Like many have done before, South Australian David “DJ”Johnson headed to the UK chasing a dream of success in the British Superbike Championships. For over a decade he has been a regular competitor and frontrunner winning races in the British 1000cc Superstock category, but along the way was enticed by the legend of the Isle Of Man.
Johnson is getting up to speed on his new mounts at the Isle of Man TT this week. Last night he concentrated on the Superstock machine and put in a 124.6mph lap. The previous evening on the Norton Superbike Johnson recorded a 123.2mph lap. But before we get on to TT 2016, let’s reflect on DJ’s recent career.
In 2010, Dave Johnson competed at the IOM TT for the first time, taking out the “Newcomers Trophy.” An absentee in 2011 for personal reasons, he has been back every year since, and has now stamped his own mark of the legendary 37.73 mile ribbon of bitumen.
While Johnson has not won a TT, unlike his fellow countryman, Cameron Donald, as TT week 2016 dawns, DJ can lay claim to be the fastest Aussie to lap the Isle and the ninth fastest in history. Not a bad stat to have.
This year, he has been drafted in to ride the revamped Norton Superbike. Originally, he was to team with Donald but the Victorian severed ties with the Midlands-based team a few months before the road racing season started and as such, DJ is now the sole rider in Norton’s 2016 attempt at the IOM in the Superbike category – the third attempt of this era.
Dave will also be competing in the Superstock TT on the Fleetwood Grab Services/Angel Foods BMW S1000RR.
Mark Bracks caught up with him during his final preparations recently.
Hi mate, before we talk about the TT, lets look back to the recent NW200. Tell me about that.
It was my second time this year. It was hard work as the bikes were brand new and had never been ridden on the track before the North West.
I had two bikes; a full superbike and a super stocker. I only got two sessions on each bike before the races. So it was very unprepared really. They changed to Ohlins from K-Tec so I didn’t have a base set up for the suspension. For the first two rides on the bike I was just getting used to the bikes and sorting out little teething problems so I qualified nowhere on both bikes. In ‘Stock I ended up tenth after I started 21st, so I was happy with that.
In the Superbike race, I got away and had a really good start. I was up there with the lead bunch and right behind McGuinness. That’s when I found I was really bottoming the suspension with a little bit extra pace but I found a good time in the race as I was with McGuinness. Sometimes I was quicker but in the tight twisty areas I was bottoming-out the front really bad. He was getting away from me a little bit and that was the lead group. I was sitting in ninth and I was happy to be there.
But then my tyre delaminated. I was lucky as… I just went through the speed trap at 201.6mph on that lap and I felt a bit of a vibration through the speed trap. It started vibrating “dddrrrrrrrrr” and then all hell broke loose. I thought the engine blew up. Even at 200 mph you are still turning through a right hand kink, then a bit of a straight then you have to turn left before you have to start to brake.
I was turning as it started to delaminate so I had to straighten up, make sure that I go through the kink, I didn’t want to brake as I didn’t know if the engine had blown up as I went past the breaking marker. I just coasted because there is a fair bit of run off. (This is all happening in a nano second at the double ton!)
I had to keep it straight, to keep it off the grass, because I would have been absolutely minced if I didn’t. I grabbed the clutch when I had the first opportunity and nothing changed. It was out of control. It was the scariest thing, like all of a sudden, I woke up as if I was dreaming like “what the f&%k is happening?” It was like a bad dream.
I tank-slapped all the way, until I stopped. It was massive. I didn’t know what it was. Still thought it was the engine. I thought there would be rods hanging out the front.
I was waiting for it to lock up and throw me in the crowd but I keep trying to turn it and managed to save it, but man it was scary.
I got it to a stop and all the marshals were standing up, applauding me. I looked around and there was no rubber left. Completely down to the canvass, except one little bit, about 100mm, that was still rubber from side to side, the rest was right down to canvass. All the rubber came up and went through the seat, smashed the back of the seat unit, ripped through the wiring loom, smashed the data logger, tilt switch and the battery was hanging down, out the back of the seat.
News got back to the paddock and I got back there, the boss said, ‘so, it delaminated a bit?’
“Delaminated a bit? Man I can’t tell you how bad it is, but its worse than I am saying.”
The marshals got the bike back to the pits and everyone was just like “WTF!”
It [the tyre] should’ve blown-up, really. I should’ve done a “Loris Baz,” be thrown off the bike and be “brown bread” completely. I didn’t want to race after that, but anyway, the meeting was abandoned.
I know the speed at 201.6 mph because I went through the speed trap, basically out of control, and it still registered. The lap before, I did 202.8 because I was with McGuinness and I had a good tow
WOW! That is absolutely mental! I am still trying to take that all in. Well, let’s get onto something positive; the Norton?
“Ah the Norton, the big boomer.”
How many times have you ridden it?
I’ve done about five tests. It’s not a bad thing but still going to be a complete unknown at the TT. It has got better. Everything from last year is improved but until I go down Bray Hill I don’t know what it’s going to be like. It feels good though.
I did a couple of tests before the official BSB test. We did the BSB test to see exactly how good the bike is and how it fares in the field. We actually had some electrical problems early in the piece. We went the wrong way the test before. There are so many electrical adjustments; throttle, engine braking and the rest. I was struggling with feel in the throttle and how it was working the engine and the feed back it was giving so we changed that a lot until we found something I was happy with and something that worked well. The way the bike felt early at Oulton Park we lost the front a few times chasing things and we lost a full day with the engine braking and stuff, but by the last season we had found a good setting
I was a second and half off Dunlop on his Superbike, which around a short track was pretty close as at the TT I don’t have to ride as hard there as I did at the test. The TT is about the flow and stability. At a short circuit you’re looking for every little bit, so it wasn’t too bad. We were happy.
Then we went to Mallory Park with the setup we found at the BSB test and I did the same times there as I have on any other bike around Mallory Park. We were just fine tuning the suspension and the engine management.
Now we have more understanding of the engine braking and all of engine management. There are so many parameters.
It felt really good, Steve Plater (Norton test rider, ex-British Supersport Champion and two-times TT winner) got to a point in testing with the bike he has tuned and given me is a great base set up. He did a great job with the suspension. We have basically gone back to what he gave me but have played around with shock length, and a bit of spring rates and stuff.
The bike is awesome to look at. It is an alloy tube frame, all machined or hand made. Nothing is cast. It’s all completely done by hand and they have done a great job
It’s a completely brand new chassis to last year with new electronics and exactly the same engines as Cam had but refreshed. Same but new, and we have the new electronics.
What’s the engine management like, as the Aprilia V4 has been notorious for its vicious power delivery?
Yeah, that’s true, but with the new electronics they have improved it heaps. It’s pretty good really. It’s one of the things I will find out first lap out on Monday morning.
We have also done a full speed test at a runway; Bruntingthorpe Airstrip, just to get top speed. We were in top gear, flat out for 10 seconds. At the Island we will be top gear for around 20 secs at places like Sulby and maybe, the Mountain Mile.
We did 203 mph at the airfield and that was with an end-can [on the pipe] for the noise. so that knocked around 10hp off. I don’t think we will do 206mph but we will do over 200.
No, haha. I don’t think I will be doing 132 on it, I am hoping to do a 130 and some where near the top 10. The best Cam did was a 124.6 so that’s the first goal I have to get! See what we can do on it. I am not superhuman. I am just going to do what I can do.
How much time you got between riding the two different bikes?
I am going to try and do a lap or two a night on the stocker as well. Ihave to do two at some point so I have to work it out with Norton.
I’ll get to a point with the Norton that I’ll say there is nothing else I want to change, I just want to ride fuck out of it
Then I can ride the Beemer as well and make sure I’m comfortable on that. The only thing that is different is that we have a faster engine from last year. Other than that, the suspension and rest of the bike is identical to last year, so that’s good. I did a 129mph, just under a 130 so it’s going to be a good gauge, jumping off the Norton on to the super stocker. If I go quicker on the super stocker then we know we have a problem to fix [on the Norton].
I am going to do as much on it as I can. My main focus is the Norton.
Does it work on bonus and stuff like that?
Yeah, a sign-on and bonus. The bonuses are very good. Top Ten bonuses are mint. They are really looking after me so well. Everyone I talk to are so helpful. It is amazing experience. Living the dream, mate.
Sounds like they have the passion.
They do. John Cusack is the chief mechanic. He is the one that has done all the hard yards to get the bike to wear it is now.
If you take the skin off his body he has a Norton engine in him. He is that much of a Norton man. It is contagious, he is so into it. He has not had a day off since I’ve known him. Lives for the project and whatever he can do to improve the bike.
He was with Cam as his main mechanic but now he is the chief mechanic . He’s been to the Magnetti-Marelli factory in Italy to do a course and he has learnt heaps. He is awesome at it. Sorts it out. Anything I want, he is onto it. Everything has changed for the better and he is done a very good job. He knows more about electronics than a lot of other guys I’ve worked with.
Stuart Garner is the the owner and the man behind it all. I have been staying at his place. Nothing is any trouble for him. What an amazing place Donington Hall is. Google it. Its where the entire Norton setup is based. Right near the track. Staying in Donington Hall living in the apartments in the living quarters of the place. He owns the whole lot. He owned a fireworks factory and he has so much on the go. Bought a hotel down the road from the Norton factory. He may be even eyeing off Donington Park!
What are the nerves like now, compared to the first time you went when you didn’t know what you were getting yourself into, and now you know ?
It’s still pretty much the same. Before I was more excited to learn a new challenge. I still feel like it it is the same, as it is a new challenge with the Norton but you still get nerves. Plenty of them.
Now that I am sort of one the top runners there is alway that expectation thing on me but I am always sort of shrugging that off really. I don’t care, I just want to do the best I can for them. If things feel really good I’ll put in a big effort, but if things feel sketchy I’ll jut ride around and try and improve it but not risk everything, but on the Beemer, that is a different story .
You read my mind. That was my next question…
Ha, yeah, I’m riding a BMW Superstocker again this year. It’s entirely different to the NW200 one and a different team. It’s a lot better bike. My personal sponsor bought me a bike, and the best engine he could. He sourced one of the Alpha racing super stock engines. He checked it out; full works telemetry and data logger. As good as a Superstock bike can get because that’s pretty much the next thing I need to get that little bit extra.
My “Smith’s” bike last year was as stock as you could get. All they did was suspension and put a pipe on and away we went. So basically, that’s what the North West bike was like.
My sponsor wants to be a part of it [the TT] and he went out and bought the best of everything
Des Fleetwood is his name, He runs “Fleetwood Grab Services,” skip bins, waste and rock, and rubble crushers.
“Four Angels” is another long term sponsor. Quite a large biscuit company over here; they supply Sainsbury and all sorts of places. They have sponsored me for years and they ran their own team in 2011.
I always consider Superstock as the class I can do really well in. I’ve done so many years of it and won races in the British championship. It is a class that really suits me and I feel that is the best hope. I have put a lot into it this year behind the scenes away from Norton. Obviously, Norton are the main focus but that is the class I feel will keep my name up there for. I am really goingg to try and get a podium, or better.
So, you feel like you have a win in you?
Definitely I think I am riding as good as I have ever ridden. It’s there. Last year the win was in me – I got fifth – and it was only a couple of seconds off the podium. My times from last year, when I got fifth, would’ve won the race, the year before, by 10 seconds.
I came out of that race and there was nothing more that I could do. That was all I had. That’s why this year, we’re working to make sure the bike is as good as money can buy as a stocker – which it is.
It is a proper Angel BMW hand-built engine, just for Superstock that was the angle I worked with my sponsors and he agreed to it all. He is right up for doing exactly what we need to do. It has about 10hp more than a stock “Beemer” and it’s a fair bit really. It could be just that little bit you need.
At the North West, [Michael] Rutter was so fast on his stocker and he had exactly the same bike. I couldn’t stay in his slip stream . If you can’t do that you’re screwed. That is why I didn’t want to ride the standard one again. It’s going to be a really good chance for me, that’s for sure.
When you get there, do you spend all day Sunday driving around?
Actually, I am testing the Norton at Jurby at the local short track. I’ve got two bikes and they have just built them so we are doing a shake down test making sure everything is sweet and scrub some front tyres in so I can go hell-for-leather from the off.
It’s not as if you do a sighting lap is it? So how will you prepare for it?
No! hahaha. Wake up in the morning and you hit Bray Hill flat out. That’s the thing about the TT is that you are expected to be 100% on it straight away. There is no limbering up, and getting into it, you’re away. That’s one of thehardest things I have found at the TT. I am used to having a sighting lap, warm up lap, stretch on the grid. Psych up and then go. There is none of that. That is the art at the TT;having that fastest first lap, thats something that not many people can do. Until now my first lap,,. I’ve always gone fastest on the last lap. I’ve tried so many different things. I’ve gone out and gone as fucking hard as I can and came back and seen that, – in the senior race last year – my first lap was a 129mph lap and my last lap felt a lot easier and felt like I was cruising. It was a131.5 which is 25 seconds faster. That’s the art of the TT. That’s one thing I know I have to work on and that is what separates someone from finishing just on the podium, or just outside the podium, to winning.
For people that haven’t been there, I don’t think people realise how critical that first bit down Glenncrutchley Rd and the dive down Bray Hill, to carry the speed, to get the drive up the hill for the momentum to set up the good lap. If you blow it there it is near impossible to pick that time back up again.
Exactly, and Bray Hill is the most scariest part of the whole track. You have to wake up in the morning and go straight down it full noise from the start. It’s frightening. Thats why the ol’ TT is not for everyone. It’s fucken hard.
You’re sitting there on the bike, trying to psych yourself up looking down the hill and thinking, “shit what am I doing here?”
It might sound silly but how do you concentrate fully on what’s up ahead and not what you may have saw, or a mistake you made, on a lap that lasts nearly 20 minutes? As everything happens bloody quick, have you got time to be thinking, “oh shit, I stuffed up that last bit” as it would take away focus from what’s coming?
You have to take each section as it comes and you have to keep the momentum up. Every section, obviously, leads to the next. If you fuck one section up, it fucks the next three sections up. You got to focus pretty far ahead.
Yeah, it’s pretty nuts.
Obviously, some of the things you have to go through; the crashes you see, you have to wipe out of your memory quickly “Didn’t see that.” You have to. Most people’s natural reaction is to stop and help but there is not much point. If you go into a wall at 150 mph there isn’t much point of stopping. You have to really concentrate on your own shit.
Thanks DJ, for the chat. It’s been very enlightening. Hoping you, at least, get on the podium. Go and kick some freckle!
David Johnson is getting up to speed on his new mounts at the Isle of Man TT this week ahead of race week. Last night he concentrated on the Superstock machine and put in a 124.6mph lap. The previous evening on the Norton Superbike Johnson recorded a 123.2mph lap.
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