For Steve Johnson, justice was swift

Originally Published: September 7, 2005
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

Matt Smith was the Pro Stock Motorcycle winner at the 51st Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

For about 24 hours.

For those watching the ESPN2 coverage of the NHRA's showcase event, it was nothing short of a shock when the winlight in Smith's lane came on in the PSB final round while all appearances indicated that the front wheel of his opponent, Steve Johnson, crossed the finish line first.

Johnson voiced his protest to NHRA officials following the race. After reviewing the videotape replay at the ESPN production area, race officials told Johnson that Smith was declared the winner. Johnson, one of the most dedicated and committed racers in the sport, was besieged by phone calls and e-mails from friends and fans who had seen the telecast, and the overwhelming majority of them implored him to pursue the issue.

Back in his shop in Birmingham, Ala., Johnson began the process of determining how he might have the decision reversed and spent much of Tuesday morning trying to contact several senior officials at the NHRA in Glendora, Calif., by telephone. Then, late Tuesday afternoon, the announcement was made by Graham Light, NHRA's sr. vice president of racing operations, that further study of the videotape turned out to be more conclusive.

"Although it is always our desire to provide finality to the event for both the competitors and the fans at the event's conclusion, upon further review, it's obvious that the finish line beam did not detect the front tire of Johnson's motorcycle and instead was triggered by another component of the motorcycle," said Light.

"I am now convinced that the finish line camera angle did not distort the image and that Johnson's motorcycle was the first to cross the finish line. Therefore, we are reversing the original decision and declaring Steve Johnson the winner of the event."

For Johnson, it was the second time an NHRA decision had been reversed in his favor. At the 2003 Mac Toold Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., Johnson was disqualified when his engine was found to be outside legal tolerances. An appeal of the decision and further examination of his powerplant exonerated Johnson and his engine builder.

"That was the first time that had ever happened in the bike class and this whole thing at Indy was also a first," said Johnson on Tuesday evening after receiving the good news. "I think it's very cool that the NHRA took the time to investigate what happened and made the right call."

Johnson's victory, although belated, has been an elusive goal during his 18-year Pro Stock Motorcycle racing career. Like so many other racers, Johnson has chased the national event win everyone dreams of achieving.

"It wasn't about the money, it wasn't about the points, and it wasn't about the notoriety," says Johnson. "It was about wanting to win the U.S. Nationals for 18 years and finally seeing all the hard work make it happen. Having something like that taken away from me through no fault of my own wasn't something I was ready to live with."

"It is extremely important to NHRA that the outcome of any race, including our most prestigious event, reward the true winner," concluded Light. "On behalf of everyone at NHRA, we want to congratulate Steve Johnson on his Mac Tools U.S. Nationals win."

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.

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