ST. PETERS, Mo. – Sam Johnson Racing will expand to two cars for the upcoming USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget Series season.
Drivers Sam Johnson and Austin Barnhill will begin their tenures on the USAC trail with Winter Dirt Games XII, Feb. 5-6 at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla.
Johnson, of St. Peters, Mo., will compete full-time on the USAC trail for the first time since his rookie campaign in 2018. The 18-year-old driver has made 24 starts, with three top-10 finishes over the past three seasons, the last two of which came on a part-time schedule as the young team was gaining experience and finding his footing.
Johnson has taken those lessons to heart as he’s learned the process and feels confident heading into the new year.
“I’m pretty excited,” Johnson said. “I’m glad we get to stick with one thing instead of jumping through hoops to go wherever. I’m ready to go points racing and see what we can do. I feel like we have a strong enough program to where we can compete every weekend now. It’s taken us a few years to get our maintenance program under control.
“We’ve had a few difficulties that have taken us out of pretty good runs, but I think we’ve pretty much got that handled now.”
Both Johnson and Barnhill will utilize Bullet by Spike Chassis while Johnson will be powered by a Stanton Toyota and Barnhill a Stanton SR-11 in dueling No. 72 cars sponsored by Kokomo Joe’s, zMAX, Purpose Wrecker, 5D Speed Shop and Engler Injection.
Barnhill, from Wilmington, N.C., has committed to competing in the high majority of the USAC National Midget Series events this year as a rookie teammate to Johnson.
A veteran of karting for 15 years, the 20-year-old driver jumped into a micro sprint for the first time last year, competing regularly at North Carolina’s Millbridge Speedway, roughly 15 minutes from his home.
The competition was fierce and the knocks, on occasion, were hard last season for Barnhill.
“I haven’t raced since the beginning of October,” Barnhill noted. “The last race at Millbridge, I was running the cushion and ended up upside down and got my hand caught in the wheel and broke my hand. I’ve been out for the last two or three months, and I go to the doctor a week from today and I should be cleared for Florida for my first race back.”
Among Barnhill’s racing accolades include four national championships and three series championships in karts and the Pro Limited Boss title in Georgia during the 2018 season.
Barnhill also made a pair of midget starts at County Line Raceway in Elm City, N.C.
Not only are Johnson and Barnhill teammates, they’re also close friends. They met while, oddly enough, playing cornhole between races at Margarettsville Speedway in North Carolina a decade ago.
From there, the two raced karts together for the next six years. As a solo artist the last two seasons, Johnson welcomes the opportunity and the benefits of having a teammate.
“These last two years, we’ve tested a bunch, so we should be almost ready to go to the track and be ready to go information-wise on setups,” Johnson noted. “But I think it will be more beneficial to Austin than it will be me as far as driving information. I do think I’ll be helpful to him since I’ve been in the midgets for a few years. I raced with Keith (Kunz) one-on-one, I got to learn with Keith, and I think that’ll help Austin quite a bit with different ways to look at the track.
“It will be beneficial for both of us bouncing information back-and-forth and getting situated to where it helps both of our driving styles.”
Likewise, Barnhill anticipates that having a teammate like Johnson will help somewhat ease the learning curve involved with getting acclimated to the battles in USAC.
“We grew up for the last seven or eight years racing karts together,” Barnhill recalled. “And even though he lives out in Missouri, we ended up at many of the same big races in karts. We always battled. I’d outrun him sometimes and he’d outrun me sometimes. It was a lot of back and forth.
“I remember when he ran his first midget race and watching him on Facebook, and it’s cool to see how he’s progressed in a short time and I definitely think I can too. Like anything else you get in, whether it’s a midget, sprint car or stock car, it’s just seat time and making laps. I think it’ll be huge to have Sam and his dad to bounce ideas off of. Our dads have a pretty good relationship.
“It’ll definitely be a group effort and beneficial to having somebody to lean on, whether it’s driving tips or mechanical stuff.”