SAN DIEGO — During the car ride to his first motocross race, Rick Johnson, then 9, sat motionless, wearing his helmet, goggles and gloves.
"I was scared to death," Johnson, 22, recalled. "I couldn't wait to get out and race. When I got on the starting line, I didn't know what to do. I was afraid I didn't know if I would go the right way or what. I didn't know when to go, when the flag dropped or what was going on.
"I was a little bit paranoid."
Johnson finished last.
Since then, Johnson has become one of the sport's best riders. Now, other riders around him feel a bit paranoid when he is racing.
Tonight Johnson, an El Cajon native, will defend his title in the Coors Supercross in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. Johnson won the Supercross series last year and is the defending 250cc Motocross champion.
This season, however, has been a frustrating one. At the Supercross opener in Anaheim two weeks ago, Johnson was knocked unconscious after a fall in a heat race and did not finish. Last week in Houston, Johnson finished fourth.
Jeff Ward of Mission Viejo has won the first two races of the 12-event series. Johnson, in need of series points, must do well tonight.
"I've had bad luck," Johnson said. "I knocked myself out in Anaheim and I had the flu (in Houston), but still I'm healthy now. I don't have any broken bones, everything's working so I've got the chance to come back. That's what I have to look at."
San Diego's event means more than points to Johnson.
"This is the big daddy, for me," he said. "If you win this race, you're the talk of the town for the year. People go, 'Did you go to the Supercross?' 'Yeah, did you see Johnson win?'
"I remember everybody saying, 'Did you go to the Supercross? Yeah, did you see Broc (Glover, of El Cajon) win?' Or 'Did you see (Ron) Lechien (also from El Cajon) win?' And I got second all those times. So I didn't like hearing about that. I wanted to be the one they were talking about."
They've certainly been doing that lately.
Not only is Johnson, of Team Honda, the top 250cc rider, but he is quickly becoming the sport's symbol. Just open any motocross magazine and Johnson is featured throughout.
"I don't like the hype and stuff, I just like being a normal person," he said. "I like it when I go out with my friend, John Alvarez, and he'll just introduce me as Rick. Not as Rick Johnson, the guy who won the Supercross last year and who you saw on Wide World of Sports. Because as soon as someone introduces me as that, people want to know how much money I make, how fast my bike goes, how far have I jumped, have I ever gotten hurt bad. . . .
"It's great when someone introduces you and people acknowledge that they have met you and then they go back to carry on the conversation with someone else."
Johnson's stardom has been gradual.
"I remember when I always wanted my picture in the paper and then I got my picture in the paper," he said. "Then after that, I always thought, 'Man, that would be neat to have a color picture in a magazine.' Then I did that. Then I thought, 'Boy, it would be great to do ads for Fox racing. Then I was doing that. Then I thought it would be neat to get on a cover. And I did that.
"So every time I really wanted something I got it, but it hasn't changed me as a person, I'm the same. I just enjoy what I do."
The sense of enjoyment was overshadowed by Johnson's frightening spill at Anaheim. After he went over the handle bars of his 250cc Honda, Johnson tumbled, then lay motionless. The crash caused only a headache, but worried the crowd. Honda teammate David Bailey sustained paralyzing injuries in mid-January after a similar crash during a practice run.
Johnson is aware of the dangers of motorcycles. But he also has experienced the frustration of not racing.
In 1983, Johnson crashed, dislocating his left hip. At the time, doctors hinted that Johnson might never race again. While confined to bed, Johnson said he realized how important racing was to him.
"Before, I always would say, 'Well, if I didn't have racing it wouldn't be that bad,' " he said. "But when I didn't have racing, boy, I was a shambles. I didn't know what to do. I was just basically nothing then. Everything was taken from me, my racing, all I've lived for was gone.
"It's an intense program. You crash, you get hurt and you get back up and you have to keep going. It is something that makes you old, but it keeps you young also."
El Cajon's Broc Glover reinjured his back during a during a press preview race but still is scheduled to race tonight. . . . Scott Burnworth of El Cajon will not race because he is competing in Europe. . . . Ron Lechien is suffering a bone chip hin his hand, but plans to compete.