How Motorsports’ Winningest Woman Tamed an NHRA 'Knucklehead'

·4 min read
Photo credit: NHRA/National Dragster
Photo credit: NHRA/National Dragster

Steve Johnson mocked the Swarovsky crystals Angelle Sampey incorporated into her riding leathers, then went to a Walmart store, found plastic rhinestones, and dotted his racing suit with those.

She told him he made a fool of himself, said he “wants to be a girl like me,” and called him a crybaby.

It was all part of his campy campaign to stir up some drama, and therefore attention, for the NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle class, which is part of this weekend’s Camping World Drag Racing Series Thunder Valley Nationals at Tennessee’s Bristol Dragway.

Sampey, who used to want to throttle Johnson, is playing along these days with Johnson’s shtick—and she’s throwing out pretend insults of her own. During Saturday’s early qualifying session, she and Johnson traded the top qualifying position. After her run, she taunted, “When I saw Steve Johnson and his little fake bling on his leathers, I knew I had to do it. Gotcha, Steve. Ha-ha.”

Photo credit: NHRA/National Dragster
Photo credit: NHRA/National Dragster

Points leader Johnson finally is a legitimate title contender after racing since 1987 with a scattered six victories before 2020 and none for the first 17 seasons. But pestering three-time champion Sampey and other racers—notably five-time champion Matt Smith, with whom he has a genuine rivalry—is as much a priority as winning races and staying in the top three in the standings (which he did all last year, too).

Johnson’s mission throughout his entire career has been to advertise and promote the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle class. Some years ago, his peers even elected him to head their PRO2 drivers' organization, because of his unwavering support for the category. So he loves touting the class, all while undeniably enjoying stirring the pot with his competitors. And that’s the point: the latter facilitates the former.

Earlier this season, he made some remarks that drew a rebuke from bike racer Angie Smith for being sexist. But Oakley founder Jim Jannard inspired his antics, Johnson said. Jannard told Johnson years ago, “Your sport’s too vanilla.”

Johnson freely admitted he’s trying to change the flavor.

Sampey, who earlier in her career would have seethed at his outrageousness, has come to understand and even appreciate Johnson. That’s a seismic shift in attitude.

“For me, it’s not annoying at all. Steve and I go way back when it comes to rivalries,” the most successful woman in all of motorsports (with three series crowns and 45 victories) said. “When I first started racing, we truly hated each other. We had arguments and almost fights off the track. I wanted to put my hands on him a couple of times. It was a genuine hate. So, compared to that, 20 years ago, it’s easy for me to deal with him.

“I think he’s funny,” Sampey said. “We actually have a friendship now. We have mutual respect. We have been in this sport together for 25 years. He’s been in it a lot longer than I have. So we really learned a lot about each other. We even talked about how we wish we had worked together earlier in my career. He’s such a wonderful marketing person. I think could have helped me grow my brand. We had too much hate to work with each other, and we missed that ship.

Photo credit: NHRA/National Dragster
Photo credit: NHRA/National Dragster

“What he’s doing for the class now, with the silliness and the rivalry, I think it’s great,” she said. “I think we need it. He does touch some nerves with some other people. There is genuine rivalry there, and I think that’s good. As long as there is respect shown and it doesn’t get out of hand, I think what he’s doing is fine and its good.”

Just for the record, she said plastic rhinestones are “so not what I have. I have genuinely very expensive Sawrovsky crystals on mine. We just keep it going. It’s fun. I’m enjoying it,” Sampey said, “and I hope it’s bringing some more fan support to our class.”

Matt Smith isn’t as amused as Sampey.

Maybe that’s because Johnson has made comments like this one: “Matt has five championships. I’ve been racing a long time. If I count the one coming up and the next one, that will be twice that I’ve won championships—which is none. So he’s got five. He’s done a hell of a job, but there is a rivalry because he’s kind of . . . no, he’s not kind of – he’s a knucklehead.”

Smith, known to peg a rival’s annoyance meter from time to time himself, said of Johnson, “He does stuff to catch attention, and that’s kind of the only way he gets attention. And until this last year, he hasn’t run good enough to get attention for himself, so that’s how he’s done it. Now, if he’ll just keep his mouth shut and let the bike do the performance on track, he’s getting attention because he’s running good, and I’m proud of him that he’s running good.”

Sampey was able to get rid of her staunch enemy by turning him into a friend. Whether that works for Smith is the stuff of theatrics, Pro Stock Motorcycle style