One-on-one with Grand Rapids racing legend Johnny Benson Jr.

Benson recaps return trip to Berlin Raceway
Johnny Benson Jr.
Posted at 1:07 PM, May 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-31 15:41:14-04

MARNE, Mich. — He's a man that really needs no introduction anywhere around West Michigan.

Johnny Benson Jr. is the 1995 NASCAR Busch Series champion and 1996 Cup Series Rookie of the Year as well as a racing legend at Berlin Raceway and around West Michigan.

Johnny Benson Jr. returns to Berlin Raceway

On Saturday night, Benson Jr. shook off the rust and ran in the limited late model series at Berlin Raceway.

"It's probably been 10 years since I've raced here and probably five years since I've got into a race car," Benson Jr. chuckled, "I love coming here, the fans are always great and this is my home track and where I call home."

Benson Jr. grew up at Berlin Raceway, watching his father, Johnny Benson Sr. win several track championships before Johnny himself began racing in the 1980s.

Johnny Benson Jr.
Johnny Benson celebrates after winning the Craftsman Truck Series Friday, Nov. 14, 2008 in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

"I grew up here," he added, "my dad was racing for many years and was a six or seven time champion here, so I grew up at this race track. Of course when I started racing, it was pretty tough. It's one of my top five hardest tracks I've ever run at. It took me two years before I won a feature but then I won a lot once I figured it out."

Benson Jr. won 14 races in the NASCAR Truck Series, three in what is now the Xfinity Series and one race in the Cup Series back in 2002.

Johnny Benson Jr.
Driver Johnny Benson gets sprayed by teammates after winning the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series New Hampshire 200 at New Hampshire International Speedway Saturday Sept. 16, 2006 in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Not to mention, a Truck Series championship in 2008 and several other accolades along the way.

"I've been fortunate enough to win a championship at this track and an ASA Championship which was great, plus a championship in the truck series and they're all great. They're all great in their own ways. The only difference is is when I started here at Berlin, it took me four years to win one. The one that surprised me is, which is now the Xfinity Series that we won in our second year, so that that to me is very special but I can't pick one better than the other because they're all special in their own way."

He also adds that Berlin Raceway is the perfect place to get a start in racing because it prepares you for the next level.

"This track is a perfect place just because it's hard, you can spin the wheels down the straightaways here so mentally you have to manipulate the gas pedal and make sure that doesn't happen. It's a momentum track so keeping your corner speeds up is extremely important, and that really adapts to most every racetrack. Maybe not so much for the super speedways or the mile-and-a-halves, but for anything else that you run at. That is why I consider this track one of the hardest ones that I've ever run at, or in the top five anyways and I've run at probably 175 different tracks throughout my career."

Johnny Benson Jr. at Berlin Raceway
Johnny Benson Jr. gets set to run test session laps at Berlin Raceway.

As we've learned over the past several decades, you may be able to take a driver out of racing but you can't take the racing out of the driver.

However, Benson Jr. says he may not be racing again this summer.

"I don't know what's next but probably not racing, it's hard to say, my friends up in Canada run a modified and they actually did build a new car, but with all the pandemic and stuff like that, they're not allowed to even race in Canada right now. Of course, I can't go over there to do anything so I'm not sure if anything's going to happen this year.

The 57-year-old says maybe that's a good thing.

"I'm probably getting to the point where I shouldn't be doing any of it anyway," he laughed, "but it's such a great sport, I'm glad to have been a part of it, you know, since I've been five years old."