Resolute Johnston looks to future after injury and personal loss blights 2016
For Lee Johnston, the unadulterated joy of a trophy-littered season in 2015 must have seemed an eternity ago following a series of jolting setbacks this year.
The cheerful Fermanagh man fulfilled the potential he had displayed in previous seasons as he took the international road racing scene by storm, stringing together a series of breakthrough victories during a defining year in his career.
Johnston, who celebrated his maiden international wins with a double in the Supertwins class at the North West 200 in 2014, took a major step forward last year as he clinched his first ‘big bike’ success for the East Coast Racing team on the Burdens-backed BMW S1000RR in the Superstock race.
The 27-year-old, who only made his Isle of Man TT debut in 2012, then joined Ian Hutchinson and Michael Dunlop on the podium after a terrific ride to third place in the Superstock TT.
A dream season continued with a Man of the Meeting performance at the Ulster Grand Prix, where Johnston struck again on his trusty BMW ’stocker and completed a double on the ECR Triumph in the Supersport races at Dundrod for a memorable hat-trick.
He also added the Joey Dunlop Trophy to his silverware cabinet after chalking up another victory on his BMW Superstock machine at Frohburg in Germany last September as the wins just kept on coming.
No wonder the ‘General’ was a man in demand for 2016, but when several of the leading teams in the paddock came calling, Johnston opted to stay at East Coast Racing with team boss and close friend Phil Reed for another season.
It was a display of loyalty and appreciation of the opportunities afforded to him by Reed and the close-knit team at ECR, which is sadly largely lacking in the commercialised world of modern-day racing.
Yet as fate would have it, East Coast Racing this week announced an indefinite sabbatical from the sport, leaving Johnston free to negotiate a new deal for 2017.
Although excited by the prospect of a different challenge next season, the news was another blow for Johnston in a year that was the polar opposite of his success-soaked 2015.
A crash at the Scarborough Spring Cup meeting in April ruined his chances of seriously staking a claim for more wins at the North West and TT as Johnston struggled with a troublesome groin injury.
Worse was to come at the Ulster Grand Prix last month, when Johnston crashed during practice on the 250cc Honda he was due to ride at the Classic TT, sustaining a broken collarbone.
However, his injury woe paled into insignificance when Lee’s father Everitt sadly passed away at the end of August following a battle with cancer.
The pair were extremely close and Johnston, with typical candidness, has reflected on the period as the ‘worst time of his life’.
“Those couple of weeks were the worst in my life, being injured and missing the Ulster Grand Prix and Classic TT and then losing my dad and finding out I didn’t have a job for next year – it couldn’t get much worse,” he told the News Letter.
“If someone had been moaning to me at that time about having a bad day at the office, they’d have been getting both barrels!
“My dad was always there for me and when I was winning and he was my first port of call more than any team manager, from when I was a little boy to a grown man – it didn’t matter. But lots of fathers have died before mine and I just have to carry on.
“So that’s going to be one of the hardest things from now on, but my mum’s been a great supporter of mine as well and has supported me just as much as my dad did. If I ever needed anything she’s been there for me and it makes you realise how lucky you are,” he added.
“Some people don’t have a mum and dad who can be bothered doing much for them, so I think I’m very lucky. My sister too has also been so supportive of me.”
His father’s cancer battle inspired Lee to set up his own charity fundraising initiative – F13K Cancer – last year, with an initial goal of raising £13,000.
It was a venture that has exceeded all expectations, with around £40,000 collected to date, and Johnston is hopeful of surpassing the £50,000 mark by the end of this year – an incredible effort that is testament to the generosity of the road racing community.
“Hopefully we’ll have £50,000 by the end of the year and I think at the moment we’ve got about £40,000. It’s been an unbelievable response and it’s been incredible the way people have donated money and things,” Lee said.
“The riders have been incredible as well and people don’t understand what they’ve done for me to support the charity: you wouldn’t get that in any other sport.”
Switching his attention to the future, Johnston confirmed that he already has a few offers on the table for 2017.
“It’s nice to be in a position where I’ve had some offers after the year I’ve had. I had such a good year last year and won more international races than anyone else, so at least I wasn’t forgotten – it must be my big stature that means everyone remembers me!” Johnston joked.
“I’m definitely looking for something in British Superstock or Supersport along with the roads – I’m not ashamed to say I’d be out of my depth in Superbikes and Peter Hickman is probably the only rider who can ride a Superbike in BSB and on the roads.
“A good Superstock ride would be nice but we’ll see what happens. I just want to make sure I’m on the best package that I can be on.”