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Johnson gets back on the track

The memorabilia indicating Lance Johnson's successful racing past line the top shelf of a garage storage unit in the family home west of West Fargo.

Kart Racing was Johnson's love from 1997-2001, when he was in his early teens.

But then, as a freshman at West Fargo High School, he started to play football for the Packers. As a sophomore, he was part of a team that rolled to the State AAA Championship, defeating Minot. His junior year, the team went unbeaten, and repeated as Class AAA champs.

"I kind of put things on the shelf to concentrate on football for a while," Johnson, who was all-conference his senior year as a linebacker, said. That team finished second in the EDC and made it to the AAA semis, losing to eventual champ Fargo South.

With football now in the rearview mirror, the 20-year-old Johnson, whose dad, Barry, "always wanted" to be a driver, is back on the track. Fortunately, he's not laying out hits the way he did wearing No. 41 on the gridiron, plugging holes in the Packer defense.

Instead, he's back to using old No. 21, the number he raced with as a Kart racer back in the 1990s.

Today, Johnson has stepped it up a notch, now racing Mod-Fours at local dirt tracks, moving up from his Kart career. He got the bug last year when he helped out his buddy Matt Ohnstad, a Mod-Four racer who used Johnson's expertise in the pits during 2005.

"I kind of just thought to myself that this is what I really want to do in the summer, now," Johnson said. "Just hanging around, being in that atmosphere again made me want to get back behind a wheel."

During his Kart career, Johnson raced in West Fargo when the track on the northwest side of the Red River Valley Fairgrounds was still just dirt. He also raced up at Emerado, a track that was outside of Grand Forks, and now is in the city limits.

He also traveled the same routes that current upper Midwest Kart drivers do, going to Nebraska, Missouri and other spots to race in Nationals.

Today, his travel is a bit more confined. Starting this season, Johnson has been a regular at Buffalo River Speedway in Glyndon, Minn., at Ada, Minn., and at the nearby Red River Valley Speedway in West Fargo.

"They're all good tracks," Barry, who is now Lance's main man in the pits, said. "In Ada, it's a great facility because the track is operated by a guy who is also a driver. He knows what the guys want. West Fargo is nice and open. And there's always good competition at Glyndon." Barry has been working in the pits for decades, ever since he and his cousin were among the first to use aluminum sheets on the sides of the Mod-Four cars, making the units lighter, and quicker, on the track.

Lance has proven to be up to the task. He raced to first place in West Fargo last June for the first time in his brief career, winning a Mod-Four feature. He also picked up a feature win in Glyndon just two weeks later.

He's now racing against Ohnstad, a family he's known for years.

"They have a ton of drivers up there in Harwood," he said, referring to the town north of West Fargo where the Ohnstad's call home. "It's serious business up there. It's fun racing against Matt. We respect each other a lot. If we're near each other, we give the other guy a lot of room."

One of Harwood's other drivers, Mike Greseth, sold Johnson the Mod-Four car Lance drives. Greseth was last year's Wissota Mod-Four champ. He's still racing against Mike's brother, Matt.

"There were so many stickers in here for wins," Johnson said. "They were just all over. I have a few to go, that's for sure."

But two wins, and a narrow miss at Ada, show that he's on the right track. Johnson said he'll race Mod-Fours for a while, until he has the money to move up to Wissota Mods. For now, the Mod-Four league is the right price for the money.

"It just fit after helping Matt, and I had experience with the cars. Plus, they're a little bit more reasonable than some of those big street stocks or Wissota Mods. So I'll be here for a while," he said.