Mike Johnson is a name some racing fans will recognize, but many may not. Either way, Johnson has been heavily involved at the highest levels of North American sports car racing for well over a decade.
Johnson currently serves as team manager for Stevenson Motorsports, calling strategy for the No. 57 Audi R8 LMS GT3 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. However, winding back the clock to the year 2000, Johnson was one of the first team owners in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series.
His team, Archangel Motorsport, won at Homestead in its very first race with the series. Three years later, Archangel was running a full season in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) as well, and continued to successfully compete in both series for several years.
Johnson joined Stevenson Motorsports in March, 2007 and now 10 years down the road, he couldn’t be happier.
“I really enjoyed owning a team, you’re very engaged in all aspects of it,” said Johnson. “But it’s nice to be able to focus on less than I did in the past, and the best part is that John and Susan (Stevenson) are such great team owners. I couldn’t do as good of a job as they do, because they give us all the tools we need, hire great people and then let those people do their jobs. They stand back and say, you guys know what you’re doing, go and do it.”
After winning the 2015 Grand Sport (GS) class championship in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, Stevenson Motorsports set aside its Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R and picked up a pair of Audi R8 LMS GT3s, with which they stepped up to the WeatherTech Championship for a full season GT Daytona (GTD) campaign in 2016.
For 2017, the team decided to make another change, opting to run a single Audi R8 in GTD with Lawson Aschenbach and Andrew Davis, while also planning a return to GS with the new Camaro GT4.R, which will be driven by Robbin Liddell and Matt Bell.
“Right now with the R8, we seem to have a little more pace than we had last year,” Johnson said. “It’s keeping us running closer to the front.”
However, the year has been off to a somewhat frustrating start for Stevenson. The team ran nearly flawlessly at Daytona, finishing just a few seconds behind the winners, but another strong run at Sebring was hindered by a pair of penalties. At Long Beach, a potential race-winning strategy fell prey to a minor mechanical issue.
“We’ve been there, we’ve made a lot of right decisions, we’ve had a fast car, the drivers and crews are doing great – we just haven’t really put all the pieces together at the same time, at the same place, on the same weekend to put ourselves in a position to win,” Johnson explained. “But we know we have all those pieces, so it’s definitely keeping us motivated for the rest of the season. We just need to get everything working together and we’ll be right there. I think we’re capable of a podium at every single race left, we just have to go do it.”
Continental Tire Challenge
Stevenson Motorsports ordered Chevrolet’s brand new Camaro GT4.R from Chevrolet and received the car during the short break between WeatherTech Championship races at Sebring and Long Beach. The team immediately gave the car a shakedown at both VIRginia International Speedway and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
“Right now it’s running great, and man is it a good-looking car,” said Johnson. “It’s got that really aggressive, mean Camaro look. We’re really excited about getting it out there.”
The team’s first Continental Tire Challenge race with the car is scheduled to be at Circuit of The Americas on May 5.
“We won’t be able to fight for a championship in year one since we missed the first two races, but I have a good feeling,” said Johnson. “If it was an eight-race championship from this point forward, we’d be fighting for it for sure.”
“I do things very different than most strategists,” explained Johnson. “A lot of strategists use a lot of computer data, while I’m a lot more of a ‘seat of my pants, figure it out as I go’ type of guy. I don’t necessarily have a plan of exactly when we’re going to do this, this and this, because you never know where you’re going to be and what position you’re going to be in, so it has to be pretty fluid.”
A flexible method will come in handy for Johnson, as he will be calling strategy for both the GTD Audi R8 and the GS Chevrolet Camaro for the rest of the season. However, as a veteran sports car strategist, he is looking forward to the challenge.
“To be honest, I actually enjoy doing both a lot better,” he said. “It keeps me active, I’m more engaged in the weekend. If you’re just running one series, there’s a lot of downtime, but now I’m on pit road from the start of the day until the end. Each car has its own staff, so I’m managing everything there on pit lane. One car will leave, the other will come back, and so on. It’s great for me because I can thoroughly see and feel how the whole track is going.”
However, calling strategy for the two classes presents a few differences, perhaps most significant being that GTD is the slowest class in the WeatherTech Championship, while GS leads the way in the Continental Tire Challenge. Additionally, the race lengths, rules and race directors all differ, so there’s a lot to keep straight for a strategist.
“Sometimes, when you’re trying to make a decision on taking a yellow and coming into the pits, you have to think about where you’re going to come back out into the field,” Johnson explained. “In GS, if you make a pit stop, you’re going to get a wave-by and get past all of the ST cars and be right up with the rest of the GS field. In GTD, you could end up being way at the back of a long line and the rest could be in front of a bunch of Prototypes and GTLMs and everything.
“At the end of the day, all you’re really doing is watching the fuel numbers and how much fuel you have left, trying to get a feel for what the race director is doing on yellows. Sometimes there will be a lot of yellows, sometimes there won’t. If you go to a place where there’s a lot of gravel traps, typically you’ll have more yellows. At a place where there’s more runoff, like COTA, no so many yellows. So you just have to factor that into what you think and get a feel for it.”
The biggest change of all for Johnson, though? The increase in size of the operation he’s running.
“Back at the start, I had two cars, one tractor trailer and a staff of five,” he said. “Now we’re taking 20-plus people to the track, two to three transporters, it’s all so much bigger.”