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Shotgun Rider

There’s nothing about Mike “Junior” Johnson or this Ohio fairground parking lot that prepares me for the violence to be visited upon my body.

I suppose the cacophony of rumbling, screaming V-8s should have clued me in, but I’ve been at the Goodguys 19th PPG Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, all day. Most of that time has been spent in the autocross paddock, separated from the parking lot course by just 20 feet, a chain-link fence, and some concrete jersey barriers. After a couple of hours, those unmuffled engines have all but faded into the background—they don’t sound as aggressive, unruly, ready to pounce as they might be rumbling down a quiet residential street on a Sunday evening.

But even close to the autocross action, things seem remarkably tame, not unlike a friendly football tailgate. The paddock is all smiles, with some good-natured ribbing and trash talk thrown in for good measure. The only differences are that there’s no alcohol—the only source of intoxication is from the sweet potent aromas of rubber, motor oil, gasoline, sunbaked asphalt. And the tailgaters aren’t just spectators, they’re also the main show—drivers, mechanics, technicians.

As drivers take turns on the autocross course, I think, "Well, 60 miles per hour isn’t that fast, is it?" And Johnson—he’s in his element. He's joking with spectators, hopping from car to car, bouncing with childlike exuberance. He’s completely at ease, as befits a 10-time SCCA national champion and owner of the Evolution Performance Driving School in Glen Allen, VA. There's nothing that suggests my impending autocross ride-along should cause anymore excitement than a grocery run.

His C3 Corvette, backed up near the fence, crouches under a tent. Only a few stickers and logos mar the otherwise feathery silver paint. It’s a silver ghost. A dame. A classic beauty in a paddock where eye-grabbing blues, intimidating matte black, and a whole host of vendor logos coat fenders, hoods, doors, and rear quarter panels. But as understated as it is, the Corvette still exudes a restrained aggression.

It starts with the wide rubber. The footprint of the BFGoodrich Rivals is well-hidden underneath flared fenders and accommodating wheel arches, but there’s only so much you can do to disguise 315s in the front and 355s in the back.

He bought the ’71 Corvette almost four years ago, but it’s taken almost three years to build. “This is a car I grew up with. My stepdad and all his friends had badass Corvettes, Camaros, and Vista Cruiser wagons,” says Johnson. “So to me, when I found this car, it was like, ‘Let’s do this!’ What I didn’t realize is, out of all those cool cars my dad and his buddies built, I ended up building something way badder.”

“This is a car I grew up with. My stepdad and all his friends had badass Corvettes, Camaros, and Vista Cruiser wagons.”

The first thing Johnson did was replace the fenders. “We put in four-inch wider fenders in the rear from Custom Image Corvettes,” he says — a necessary move to fit the wide tires. There’s also a complete front- and rear-end suspension from Van Steel, along with a custom set of shocks from Mission Control Suspension. “They built a set of shocks for me which are much smaller than anything they do. Then we put in an LS3 with a big cam, a really light flywheel and clutch."

“The motor that came with the car was out of a ’78 or a ’79—a smog motor—so it had no power. The first time I took it to an autocross, my wife Kandy was like, ‘Oh, that’s so embarrassing.’ I got out of the car and it didn’t even sound good,” he recalls.

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“If I could do it again, I’d do an LS7. It’d cost me more for the initial motor, but I wouldn’t have to do very many mods. It’s easy to get that same amount of power with less work, and it wouldn’t be as nasty. This car…it’s just nasty when you’re driving around town,” Johnson says.

It’s a different story on the autocross course. As we wait at the start line, Johnson revs the LS3 to keep it from stalling. It’s loud and hot inside the Corvette—the air conditioning doesn’t work—and I can feel the entire chassis trembling through the vintage Kirkey racing seats. Johnson is still all smiles—as far as I can tell through his helmet. He’s buckled into a harness, but sitting shotgun, I’ve only got a lap belt.

Johnson lays down on the skinny pedal before the starting signal has even fully registered in my mind, and right then, I discover the practical differences between our methods of restraint. My head snaps back—there’s no headrest on my seat—and I’ve barely brought my eyes level when Johnson stomps on the brakes, shedding speed to set up his entrance into the first turn. My head and my torso snap forward, right before the hard left-hander sends my helmeted head into the side of the door frame. I’m being jerked around like a rag doll.

No, 60 miles per hour isn’t fast. But the combination punch of zero-to-60-and-back-to-zero—a dozen times through this course—and the lateral acceleration going through each turn is enough to thoroughly recalibrate my sensation of speed.

And when I can peel my eyeballs from the inside of my head long enough to see the next turn, I know in my gut that we’ll never make it. I find my leg involuntarily twitching in the passenger foot well, stabbing for a phantom brake pedal. I hazard a few glances at Johnson. He’s cool as a cucumber, gleefully working the ‘Vette up to—and sometimes just past—its limit.

No, 60 miles per hour isn’t fast. But the combination punch of zero-to-60-and-back-to-zero—a dozen times through this course—and the lateral acceleration going through each turn is enough to thoroughly recalibrate my sensation of speed.

And then we’re through the final turn, the ‘Vette’s rear end hanging out just a little, though I’m feeling much more sideways. Johnson stomps on the brakes one last time and we come to a halt. He revs the engine as we wait for the final time to flash up: 31 seconds and some change. Johnson explains he’s still learning the course, figuring out where he can push and shave time. He’ll get his time down to 00:26.948 before the end of the weekend.

Me? I’m sweating and shaking and it’s all I can do to swing my legs out of the ‘Vette and stand up straight without burning my calves on the side pipes.

I immediately go looking for another ride.

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