DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Derek Johnston didn’t have the traditional baptism at Daytona International Speedway by driving through one of the tunnels during his first visit to the famed circuit.
When the inaugural winner of the Rolex 24 Driver Challenge presented by Sunoco drove over the track at Gate 7 this past Sunday, the mammoth Speedway managed to make a huge first impression.
“Awesome ... amazing … absolutely amazing,” Johnston said, standing on pit road and staring up at the grandstands. “This is very special. There’s nobody there (in the grandstands), but you can still sense an atmosphere. I can imagine the grandstands filled with people.”
In addition to winning the Radical series championship in his native United Kingdom, Johnston turned in a higher average score (based on finishing position, pole positions and fastest race laps) than 97 other contestants in four British championships. His prize is a funded seat in a Daytona Prototype in the 2010 Rolex 24 At Daytona on Jan. 30-31, in addition to a test session at Daytona.
Make that three tests. In addition to participating in the Dec. 8-9 and Jan. 8-10 sessions at Daytona, Johnston got his initial drive in a Daytona Prototype Tuesday and Wednesday when he tested with the Spirit of Daytona at Virginia International Raceway.
Terry Borcheller – the leading winner of Rolex Series history with 24 class victories – took Johnston around the 3.56-mile circuit in a Speedway pace car.
“To drive around here is unreal,” Johnston said. “This is an awesome place – there’s nothing like it in the U.K., or all Europe. Terry definitely knows his way around this track. He showed me some good points and has been very helpful.”
In addition to winning the inaugural 2003 Daytona Prototype title, Borcheller also won the 2000 GTO championship and the 2002 SRP II crown.
“I was able to show Derek not only the best lines for a Daytona Prototype, but I also tried to show favored lines for the GT cars,” Borcheller said.
Prior to his laps around Daytona, Johnston visited the Spirit of Daytona garage in nearby Holly Hill for a seat fitting in the No. 09 Daytona Porsche Coyote.
“That is a proper car,” Johnston said. “The car doesn’t photograph how it looks. I can’t wait to get in it for the first time at Virginia, and then, obviously, back in again in December for a lap around Daytona. I can’t wait.
“I’m terrified, but I’m really, really looking forward to it.”
A successful businessman, Johnston is the Managing Director of MSW UK Ltd., the largest steel decking constructor in the U.K. Johnston began working for the company when he left school at 16 and now owns it. He has been married for 23 years with two daughters, aged 16 and 12.
Johnston got a late start on his auto racing career. The 47-year-old Nottingham resident began bike racing in 1993, and did only three races before breaking his left leg and right wrist. Eight years later, he returned to bike racing, and was very successful but lost his will to race after a fellow competitor was involved in a fatal accident. It would be several years before he considered four-wheel competition.
“I’ve always liked cars,” Johnston explained. “All along, I thought racing cars would be boring. But I had never driven one on a race track before.”
That changed in 2006, when Johnston bought a Ferrari 360 and took it out for a track day.
“I was driving my Ferrari, and I was getting passed left and right by plastic cars,” he recalled. “They were flying by. I asked what they were, and I bought a Radical starter car the next day.”
Johnston did only four track days in that car before getting the urge to race a faster car.
“Despite their advice, I ordered a Radical SR8 – their fastest car. They didn’t want me to, because I didn’t have a proper racing license. So I took my test in Silverstone in August 2006, passed it and had the SR8 by October.”
Johnston won his first race in the new Radical at Silverstone, and went on to win 10 out of 17 races. He finished second in the Radical UK championship despite the novice cross on his car.
“I won my first race in that car, and no one ever won in that car as a novice before,” Johnston said. “No one ever will again – novices are not allowed to buy that car now.”
He won the title and finished fourth in the European championship in 2008, and won the U.K. title plus the European Masters Championship this season.
Now, he’s looking forward to his next challenge – racing a Daytona Prototype in the 2010 Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Tickets for the Rolex 24 At Daytona are available online at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com or by call 1-800-PITSHOP.