One race was all it took.
That one race was followed by one phone call and 22 years later Larry Johnson has a goal of 150 mph.
Johnson, along with cousin and rider Mike Cleary, compete in the National Straightline Snowmobile Racing circuit. The circuit usually holds four events a season with the purpose of making a snowmobile go as fast as it can on a 1,000-foot ice track. The tandem has enjoyed world-record success in those 22 years.
“Years ago I bought a sled and I was mostly a trail rider,” said Johnson. “There was a race on Mille Lacs Lake so I thought I would go and try it one time. Well, after that one time I was hooked.”
Also competing that day and in the same class and on the same type of sled was Rick House. House beat Johnson by 20 mph. Johnson wanted to know why. That curiosity led to a phone call to House and a friendship blossomed.
“I never went to school for this,” Johnson said. “When I was younger, I would tear apart things to see how they worked. Back then it was easy to tear them apart, but took a lot longer to put them back together. I think this has always been in my blood.
“So after that first race I called Rick and we’ve worked together through all the classes. I happened to moved to the same lake (Sorenson Lake near Merrifield) as him and we would plow the snow off the ice during the winter and test our sleds there. We had a really good time doing that.”
Johnson’s wife, Laurie, was the initial rider of the Johnson-tuned sleds until the speeds got too fast and the need for technical feedback became too much. That’s when Cleary entered the picture and world records have fallen ever since.
The two have broken six world records, including two this season.
Cleary raced the team’s 1998 Mach Z Ski-Doo to a world-record speed of 147.692 in the Pro Stock 1000 class at Forest Lake.
At the same event, on the same sled, the team also captured the Pro Stock 1,500 class world record with a speed of 146.938.
“What they do at these races is you get four runs in your class and we were competing in the 1,000 class, but we wanted to get in a few more runs so we bought passes to compete in the 1,500 class to get more testing done. We ended up setting the record in both. It was a great day for us,” Johnson said.
In years past, after Johnson would break a record, he would bump up to the next class. Not this time. The Johnson/Cleary team has a goal of 150 mph. The 1,000cc is the premier naturally aspirated engine class for the full body snowmobile. If they wanted to bump up they would need to build an entirely new sled. With Johnson being 56 and Cleary 54 they would rather just work on their goal.
“I think it’s pretty close to having that speed in it,” said Johnson. “Every time we run it we learn something. We have computers on the sled keeping track of everything it does. As soon as we’re done we load the information on my laptop and we’re back at it, making adjustments trying to make it go faster.”
Johnson, originally from Willmar, majored in graphic arts management. He works at Stern Industries in Baxter and while there is a little carryover from his occupation to his passion, he does have an interesting outlook into what he does.
“There is a certain attitude I’ve had and it’s this,” he said. “If a man built it, I should be able to figure it out and try and make it go faster. I do a lot of reading on the subject.”
Johnson doesn’t do it alone. Other team members include Mike House and Dale Bjerkness and he’s received support and help from Jay Englemeyer of Minnesota Spray Foam Insulation and Steve Vandeputte of Brothers Motor Sports.
Those partnerships helped the Cleary/Johnson team win the season points standings for the 1,000 and 1,500 classes. Winning a class is nice, but it’s all about world records for Johnson.
“I’m surprised at our success because I never thought I would be making a sled go 147 mph,” said Johnson. “But the harder you work at it, the more you accomplish and the faster you want to go.”
JEREMY MILLSOP, sports writer, may be reached at 855-5856. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.