Gunner Johnson: “I got started racing when …” PART TWO



It was long after the karts that my grandfather, Jeff Flaugher, ended up trading for a car- a mustang mini stock. Otherwise known as a “Four Banger” at the race tracks. I’ll never, ever forget my first time in it – June 3, 2017. I had no practice time at all in the set. We went to Richmond Raceway and guess what? Yep, they were having the biggest race of the year in that class. There were close to 40 cars there that night, ready to battle it out. 

I was at a loss for words. I couldn’t process it all; I was scared to death. I got all my safety equipment on and got in the car, and went out for “hot laps.” The car was awful! It would not do anything but pop and crack. Not only was I scared, but also aggravated. I finally got back to the pits, where I had just met Dylan Stevens (#7x), a very well known race car driver in this class with strong ties to Carter County. He had a guy with him who helped him with his car a lot- Dr. Don. Dr. Don came over and said you’ve got a valve train problem. I had no idea what that meant. He jumped under the hood and had my papaw Jeff help him. They quickly fixed the issue and gave me a quick class in valve trains!

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The time came for a heat race, and I was in the very last one and in the very back of the pack. So, “Here we go”, said my dad, Bubba Johnson, “Gunner I’m more nervous than you, I promise ya that!” 

He said, “All I want us to do, as a team, is to start and finish. Where at doesn’t matter to me, son. I just want you to do the best you can do and that’s fine with me. If you feel good about something, go for it. If you don’t, I understand and we’ll get there in time.”

I went into the lineup, and we rolled out onto the race track. I believe more cars were out there than when I was out on it before! On the headset I heard, “We’re going green next time around”, so I was chomping at the bit. Then, we roll around, and I see the green flag go and – zoom- everyone left me! I finally figured out I wasn’t going to die, or get killed right off, so I started giving it more and more gas. Then, I started passing a car or two! The next thing I knew I was in 3rd place of this heat race. I was like, “Holy cow!”

After, I rolled back into the pits and my whole crew was smiling like never before! My papaw, mom, and dad were at a loss for words. They never expected that, and neither have I! I started having other drivers and team members come over and introduce themselves to me.

Feature time rolled around and we went out. I was pretty far back and we were fixing to go green when my clutch cable broke! They pushed me off the track, but it was still an amazing night.

I’ve been pretty fortunate to have grown up around Jackie Boggs. He and my father are very close friends, and I’ve been going to his shop and hanging out for as long as I can recall.  I have always went and watched Jackie and my grandfather, Jeff, both race. 

After getting started at my home track, Richmond Raceway, I met and became friends with a whole bunch of other dirt drivers. Allen Hackworth Jr. has really been a huge part of my  success. He took me under his wing and has helped me with far more than just mechanic work. He and I have become like brothers on and off the track. His father, Allen Hackworth Sr., or “Pit Daddy,” has treated me like a son as well. They are just really good guys. 

After my first race season I had learned a lot on and off the track. Jackie Boggs helps me in ways other people may not fully understand. When you’ve grown up around someone like him- he doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t care one bit to hurt your feelings or tell you how it really is. That is a huge plus in this sport, because the competition is huge in every class. 

The winter months are when you get your education on what you did or didn’t do right, and figure out what changes need to be made. I was very fortunate to have met Kenny Hemmann Jr. and Kenny Hemmann Sr. They had been helping my dad for years with drag car stuff. Kenny Senior seemed to take a special interest in me. After being over to his place a few times, my dad invited him to go with us one race weekend. He has become one of my best friends even though he his 50 years older than me! We started out at Richmond Raceway and went to several other tracks as well. We were racing Friday and Saturday nights at Mountain Motors Speedway and Lake Cumberland. We also ran Ponderosa. 

Now, I remind you this was all in my first season; I knew nothing really. One time I thought my car was on fire, and pulled into the pits to find out it was only the header tube getting red. Then, another time I had a spring come loose from my gas pedal, so pulled in before I drew a yellow flag, which kept me from entering the track. 

I quickly learned to draw a yellow flag after a few words from my dad! One of my best memories would have to be a night at 201 Speedway. I won my heat race and started on the pole. I had led 7 laps, and then had a right rear tire come off. I got the yellow flag and rolled into the infield where my dad and cousin were waiting on me with a tire. The official said, “Boys you got three laps to get it changed.” My dad yelled back, “Great we only need two!” 

Once it was fixed, my dad yelled so loud my family and sponsors in the stands heard him from the infield  “GO!GO!GO!” I came back onto the track at the tail and we had eight laps to go. I was driving like crazy going back up the field of cars and with two laps to go I found myself in second place behind #7x, Dylan Stevens. We ran those cars as hard as possible for two laps, but I was under powered and down on skill. I finished in second place.

Richmond ended up closing down earlier that year and was sold out to Bill Lupinos. We continued to race anywhere we could. I had become a regular at LCS and the Pond. We ran 22 races my first season, and I had finished in the top five in eleven of the races. I finished out my first season with Rookie of the Year @ LCS and finished in the top ten in points at Richmond and the Pond!

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