By: Nathan Fordyce
After watching the Disney movie “Right on Track,” University of Kansas freshman Katelyn Johnson’s life changed.
The movie featured two girls who dragged race cars. After watching “Righto on Track,” at her home in Plano, Texas, nine year old Johnson told her mom she wanted to race cars.
“My mom just said ‘yeah right,’ so I told my dad instead,” Johnson said. “I got a go kart for Christmas and began racing on dirt track ovals.”
In the movie, Erica Enders quits racing because it interferes with her studies. But unlike the movie, Johnson didn’t let her studies become affected by her racing dreams.
Johnson started out on dirt track ovals until she was involved in a wreck and ended up with a herniated disk. After the surgeries to repair the disk, Johnson decided to switch to autocross, which is a timed competition where competitors navigate through a coned course and race against the clock. since there isn’t as many accidents.
While at an autocross event in Texas, Johnson was spotted by Clancy Schmidt. Schmidt is a retired race car driver and works as a volunteer for the University’s School of Engineering.
Schmidt spotted Johnson working on math homework in between races and asked what she was doing.
“‘I have a giant assignment due Monday and if I don’t ace this math test, I may not get a scholarship for engineering,’” Schmidt recalls Johnson telling him.
Being part of the Engineering School and knowing Johnson wanted to major in mechanical engineering, Schmidt jokingly told Johnson to go to the University. He told her that the University has a program where they build and design race cars.
The Jayhawk Motorsports team got Johnson’s attention. And when the University offered her an engineering scholarship, Johnson accepted the offer and passed on other schools such as Auburn, Clemson and Arizona.
Schmidt said he has developed a grandfather-esque relationship with Johnson since he is largely responsible for Johnson coming to the University.
Like most grandfathers, they want to help out and give advice to their family members. The area where Schmidt says he help Johnson is by teaching her about racing.
“I’m not an engineer so I can’t teach her anything about engineering,” Schmidt said. “I’ve been a sports car racer for 30 years and I can teach her about racing. Probably more important, I can teach and show her the connections to learn about engineering and racing from the experts.”
As a freshman, Johnson can only volunteer on the Jayhawk Motorsports design team. But there is no age restrictions on her being able to drive.
Though she hasn’t made it to an event as a full-time driver, Johnson is always prepared to drive. She drives a 1988 Honda CR-X daily that she has race tires in the backseat for when she gets the opportunity to race.
While Schmidt helped path Johnson’s path to KU, her father Sam got her interested in cars.
“I kind of figured it was a long shot,” Sam said. “A lot of kids start and lose interests after a couple of years. She’s had to have enough drive to get there and not just coast.”
Katelyn said her racing relationship with her father was something they always did together including swapping out the engine of her CR-X. They’ve also lowered the car and worked on the suspension.
The daughter-father combination has been a success. As a high school junior, Katelyn won the Sports Car Club of America National title while driving a 1989 Honda Civic.
But her success on the track wouldn’t be enough for her father if she didn’t succeed in the classroom.
“I’m just as excited for what she is studying in school as what her driving,” Sam said.
As for the future, Katelyn would welcome a chance to drive professionally but she’s not going rely on it.
“It’d be awesome, but I’m not holding my breath,” Katelyn said.
“If she has an opportunity, she will. Otherwise, she’s looking at other ways to be in the same business,” Sam said.