C.J. Johnson pilots his sprint car down the backstretch at 81 Speedway in Park CIty during an NCRA 360 heat race March 30.
NICK SCHWIEN • Hays Daily News C.J. Johnson talks with Danny King prior to NCRA 360 sprint car races March 30 at 81 Speedway in Park City.
By NICK SCHWIEN
The lights shone on the dirt-track surface, with dust whirling around.
The action was intense — cars sliding sideways and battling for a better position.
All that excitement, though, was in the pits near the trailers and vehicles of the Johnson and King families.
“I’m not sure who won, but we had a lot of fun,” Danette Amstein, daughter of Danny King, said about those Matchbox-car battles.
There’s been a long-running relationship between the two families. The children of Danny King and Jon Johnson grew up together at area race tracks, playing with each other in the pits while their fathers toiled away on cars.
The Kings grew up in Jetmore, while Utica was the stomping ground for the Johnson clan.
But on weekends, it was the dirt tracks in the state that provided a reunion of sorts for the young children.
Years passed, and the two boys in the group — C.J. Johnson and Steve King — both followed the family lineage and got involved in racing, sprint cars to be exact.
C.J. began racing when he turned 16, and Steve had been racing two years by then. There still was a bond, though.
When you grow up with someone, you don’t just let friendships go away.
“I often said the race car was born first, I second and Steve third,” Amstein said.
One thing is sure, what was born into both families was a love of racing.
• • •
As C.J. and Steve climbed the ranks of sprint car lore, the two remained friends despite battling each other on the tracks.
Steve went on to win back-to-back NCRA 360 sprint car titles in 2002 and 2003 driving for his father, Danny, while C.J. now is a three-time NCRA champ after winning the series the last two years, along with a title in 2000.
Still, both were headliners for the 360 series, and both became well-known throughout sprint car racing in a short period of time.
“The kids love C.J., and he’s got three of the cutest ones in the world,” Amstein said. “That’s the way Steve was. I remember one time, Steve stood out in the pouring rain signing autographs for kids. He’d give them a banged up wing, a side panel, a tire. He’d do anything for kids.”
“He loved the kids,” Danny King said. “We could go to Wichita and back quicker than we could go to Jetmore and get home because he’d stay forever signing things for the kids.”
When Jetmore reopened its track years ago, Steve won the first 360 sprint car race at the venue. He was ecstatic to win on his hometown track.
Wins came for both drivers through the years, and so did trips to the Knoxville Nationals in Knoxville, Iowa, the Super Bowl of sprint car racing that takes place annually.
It was Steve’s dream to make the event’s A-main on the Saturday night that features a large payout and brings national and international recognition with it.
In 2006, Steve was on the cusp of qualifying for that “dream” feature. He was in a qualifying position in a final lap when something broke on the car, sending him head-on into the half-mile track’s wall.
Danny King said his son’s helmet broke after making contact with the roll bar and absorbing the 160 mph impact.
Danny King and his wife, Naomi, were at home tending to a family member and weren’t at the track. Neither was Amstein, sitting at the kitchen table in her home in North Carolina because her husband was out of the country on business. All three were listening on the Internet.
“Right away, (Naomi) said he was hurt,” Danny King said. “I said he was fine. But she knew. She never said anything like that before.”
“I was listening, and the Internet went quiet,” Amstein said. “You know it’s bad when that happens. I’d seen that happen before, but this time it was different because I knew it was Steve. Then they went to commercial.”
The Kings got a call to meet a friend and his plane in nearby Dodge City to fly directly to Iowa. Steve died the next day of injuries he sustained in the wreck.
“You’re living in the moment and the adrenaline flows through you, and you get through it,” Amstein said. “The two things I was grateful for was he died doing what he loved. If he had gone through (turns) three and four, he would have qualified for the A-main — which was a lifetime goal for him. … And the only reason my parents weren’t out there was they were home with my grandma, who had a broken leg. I was very thankful they weren’t there. That’s something no parent should see or have to learn to live through.”
The King family was devastated, and the entire racing community was in shock.
“It was like someone reached in there and grabbed your heart and ripped it out,” Danny King said.
“That was a tough time for everybody, but nothing like it was for the King family,” C.J. said. “But it affected everyone in racing.”
• • •
Despite the heavy hearts, the Kings knew Steve would want the family to continue with its racing tradition.
“But we thought about Steve, too,” Danny King said. “He would have said, ‘You raced before me, and you’ll race now.’ We’re a racing family. We’re all one family.”
The family, spearheaded by Amstein, developed the Steve King Foundation, which helps injured racers and families with money to help get people back on track in life after accidents. To date, the foundation has raised $155,000 nationally and helped drivers with wheelchairs and other items.
“We didn’t know how many people knew him,” Danny King said. “We had more than 40,000 hits on the website right away, and more than $40,000 came in the mail. Amstein suggested setting up a foundation, so we started a 505 (3) that’s 100-percent deductible for anyone donating.”
The foundation and a fund set up for Hodgeman County graduates has helped the family with healing.
“That’s what precisely keeps us going,” Amstein said. “Our family’s faith and my mom’s, especially, is so strong. God took Steve to help others. … He can help them through the foundation more than he ever could have dreamed of doing in his life.”
Ethanol, a primary sponsor of King’s car, continued its sponsorship the next year and beyond. In 2007, Jason Johnson used the e85 trailer and rig to haul their sprint car around the Midwest, keeping Steve’s dream alive.
Since, several drivers have strapped themselves into an e85 ride under King’s name. In his 40 years of being involved in racing, King has had nearly 40 drivers pilot his cars.
“There’s two ways to get out of sprint car racing,” King said. “You either run out of money or you die. It’s like a drug, and I’ve never tried drugs. Once it’s in you, you can’t get rid of it. It gets in your blood.”
C.J. Johnson had driven for King in 2008 at a race in Dallas. He was contacted several times to hop into the driver’s seat, but the timing never seemed right.
As Johnson built a legacy, his fan base grew. His pit area was flooded with fans every night after races as they bought T-shirts and waited patiently for autographs.
This year, King had a driver lined up to pilot his car, but things didn’t work out. Johnson, who had gotten rid of the trailer he hauled his sprint car in, frantically was trying to get a new one built prior to the start of the 2013 season March 30 at 81 Speedway in Park City.
King called C.J. and asked about piloting his car. The timing was right.
“We’ve talked about it for six or seven years, since Steve has been gone,” Johnson said. “This year, it seemed like the right time.”
First, he needed to talk to his wife, Kayla, and longtime car owner Lee Martin. Both agreed it was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up.
“Lee and I have been together since ’06 or ’05,” Johnson said. “He had to agree with it. He’s the first person I talked to about it, other than my wife. They were the only ones I really talked to about it, and there are some pros to it.”
Johnson was on board, and it made it easier Martin was OK with the scenario, too. He’s still an active part in the pits each race for a team that could be labeled the King-Martin-Johnson team.
“Steve and I grew up with C.J. and his older sisters. The fact he is piloting the car is nice,” Amstein said. “It’s almost come full circle.”
• • •
Johnson will be driving an e85 car for only the fourth time this season come Friday night when the NCRA 360 sprint cars take the track at RPM Speedway in Hays. Cold weather and rainouts have kept him from competing more times this season.
“C.J., in his own right, became quite the skilled race car driver,” Amstein said. “To have him is amazing.”
One of the first races Steve would have competed in after the 2006 Knoxville Nationals would have come at RPM Speedway that year. Now, Amstein and the King family will be hoping Johnson is able to pilot the car into victory lane as they watch Friday night.
Then it will be on to Great American Dirt Track at Jetmore Motorplex on Saturday for the annual Steve King Memorial, featuring the 360 sprint cars of the ASCS National Tour. The 305 sprint cars of the URSS also will compete that night, and Johnson just might be pulling double duty at Steve’s hometown track.
“It would be pretty cool (to win it),” Johnson said. “I won the 305 part of it one time a few years ago, but it would be really cool to win the 360 deal. But that’s going to be really tough.”
For this season, Johnson has found a home in the e85 car, something different than the 45x fans have grown accustomed to seeing him pilot.
He’s also given the Kings one of the closest family friends ever to take the car on the track since Steve’s death.
“What I’ve learned is losing someone you love early in life, you can’t fill that gaping hole,” Amstein said. “You learn to live with it. It’s nice because a lot of racers we grew up with and raced with are still around.”
Danny King couldn’t be happier Johnson is sporting the e85 car. It’s just another step in the healing process — although he would give anything to have his son back.
“It’s not as bad as it was,” King said. “I still wake up with tears in my eyes at times. I just can’t believe it.”