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.