Traditionally my aim with this column is to create something entertaining which, if not insightful opinion, then perhaps an attempt to be humorous or mildly philosophical. However, for this go round, I have a far different tone. My best friend of forty years, Scott Johnson, recently passed away after a long, brave battle with melanoma. In the end the cancer got him, but it didn't have an easy go of it. Scott's nature as a fierce competitor was in evidence right up till the end.
I met Scott in the summer of 1972. He was 13, I was 14. Our family moved in next door to the Johnson household in Pacific Palisades, California on a street appropriately named "Friends." Like millions of kids from that era Scott and I had been seduced by Honda's Mini-Trail. When we discovered a shared obsession for motorcycles-specifically motocross-our friendship took root and we were pretty much inseparable. If we weren't riding motorcycles we were catching more air on our Schwinn Sting-Rays than I'm sure the designers ever imagined possible.
When On Any Sunday played in nearby Westwood, Scott and I bummed a ride to the theater to catch the first matinee. Between shows we hid in the bathroom stalls, pulling our feet up on the toilet so the ushers didn't know we were there. We didn't leave the theater until midnight, having watched On Any Sunday five times back to back. Our friendship was sealed by a new determination to be professional motorcycle racers.
Before we had our licenses Scott and I regularly borrowed his brother's Honda CB450 and a friend's 350, taking off for spirited rides on the twisting canyon roads of the Santa Monica Mountains-our youth hidden from the authorities behind full-face helmets. Over the ensuing years we kept the racing dream alive, graduating to more potent motorcycles that accommodated our seriousness and increasing physical size, hitting all the local MX tracks to hone our skills. As time went by it was apparent Scott had tremendous natural ability on a motorcycle. He was one of those guys who won his very first race, then just kept on winning, moving up through the Junior ranks, to the Intermediate class, eventually turning pro. Scott became a Saddleback and Carlsbad specialist, earning the CMC number one plate in 1980 for Southern California-arguably the toughest local motocross series in the nation.
In 1982 Scott was retained by Maico to contest the AMA Supercross and Motocross National Championships. He asked me to be his mechanic. So, still in our early 20s, Scott and I spent the year crisscrossing the country, racking up 18,000 miles in an old Dodge van. We had no money, had to split all-you-can-eat salad bars, slept in the van, and scored showers at YMCAs. It was some of the best times of our lives. Despite being outclassed by the exotic Japanese factory machines, Scott impressed with a number of respectable performances.
In 1983 Scott was on a privateer Yamaha when he asked if I'd wrench for him at the prestigious USGP at Carlsbad. The race was significant for us because we had attended the race annually as teenagers, being awed by the Europeans, dreaming about one day being part of the show. Scott was now part of the show. He turned in two decent finishes despite cracking the frame in both motos.
The USGP was my last race as a mechanic before going into the film business. Scott stayed with racing, going to Belgium in 1984 where he became the first American to win the Belgian National title. After another season in Belgium and a handful of select nationals and supercross races Stateside, Scott hung up his helmet on the professional racing career. Testament to Scott's modesty and humility, many of the people he met later in life were completely unaware of his accomplishments in racing. Scott eased into his second calling as a certified arborist, serving his community as the owner of a major tree company. In the coming years Scott got married. He and his wife settled into family life with the arrival of their son in 2003. He was genuinely happy.
Then in 2009, Scott, a lifetime vegetarian, a stellar example of athleticism and health, became ill. Advanced melanoma. The prognosis was not good. Fierce competitor that he was, Scott attacked the cancer the way he had his racing career. He stunned his doctors, defying the odds, driving the cancer into remission. Just eight months after Scott underwent chemotherapy and major brain surgery I was huffing it up a hill on a mountain bike trying to keep him in sight.
By this time I was an established motorcycle journalist. The experience had opened me up to a whole new world of motorcycling. A longtime devotee to motocross, I had done relatively little street riding prior to 2000. All of that changed with the new job. Jaunts up Hwy. 1 became a regular routine for both work and pleasure, with track days becoming my new adrenaline high. Evidently my enthusiastic regaling had an impact because Scott started talking about wanting to try a track day. I knew, given his ability on a motocross bike, that he would probably make a respectable transition to the pavement. He also started showing an interest in joining me on one of my regular rides up Hwy. 1. When I described the unmitigated joy of flogging a good sport bike up the serpentine stretch of coastline between Hearst Castle and Carmel, with its stellar views of the Pacific, he would light up. We talked about getting two bikes and doing an overnighter at a Big Sur campground.
The talk continued. Unfortunately we never made that extra effort, never took that essential next step and made it happen. Whether it was work, repairs around the house, or conflicts of schedule, we let the doing of things get in the way and the ride was relegated to a back burner, something we would "eventually do." The weeks turned to months, the months to years. Whenever we met for impromptu lunches or to watch races on TV we would talk about the ride. But it never happened.
In September Scott started feeling tired. Tests revealed our worst fears. The cancer was back. Once again Scott astonished everyone with his fight, his determination. This time however, the cancer got the upper hand. Scott passed away October 17.
The passing of a friend, especially a lifelong friend, has a profound surrealism to it. Aside from the inherent sense of loss and sadness, there can be the weight of regret. Those intervening three years haunt me now. How quickly the time seemed to pass, with Scott and me talking about the ride we wanted to do together. Looking back it would have been so simple, so easy to make it happen. Although I am trying not to beat myself up too much, I find myself asking why we didn't go.
You'll have to excuse the sad theme of this column, but there's a point to why I'm dragging you through the emotion and grief. Ultimately, what I'm saying is, if there's something you have been thinking about doing with friends, or family, make a concerted effort to make it happen. Don't let your plans sit idle for too long, don't let the idea get lost in the tangle of the doing of things. If there's a trip you've been talking about doing with your riding buddies, spend the extra time and energy to do it. Pick a date, and go. Don't let those plans suffer the calamity of regret.
Scott Vincent Johnson (1959 - 2012)