NICKNAMED GENERAL LEE, after his love for the 1969 Dodge Charger driven in the television series The Dukes of Hazzard, left Maguiresbridge when he was 18 years old to follow his passion for racing. The four-time Northwest 200 winner is now based in Huddersfield and when we caught up with him he had just finished a morning’s work driving a digger!
“It makes me laugh, people who don’t know me just think that I ride a motorbike. This morning I was driving a digger, I was digging some footings. My sponsor (Phil Reed) owns all sorts of businesses, he has basically given me my only ever qualification. I’m actually qualified as a groundworker. So I’m able to drive diggers and plant (machinery). I had no qualifications when I left school, so since being with him has put me through all these tickets.”
The 31 year-old’s talents don’t end there either. He’s a general handyman too.
“I’ve been in people’s houses doing some tiling because they’re a friend of a friend or whatever and they have no idea I’m a motorbike racer, they just think I’m a tiler” he laughs, “it’s better that way, you’re not getting 50 million questions.”
Best known for his exploits on the track, Johnston has gained huge recognition since bursting onto the British Supersport scene at 18 years old. Now ranked among one of the top racers in the world, the Maguiresbridge man can ply his trade at short circuit and road racing which is fortunate given the decimation of the international road racing calendar due to Covid. The financial impact is massive, claiming over 50 per cent of his wages, he says, so he is “lucky” to have track racing to turn to.
“I still get paid my basic wage but road racing works different to normal racing where we get start money and stuff. The top ten riders in the world get paid to go to the TT and the Northwest and all that salary gets lost. And then, there would be certain companies who just want advertising at the events, that gets lost as well.”
This year, the focus for Johnston will be solely on the short circuit. He put together his own team in 2019 under the banner Ashcourt Racing and enjoyed great success.
“Last year was the first time we put everything properly into it and we were bang at the front and on the podium, it actually made me think I’m in with a shout of another British Championship if I properly concentrate.
“I’d like to try to win another British Championship because I haven’t got the TT to worry about but whether it happens or not is a completely other thing but that’s the aim.”
Off the track, he has a little boy, Jesse (2) and a fiancée Christie who hails from the Huddersfield area. Being a dad has certainly given him a different outlook and he is adamant he doesn’t want his little boy to follow in his footsteps.
“No! I know the heartache I’ve put my parents through, being in hospital all the time. They’ve had a hard life with me, right through from I was 14 or 15, so it’s not really what you want to be doing to your parents – it’s only now (you realise). I remember saying sorry to my mum not that long ago really. I said ‘you know what mum, I’ve put you through absolute hell and back.’
In 2017 he lost his father and mentor Everitt to cancer.
“I used to fly home every two weeks and drive him up for his chemo because we used to have to go to Derry. So, I’d come home the night before, spend that day with him and fly back the next day.
“He passed away just a month after the Ulster Grand Prix. I obviously would’ve went home because I would’ve wanted to be there (when he was sick) but because I had a big crash at the Ulster Grand Prix I ended up having to be at home then because I got my collarbone plated. So I spent three weeks at home that I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t got hurt, so it was lucky for once.
“All the racing I do now, I used to go to watch with him. I think it was nice for him too, he was always on the outside of the fence looking in. Obviously when I did it as a job I took him all around the world, China and everywhere because I wanted to pay him back for everything he gave up to get me where I was- we were more like mates than father and son I suppose.”
His mother, Audrey and sister Natalie still live in Maguiresbridge and Johnston toyed with the idea of moving home and even had an offer on a house accepted but it never materialised. He seems happy living on the edge of the Peak District and clocking up the miles on his other two wheels – his bicycle.
“I do alot of cycling and mountain biking. Honest to God, my real love is actually cycling. If I was good enough I would’ve loved to have been a cyclist. I don’t ever watch the motorbike racing on the TV but I watch loads of cycling.
And when Johnston isn’t on the saddle, his partner Christie who is his nutritionist and personal trainer is putting him through his paces. The pair met six years ago and had it not been for lockdown restrictions they would’ve been married by now.
“We were going to get married in Bali because we race in New Zealand in the winter, that’s what we were planning. We’re both pretty chilled out though -whenever it happens it happens.”
For now though, the family have a new black schnauzer on the way to keep their sheepdog company and until the British Championship gets underway at the end of May, Johnston has plenty to keep himself busy.
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