Lee Johnston has been the coming man of Road Racing. He’s had to deal with the expectations and pressure of being a factory rider. For TT 2019 he’s back in a role that’s much more suitable-a Road Racing Maverick
Ten years ago Lee Johnston was the coming man of Road Racing. He was a 20 year old British national champion who had started to race on the roads and was showing a lot of promise. Fast forward a few years and he had become a winner. He was on a path that would see Honda make him a factory rider. He was on a path to everything any rider would ever want. Any rider that is except for Johnston.
He’s always had a maverick streak. Fermanagh sits close to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Johnston was born into a town that had been hit by The Troubles. He was born at a time of conflict when life and death was an every day fact of life for his country. Now, 30 years later, he still has to factor life and death into his decisions.
“You have to have the right of frame of mind to go racing,” reflected Johnston at the recent Northwest 200. “I did my first Northwest by accident but I absolutely loved it. I remember going back to the British Championship after and after doing about ten laps I just thought ,‘this is shit.’ I was going absolutely flat out but thinking “fuck me, I’ve no interest in this at all.’ Road Racing was totally different for me. Over the next four of five years I absolutely loved it. There’s no feeling like it. We’re lucky to get doing it. You can’t book a track day at the Northwest. You can’t do a track day at the TT. There’s not many people who get to do this. It’s so special.
“After starting on the roads I really wasn’t interested in racing short circuits again. If there was no buzz I saw no point in racing at British national level again. I had won the Superstock 600 championship and been at the front in Supersport but I was happy to just focus on the roads. I lost all interest in short circuit racing.
“I instantly fell in love with the roads and I instantly fell out of love with short circuits. In 2011 I stopped racing in the British Championship. I’m back racing it again this year and it’s been a lot of fun again now. At the time I was probably a bit lazier; if I didn’t enjoy something I’d not do it. Now though I know that you have to do it. You can’t compete against the best guys on the roads now if you’re not riding every week. You also can’t just race at the short circuits with the goal of getting ready for the roads. These are some of the best riders in the world so if you race you need to give it everything. I want to be there and I want to do well racing in Britain. I’m back doing it and I’m back enjoying it again.”
Johnston is back racing in the British Supersport class and has started the season strongly. The Northwest 200 was his first road race of the season and the experience of racing short circuits clearly helped; he claimed victory in the first Supersport of the NW200 race week. That was his fourth victory on the coast road and has set The General up nicely for the Isle of Man TT.
“You can’t do well when you’re not really bothered about being there in Britain. You need to want it. I’ve proven myself in the results so far so it’s been good. The days of turning up for three weeks of road racing and not riding the rest of the year are long gone. You can’t just turn up and compete…well you can but the risk goes up massively. You’re not fully bike fit for really pushing the limits. Your body isn’t used to it either. Is there any other sport in the world where they don’t compete all year but expect to contend for a few events? Road Racing was a bit behind the times but it’s changed now.”
Being able to race in Britain has obviously helped Johnston but far more important has been another factor; freedom. Riders spend their careers looking for factory contracts but sometimes the dream can become a nightmare. For Johnston the experience of being a factory Honda rider was obviously one he had sought. Now though he’s glad to have the opportunity to set his own schedule. Forming his own team has given him that freedom.
It’s also changed his outlook on racing. Gone is the envious looks towards other riders and teams. Now he knows that everyone around him is committed to his racing and nothing else. Having been able to hand pick every member of his race team, buy the bikes and even book the ferry tickets he feels totally different heading to TT 2019.
“I probably used to look at the factory bikes and think that they’ve got this, that and the other. Now I don’t envy anything. I’ve built this team from the ground up, picked all these guys, all the sponsors and everything. We sorted all of this and now I don’t look into any other tent and think about what they have. I’m completely happy. I think that’s the biggest thing. I’m not striving to have something that I can’t have or whatever. I’m wanting to make what I have the best possible.
“In December of last year we sat down and started to get everything in motion. Between then and end of February we had bought the trucks and the bikes and everything else you need to go racing. Everything we have was bought over the last six months. We’ve got BMW’s for the Superbike and Superstock classes. We’ve a Yamaha for Supersport and all of our bikes were bought by us. There’s nothing on them that says BMW or Yamaha. They just say Ashcourt Racing because we’ve put everything together.”
They might saw Ashcourt Racing but they mean a lot more than that to Johnston. They mean freedom. The freedom to choose who to race with, where to race and when to do it. The roads are still the centre of attention but a full-time British Supersport season means that suddenly Johnston is busier than ever. Suddenly he’s also feeling more ready for a TT then he can remember for a long time. Suddenly he’s a real contender once again.
“I’m not going to lie it was hard going back to short circuits for this year. There’s a different way of riding. You’re on maximum attack all the time. You ride differently to on the roads. At the TT we’re giving it everything we have but you do it in a different way. In short circuit racing you’re rubbing and bumping but on the roads you can’t ride like that. I’m enjoying the short circuit races though because it makes you sharper and fitter for the roads. I’ve been able to do a lot of laps at the Northwest 200 and not feel tired. I feel great.”
Around a 37.75 mile being strong physically is important but feeling razor sharp mentally is even more important. For Johnston, a three time podium finisher at the TT, the benefit of having had so much time in the saddle this year will be twofold; he’ll be fitter than ever but he’ll also be able to deal better with the mental fatigue of the TT.
“The TT is a tough event. If the weather is good you can so many laps in practice, before the racing has even started, that you’re hung out mentally and physically. There’s pressure all the time. You need to go in there with a good mentality. You have to be strong and fit before hand.
“When the racing starts it’s something that I can’t even explain. I think that only the riders really understand it. You can’t feel the pressure but you know it’s there. Everybody on the grid is looking at you like it’ll be the last time they’re going to see you. It’s such a weird feeling. I think that if you could take all the people away and it just the riders it would feel fine. It’s not like that though. It’s all the other people. They’re nervous. It’s a horrible, nervous feeling on the grid.
“Once the race starts though…once you get going; it’s mega. We don’t have to worry about anything that’s happening back at the paddock. We don’t have to worry about all the people. They’re the ones that are nervous. It’s strange but you have to blank it out. You have to think, ‘I’ve got a bit of business here.’ Everyone else though is looking at you and you can see they think it’s mental. Racers are just a bit arrogant and selfish. We need to be.”