shawn Miller
Chase Johnson’s passion for racing sprint cars was quickly suppressed by his 2013 season-opening crash that took the lives of his cousin, Marcus Johnson, and a car owner, Dale Wondergem.
Where there was once a love for a sport that was only surpassed by the love of his family faded to darkness. Chase Johnson, who was only 17-years-old that fateful night at Marysville Raceway in Marysville, Calif., began to walk down a path that was lit by negative thoughts and negative people.
“The days after were by far the hardest,” he said. “At the same time you’re trying to wrap your head around what even happened I was also wrapping my head around the fact that my cousin was gone. Me and Marcus were really close. We saw each other at least three to four times a week. We had been close ever since we were growing up. We definitely had a brother relationship more than a cousin one.
“There wasn’t a day or even an hour that went by that I wasn’t in tears. On top of all those emotions, you have everything from candle light vigils to the funeral service to everything on the news … you turn on the local news station and they have it on, from emails to phone calls and messages, to people knocking on the front door to talk to you. There wasn’t any way to get away from thinking about it for really the first month or two. At that time I was certain that I was never going to drive anything again. I never even wanted to see a race car again. I just remember I couldn’t even watch the NASCAR highlights on ESPN or look in my closet when I’m getting ready to see a racing t-shirt. How much I regretted the sport and hated it at that time. I had a lot of bad emotions toward the sport of racing at that time.”
Johnson tried to navigate his way through the grief associated with surviving a freak incident that two others didn’t, but the pain worsened as it turned to spring and then summer. With the race car hidden in the shop, Johnson struggled to cope with the tragedy.
As if his own negative thoughts weren’t enough to battle, a handful of people attacked Johnson through social media, emails and in person. Even a newspaper article insinuated that Johnson should be jailed for the crash.
“That was a big part holding me back from moving on,” he said. “After the accident I got two or three emails and there was also some guy who had written an article basically saying ‘Why isn’t Chase in jail? Why isn’t he charged for manslaughter?’ Also some people said that they were not too sure how I could live every day and I should be held accountable for my actions, just some nasty stuff like that. In those first couple of months you have a couple of suicidal thoughts and thinking this life isn’t for you and you’re not cut out to be here. I had those thoughts. As a couple of months went on it got worse. The first two months I was still numb. Then the third month and the fourth month, really up to around 10 months, was really the hardest time for me. I’m not too sure why. Some of it was because of the negativity that I got. Some of it was me realizing, and it was at the point where it became un-numb, I was dethawed almost, that I realized I had to deal with this for the rest of my life.”
Johnson went to therapy twice a week for a little more than two years, but the biggest aid in quelling the suicidal thoughts was his decision to climb back in a sprint car.
“Making the decision to get back in the race car was a big step for me as far as having my life move forward,” he said. “We had some people express a lot of negative words and negative feelings toward the situation I was in trying to get back in the race car.”
After spending approximately four months away from the sport, Johnson made his return in July 2013 on a summer night when nobody knew he’d be at the track.
“Before the first race the Petaluma Speedway promoter let us go hot lap,” he said. “We took every little thing from dropping down the trailer door, to putting my seatbelts on, to putting the wheel on, all were taken as we needed. There was no rush. It was just my family and the promotor, which was really something I needed. I couldn’t have gone straight to the track and gone into hot laps and qualifying. I think we were there five hours and we only made two sessions of hot laps. Everything was in slow pace. I don’t think I could have chosen a better way to get back in the race car and make sure I was ok.”
Johnson made his first competitive start the following weekend, but he struggled to return to his winning form. In fact, Johnson was winless in a sprint car for nearly three years following the accident.
“It was really tough because any racer will tell you winning is the real reason we all do this,” he said. “To fight what you’re fighting on a daily basis and then go to the race track and you can’t put a good night together is even more frustrating. I think the hardest part was me having to realize I wasn’t at 100 percent. I wasn’t as good as I was before, which is hard in your career when you’re supposed to be getting better every race. We were set back so much it was almost like we had to relearn everything and be confident in the race car.”
It took a few dozen races and many sleepless nights before Johnson snapped the winless streak last May when he passed veteran Andy Forsberg coming to the white flag to garner a victory at Petaluma Speedway.
“That win was a big one,” Johnson said. “That one sprint car win was what we were fighting so hard for. When we finally accomplished it it was very emotional. The big thing was that I was now as good as I was when I left. That was the big thing for me. I can do it again.”
Johnson returned to the Winner’s Circle last October when he won the famed Adobe Cup at Petaluma Speedway for the first time in his career.
The road to stability has been an arduous one for Johnson, who still has tough days and bad thoughts. Johnson is a full-time college student pursing his bachelor’s degree in business administration in addition to racing sprint cars, which has reclaimed its importance in his life.
“If it wasn’t for racing and if I didn’t get back in the car and I held this grudge against racing I don’t think I’d be here now,” he said. “Racing is helping heal me.”
The past few years have been nearly indescribable for Johnson, who has slowly learned to win races again while also learning how to handle the unimaginable emotions and thoughts attached to a freak accident that forever changed his life.
Chase Johnson: A Long Road Back
By Dean Mills
The scene was chaotic. The red and yellow Sprint Car had come to a halt on its side, nearly 50 yards from the racing surface at Marysville Raceway. Confusion reigned everywhere. Moments before, just three laps into the first hot lap session of the new year, a mechanical failure sends a car flying off the track, careening into an exit barrier, and flipping wildly into a crowded pit area. Moments later, lives are indelibly changed forever. People are running in no particular direction, either towards the mayhem, or trying to escape it. Radios are relaying information, but no one really knows exactly what is going on. A father rushes to the aid of his oldest son who is sitting in the race car on its left side. He helps him climb from the cockpit, in the process shielding the 17 year olds eyes from the surrounding chaos. Without pausing, he walks his son back to their pit area, just as any good father would, sheltering him from the pandemonium around him on the worst day of the young man’s life.
Chase Johnson was born to Don and Deanna Johnson on May 2, 1995 at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital near the coast of California. Any questions as to Chase’s path in life were a foregone conclusion.
“Four generations of the Johnson family have competed in racing”, Chase acknowledges. “It all started with my Great Grandpa Frank Johnson (who raced under the name “Johnny Franklin” for a good portion of his career). He ran Hard Tops, and won championships, racing at places like Oakland, Santa Rosa, Vallejo, and Petaluma”. In addition, the Johnson family patriarch had a successful Midget career, and was elected to the BCRA Midget Hall of Fame in 1996.
“My Grandpa Bobby Johnson followed in his footsteps, racing Super Modifieds at San Jose”, Chase continued. “He raced in both Midgets and Sprint Cars as well, and won some titles along the way”. Bobby was a regular competitor at Petaluma, as well as Baylands Raceway Park, where his career ended in a serious crash that he survived, but that necessitated a long recovery period from a brain injury.
Continuing the family tradition, the next generation of Johnsons found their way into competitive racing. “My Uncle Rob Johnson raced 360 Sprint Cars, but my Dad went into competitive downhill skiing, and raced for Team USA all over the world before getting into a race car”, Chase stated proudly.
In fact, Don Johnson skied competitively from the time he was 8 to 16, and was #1 in his age bracket, having a very successful career. Once he came of age, he found his way into race cars, racing winged 360 Sprints all over Northern California before moving on to pavement Modifieds, racing around Lakeport, Ukiah, Madera, and Altamont.
At the age of 31, Don put aside his racing career as soon as Chase was old enough to start in Outlaw Karts, and purchased a Box Stock Kart for him to compete in. “I am pretty sure that the conversation my parents had went something like, ‘If Chase shows any interest in racing, we will start him as soon as he’s of age”, Chase says. “I feel very fortunate to be in a family that is so involved in racing and knew how to get me going. Mom and Dad brought home an Outlaw Kart, and we pretty much got started right away”.
Over the course of the next decade, Chase climbed the ranks from the Beginner Box Stock class to Box Stock, the 250cc Intermediate class, to the 500cc Open class. “All my time in Outlaw Karts was very family oriented”, Chase acknowledges. “Me and my younger brother Colby were racing karts, as well as both of my cousins (Marcus and Hayden). My Mom and Dad were there, my Aunt Gina and Uncle Rob, and my Grandparents were all involved”.
It wasn’t long before young Chase started winning races and turning heads. “We won some races in the Box Stock class, but it wasn’t until we moved up to the 250 and Open classes before we started winning championships and prestigious races”, he confesses. From 2003 - 2010 Chase earned seven titles at venues such as Lakeport, Dixon, and Red Bluff, and won over 200 races in his full-time Outlaw Kart career.
By the age of 14, Chase was ready to move to full size race cars. “In 2010, I inherited my Great Grandpa’s 360 Sprint Car”, he recalls. “He was a car owner, and when he passed, he left us his car. It wasn’t just assumed that I would move into Sprint Cars at 14, but when the opportunity presented itself, we took it”.
Starting his career at Petaluma Speedway, young Chase’s debut in a Sprint Car was short-lived when the engine expired on opening night. Instead of sitting out while the motor was repaired, his Uncle Rob stepped up and offered him a ride aboard his familiar black number 17. “After we blew the motor in the heat race on my first night in a Sprint Car, I was itching to get more”, he muses. “So the first half of my rookie season I raced Uncle Rob’s car, which was sort of our back up car. That first night out, we finished 4th at Petaluma”.
Any thoughts of the transition from karts to Sprint Cars being just that easy were quelled quickly. “It was definitely a big step going from Outlaw Karts straight into 360 Sprint Cars”, Chase confesses. “We had some good finishes throughout the year, and we ended up earning Petaluma Speedway’s Rookie of the Year honors. It was definitely a big learning curve, going from Outlaw Karts directly to 360 Sprint Cars, but we learned a lot that first year”.
Petaluma track announcer Ron Lingron was glad to see Chase move into a Sprint Car at the 1/4 mile clay oval. “Chase is part of a great racing family”, Lingron reasons. “It's hard not to be a fan. He's always been humble and quiet. He and his brother Colby are both great kids. His Mom and Dad are great people, and I enjoy them both personally and professionally. The family has always been so classy and gracious. A Johnson has raced at Petaluma for four generations. They are one of the first families of Petaluma Speedway”.
For Chase’s sophomore campaign, they set their sights higher, chasing points not only at Petaluma Speedway, but also with the traveling California Civil War Sprint Car Series. “We were focused on going after the Petaluma championship”, Johnson states flatly. “But, we also wanted to get out of our comfort zone and race with different competitors at different race tracks. We gained a lot of experience doing that and had some good success. While not always having great runs, we just learned so much about how to set up the car for different track conditions, and it also allowed me to learn how to handle the car as a driver”.
The experience proved invaluable, and by the middle of his second season, Chase was battling for feature wins. On August 20, 2011, Johnson grabbed his first Sprint Car feature victory at Petaluma. “At the time, it felt overdue”, he confesses. “Coming from Outlaw Karts, you’re used to winning races, and to not win in Sprint Cars right out of the box was frustrating. But, it put things in perspective, and showed us that it isn’t easy to win in this sport. Getting that first win was a big relief, and let us know then that we could come out on top and were capable of winning races”.
That victory proved to be a springboard to finishing second in the Petaluma Speedway championship chase. In addition, Chase earned the coveted Rookie of the Year title in the Civil War Series. “Running second in points showed us that we could compete for championships, and gave us the confidence to go after the Petaluma Speedway Championship the next year”.
As a result, in 2012, Chase put a strong season together, won a feature during the course of the year, which put him position to win the overall season championship heading into the final night. With just a few points separating Johnson from Sebastopol’s Bradley Terrell, Chase drove from 8th starting spot in the feature to the front, while Terrell charged from his 11th starting position through the field to third. Chase did what he had to do, won his second race of the year, and beat Terrell by 1 point to become the youngest ever Sprint Car Champion in the 64 year history of Petaluma. He was just 16 years, 4 months and 27 days old.
March 16, 2013. Marysville Raceway. A new race season had just begun, so full of hopes and dreams, with freshly painted race cars, new race gear, visions of checkered flags, and world domination in the sport of Sprint Car racing. Chase was prepared to take the next step of his career. Then, it all came to a grinding halt.
This is the part of the story that is inconceivable. The kind of outlandish tale that only Hollywood could come up with. But, it’s real life for Chase Johnson. Just 3/4 of a mile into the first practice session of the new season, the steering wheel comes off in his hands heading into turn 1. The car flew off the race track, hit a wall, and is redirected into the pit area. The car gyrates, tumbles, and lands on its side. Two people have been hit. One of them, is 68 year old Dale Wondergem, a long time competitor and car owner. The other, in an inexplicable twist of fate, is Chase’s 14-year old cousin and best friend Marcus Johnson, who was walking back to his seat after using the restroom. What are the cosmic odds of that?
Chase explains in his own words how it happened; “I got to the end of the straightaway and realized the steering wheel had come off just as I went to turn the car”, he remembers. “At that point, you are at full speed, going as fast as you will go all night, and I had no control”. From all accounts the car flew off the track and glanced off a safety barrier, and careened off into the pit exit area.
Chase has indelible memories of the moments during and after the crash. He describes in his own words what he remembers; “In a crash, your instinct is to close your eyes. There are some missing pieces, but I saw some of it. I hit the brakes as hard as I could, but I couldn’t get it slowed down. I wasn’t sure if I would hit the wall or go into the pits. I hit the wall, but not enough to stop me. If the wall was two feet over, it would have stopped the car”.
Instead, he ricocheted off the wall, sending him flying into the pit area. “When it finally came to a stop and I opened my eyes, I knew I was in the pits. I could hear voices around me, and by the urgent tone of people’s voices and the movement I could hear around me, I knew it was bad”.
By the description Chase offers, his Uncle Rob and his father were the first to get to him. They began to help Chase get out of the car. Then Rob realized there was something terribly wrong. “Rob and my Dad were there to help me get out of the car. Rob didn’t know about Marcus until I was half way out of the car. My Dad continued to help me, and as I got out, he blocked my vision by covering my visor with his hand. And then he walked me back to the trailer”. He takes a breath, and after a long pause, says, “You know, when you get out of the car and you’re on top of it, you see things…I have a vision still stuck in my head that’s never going to leave”.
How the accident happened remains something of a mystery to everyone involved. “I double checked the steering wheel”, Chase says emphatically. “Rob checked the steering wheel”. It was securely on the car. That much is certain to the Johnson family. How it came off, and caused this horrific accident nobody will ever know.
Tragically, Dale Wondergem, Jr. was pronounced dead at the scene after being struck by the car. CPR was performed on Marcus Johnson, and being a minor, efforts to resuscitate him at the scene continued all the way to hospital. He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving to Rideout Hospital in Marysville, while Rob held his oldest son’s hand the entire time.
“Losing Marcus was very hard on all of us”, Chase regretfully acknowledges. “But, to realize that you were part of the accident that took his life, and then compound that with knowing that Dale was killed, too…”, he then trails off. It’s clear that Chase had been saddled with far more than any 17 year old should ever have had to deal with. “It’s just so hard to cope with it when something so far-fetched as this has happened to you. It’s hard to believe, and to this day, sometimes it’s difficult to process it all”.
In the immediate days after, Chase was besieged with people reaching out to him. “The amount of emails, texts, and messages was really overwhelming”, he notes. “The day after, I had something like 3,000 emails. There were a lot of supportive people all over the world sending me messages of encouragement”.
However, Chase wasn’t shielded from the negative. “The news companies were the worst”, he says incredulously. “They all wanted interviews and were like, ’Hey, come on our show and talk about your feelings and what you’re going through’, and that’s not me. The local news knocking on your door the next day at 8am wanting to talk with you or your family members. You see people that go on some news channel and talk about some tragedy two days later. I was having trouble just processing it, let alone being able to talk about it publicly. There’s just no way I could have done that”. He was even aware of bloggers and columnists that wrote very nasty, detrimental things. “I read one blog that said I should go to jail for this”, he says disappointedly.
Imagine, if you will for a moment, being 17 years old and being forced to come to terms with something so horrific. “At the time of the accident, I was in my senior year in high school, which didn’t make it any easier”, he recalls. “That means prom, graduation, and all the days that people tell you are supposed to be the best times of your life. And my life was far, far from that”.
At that point, Chase didn’t want to even think about ever getting back in a race car again. “In that first month, I didn’t want to see anything that reminded me of racing”, he admits. “I ripped all my racing T-shirts out of my closet, and I avoided everything that had to do with it. I didn’t watch ESPN because I didn’t want to see racing highlights, I didn’t want to see videos or anything. I had a lot of built up frustration towards (the sport), and I didn’t want anything to do with it”.
The Johnsons put Chase into a counseling program that helped him deal with the fallout. “I had two years of critical therapy, which is for people who have post traumatic stress disorder”, he states. “I went to a therapist two times a week for two years. It was difficult. We talked a lot about my feelings, not just about the accident, but situations or thoughts I had, and if I was feeling a certain way how to approach it. It was difficult, but it was good for me. I was given good tools to cope with my thoughts and feelings about my life”.
“Feelings of guilt?”, I interject.
“Oh yeah”, he admits. “I still have the guilt. You can have a million people tell you ‘It’s not your fault’, but it comes down to what you feel inside. It wouldn’t have happened if I would have just stayed home that day. It wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t want to race Sprint Cars. That is by far the hardest part to deal with, the guilt. It’s hard to overcome”.
When Chase speaks about his ordeal, you can’t help but sympathize with him. To want to somehow help him through it. Unfortunately, there is little that you can do for him but listen. He is remarkably candid about it, and has said on numerous occasions that it’s how he handles it. It’s his therapy. It’s clear in conversing with Chase that he has processed this over and over in his mind, and discussed it with people enough to the point that it has almost become a memorized script in his head. That when he is saying the words and retelling the story of his journey that he has found a way to compartmentalize to the point that he can move on and live a productive life. “I’m a real strong believer that everything happens for a reason. Every person that walks this earth has a plan for them, and a destination before they know it. Life can be very rude and unpleasant. For whatever reason, this is my story, and I just have to deal with it by moving forward with my life”. In addition, he sees it as an opportunity to share his life story and help others. “The only positive I can see from any of this is to be open, share my story with others, and be an inspiration. To try to help other people and show them that you can get through this. That’s the only thing I can do”.
I asked Chase to tell me about his relationship with Marcus, and he lit up. “He was a smiley guy”, he says with his own thousand-watt smile -- a Johnson family trait. “He always had a smile on his face. We saw each other 4 times a week, so it was more than just your typical cousin relationship. Every Tuesday was dinner at my Grandparent’s house, and then Friday nights at Outlaw Kart races, Saturdays we’d be at the race track running Sprint Cars, and he’d be working on my pit crew. Sundays, more Outlaw Kart racing. We were always together. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him”.
Before his passing, Marcus was on the same fast track that Chase had been on, and was nearing the start of his own career in Sprint Car racing at the time of his death. “He was already a champion Outlaw Kart racer, and was just about to get into a Sprint Car. He was always there by my side at the track, muddy and covered in baby oil, working on the car, getting ready for his own career”.
Pressing further, I asked him if he knew Dale Wondergem. “We really met just one time”, he recalls. “We were pitted next to each other at Petaluma and I borrowed an extension cord from him. We obviously crossed paths at the track often, and it was a ‘hi’ or a ‘hello’, but we didn’t have a personal relationship”.
Chase showed the true nature of his character in reaching out to Dale Wondergem’s widow. “While we were at the hospital, we learned that some one else had passed away, and I got Dale’s name”, he said. “I think it was the next day that we did some research, and my Dad helped me find a number. I got a hold of Dale’s wife Jerry, and while she was hurt, she was amazing to me. The day after that conversation on the phone, I decided I needed to meet her, and to talk with her. I wanted to give her a hug. So, we drove over to her and Dale’s house, and we spent hours talking. I think the first hour and a half we did nothing but hug each other in tears”.
Jerry Wondergem and Chase have remained in touch to this day. “She’s one of the nicest women I’ve ever met”, Chase says. “She’s always been so kind and gracious to me. And she told me she wanted to see me get back in the car. She really made me feel like it was all going to be ok. She has sent me letters, and I call her occasionally, send her Christmas cards, that sort of thing. But, she made sure that I knew that she would be alright and it was okay to move on with my life”.
The tragic loss of two lives has been made exponentially more difficult for the Johnsons by the separation of a once close family unit. Despite being told in the days after the crash that they knew Chase was not to blame for the death of their son, Marcus’s parents no longer socialize with Chase and his side of the family. “After the accident, it was like somebody ripped the paper in half”, Chase theorizes. “It’s really sad that our family that was once so close and spent so much time together is no longer around each other anymore. Life is way different these days in our family. I have a lot of frustration about that, and a lot of guilt, of course…And, people just don’t realize the implications of this. It’s definitely not what Marcus would want, at all. That much can’t be denied”, he says before stopping himself from going any further. Clearly, Chase Johnson misses the family he once had.
If you spend any time around Don Johnson and his wife Deanna, you can’t help but be fond of them. They are a remarkable couple who have raised two great sons. They are beautiful, successful people whose family means everything to them. “I am blessed with a really good support system. My parents are amazing, and my girlfriend Hayley has been through it all with me. When there were things that I felt I couldn’t share with my Mom and Dad, I shared them with her. I have some really good friends, and my brother who has been there to support me. All the people in my life that have been there for me, they are who I leaned on in order to move forward with my life”.
“What made you change your mind about driving a race car again?”, I inquired.
“You can only be away from it for so long when it’s in your blood. You can hate it all you want, but you’re still going to want to be involved in it. Pretty much my entire life has revolved around racing. It’s all I think about all week long, and I make all my personal decisions about my life based on racing. I could only stay away for so long”.
You know the old saying, time heals all wounds? In the months after the accident, time away appeared to have had something of an opposite effect on Chase while he wrestled with the decision to return to the cockpit of a race car. “The longer I sat out, the harder it was on me”, he acknowledges. “I had tried so hard to avoid it, but I needed to get back to the track to find some normalcy again”.
Chase returned to the seat of a race car in a private practice session at his home track a little over 4 months after the accident that changed his life forever. With just a couple months left in the 2013 season, Chase began the process of trying to race again. “At the time I felt I could get back out there (and be competitive), but I knew I wasn’t 100%”, he admits. “But, I felt like I needed to just get back in the car. I couldn’t wait two years to come back. I had to get out there to get better. To get my confidence back”
“So, how did it go? What kind of results did you have the rest of the year?”, was naturally my next question.
“It was a wash. Garbage,” he admitted.
It is quite evident that Chase was not content to just be out there running laps, but being in the car was a stepping stone to getting back to a competitive level. The following season would see him back behind the wheel of the family #24, but then help came in the form of a relatively new car owner to the sport of Sprint Car racing, who had an extensive background in road racing.
“In 2014, Shawn Thomas hired me to run a King of the West race at Petaluma”, Chase recalls. “It was a big opportunity to run a 410 car with that kind of competition at my home track. We clicked pretty much right out of the box, and Shawn let me run his car a couple more times that year.”
After seeing chase win the Petaluma track championship a couple years earlier, Thomas had kept an eye on Chase’s career. “After the accident, I spoke to Chase’s dad, and I followed his comeback closely”, Thomas noted. “It didn't appear to be going real smooth. I thought he needed a change, something different, a different car, a new challenge. So I offered him a ride for a KWS race at Petaluma, figuring he knew the track well. But, the 410 would provide that new challenge. Between Chase, Cyndi and I, the crew, and the Johnson family, we appeared to have something to work with”.
For 2015, Thomas Family Racing hired Johnson full-time to tackle the King of the West series. “Shawn and I agreed that we wanted to go after the KWS Rookie of the Year honors”, Chase recollects. “We had a lot of strong runs that year, showed a lot of speed, and had some good finishes. We were able to accomplish our goal of being Rookie of the Year. With a new team and a new driver, we faced a big learning curve, but we were able to learn a lot and see some success”.
“Shawn and Cyndi Thomas have taken great care of me”, Chase says gratefully. “We get a long really well and they give me all the equipment I need to win races. To see the growth in this race team over the last couple years has been phenomenal, and I am just really honored to be driving for Thomas Family Racing”.
For his part, Shawn Thomas is happy being teamed with Chase. ”I get to race with someone I absolutely adore. Chase is an outstanding young man. It's been a privilege to see him develop into who he is in every facet in life”.
It’s clear that Shawn and Chase’s relationship is so much more than your typical car owner/driver combination. In fact, Thomas thinks enough of Johnson that he not only hired him to drive his race car, but Chase works as his assistant overseeing a priceless car collection in Larkspur, California.
Thomas sees a great future for Johnson, but has tempered his expectations to this point. “He’s still not back to 100% (after his accident), in my opinion”, he says flatly. “But, he has a tremendous up side. Cyndi and I see Chase as a partner in our family's racing endeavors more than just a driver. And we are really looking forward to winning races with him in the future”.
Chase took the next big step, and returned to his winning ways with a victory at Petaluma on May 14, 2016, aboard the family number 24. “It was a huge relief to finally get that first win (after the accident)”, Chase admits. “Just proving to myself that I can still do this and be successful at it. I had been trying for two years to win a race for Marcus and Dale, to dedicate it to their memory. And I think I was just trying too hard. Circumstances just kept it from happening. But, to have a night like that when it all fell together, it was very emotional. I made sure everybody knew it. I was proud to be able to finally stand up there and say this win was for Marcus and Dale”.
The victory was a confidence builder that permeated throughout the season, with strong runs in KWS competition aboard the Thomas 68, including podium finishes at Placerville and Watsonville. In addition, on August 27, Chase became the fastest man to ever circle the tacky 3/8 mile clay oval of Petaluma Speedway by setting a new track record of 11.923 seconds, eclipsing an 8-year old track record. That night, he managed a 4th place finish in the 30-lap feature.
The successful year culminated in the season finale at Petaluma, during the running of the prestigious Adobe Cup 5, which paid $5,000 to win. Chase won the $500 dash to earn the pole position for the feature, and was never seriously challenged on his way to the biggest victory of his career, further cementing his comeback season. “That was a special win. It’s always neat to win in front of the hometown crowd. We have a lot of family there, friends, and sponsors. It’s the biggest race of the Petaluma season, and it was just really incredible to win that race”.
Johnson is excited about the coming year, with over 50 races on the schedule. In addition to running the Johnson Family car in select 360 events, he has a 35-race slate in the Thomas Family Racing number 68 planned. The diverse schedule includes racing in KWS competition and the new Sprint Car Challenge Tour 360 Series with a wing on, as well as competing a lot without the wing in both the USAC/CRA 410 series and the USAC West Coast 360 series.
“In 2016 we had a lot of strong runs, but I really feel like we let a few wins get away. For 2017, our goal is to win races, and to make sure those opportunities don’t slip away like they have in the past. I feel with the way we ended the year, we are carrying some momentum into this season. We have a great package for the Thomas 68 with our Maxim Chassis, WesMar Racing Engines, and our Öhlins shocks. With all the work we’ve put in over the last couple years in that program, we feel that will put us up front and in contention to win races this year”.
Four years removed from that tragic night at Marysville, 21-year old Chase Johnson looks toward the future with a positive outlook. “We have put a lot of work into both of these race teams and I think we are going to see great results from all of our collective efforts,” Chase says confidently. “The future looks very bright to me”.
It is hard not to be impressed by Chase Johnson’s good nature, his determination, and his resolve. His perseverance to get through the darkest time of his life and to overcome that which might destroy a lesser man. His courage to do so is both remarkable and admirable. Once you get to know this young man, you can’t help but be inspired by him. You hope for him to find redemption, both on the track and off, and to be successful at what he was born to do.
Special thanks to Petaluma Track Announcer Ron Lingron for his contributions.