Pinellas teen’s transatlantic schedule starts with St. Pete Grand Prix

ST. PETERSBURG — A year from now, Nikita and Obie Johnson could be in the same place they were on a recent 70-degree winter day: eating outside a downtown restaurant as Nikita gears up to drive in another Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Unless they’re sitting somewhere in Europe so Nikita — a lifelong Pinellas County resident — can try to claw his way up to the most prestigious, cut-throat series in motorsports.

That’s the intersection Nikita will continue speeding toward when this weekend’s Grand Prix begins a frantic, expensive, color-coded schedule that will eventually send him to eight events across six countries in a 10-week span.

At age 15.

“The life we’re living,” said his dad, Obie, “it’s not for everyone.”

Then again, Nikita isn’t like everyone.

In a sport always looking for the next big thing, the Gulfport resident has the potential for stardom. Last year, he became the youngest race winner in Grand Prix history when he finished first in the USF2000 feeder series event at age 14. He was supposed to fly to Europe for testing that night but got sick behind the victory podium. Turns out he won with a 103-degree fever.

Later in the season, Nikita added events in the next category, USF Pro 2000 (the IndyCar Series’ equivalent of Double-A baseball). By August, he was the youngest race winner in that series’ history with a triumph at Texas’ Circuit of the Americas.

Once he turns 16 in May, he’ll move up again by competing in a European series called GB3. And that’s when things get really interesting.

Indianapolis in late May. Belgium in early June, then Road America in Wisconsin a few days later. Hungary’s next, followed by a short break before a July slate of Mid-Ohio, the Netherlands, Toronto and England. It’s a schedule so complicated that Obie has to color-code it in his iPhone (blue for USF Pro 2000, red for everything else).

“Thankfully it’s during the summer,” Nikita said, “so I don’t have to do any schoolwork.”

His schoolwork isn’t traditional. With his schedule, it can’t be. He’s in an online program (On Track School) designed for athletes and tries to work ahead to give himself more time to focus on racing as the season heats up.

It is, unquestionably, a lot. From the outside, it’s easy to ask whether it’s too much for a teenager to handle. Too much time on the road or in the gym or at the track or in the simulator or trying to attract sponsors, not enough time goofing off with friends and simply being a kid.

“You give up a lot,” Nikita said. “You kind of, in a way, give up your childhood.”

But, the way the Johnsons see it, what you get is much more than what you give up.

If Nikita went to Boca Ciega High, maybe he’d learn about Alcatraz or Barcelona or the Liberty Bell through books. Racing took him to all three.

“He’s learning geography by becoming part of the geography class,” his dad said.

Nikita still squeezes in time with his friends, and he makes new ones in the paddock. Instead of spending time and money going fishing as a family, they go to the track. The crew becomes extended family, and nothing tops the joy of winning together.

It’s busy, Nikita admits. Hard. But he has the mentality to handle it and the drive not just to keep going but to want to keep going.

“You go do all the hard work right now,” Nikita said, “so when you make it, you don’t have to keep learning.”

Making it, for the Johnsons, means Formula One or IndyCar, which explains the schedules on both sides of the Atlantic. Races like the Grand Prix will prepare him to move up the IndyCar ladder (INDY NXT is the next step). The ones in Europe are crucial for his development toward F1. By midsummer, the initial path — IndyCar or F1 — should become a little clearer. Either one means he’s one of countless drivers vying for less than 50 combined spots in the world.

But the road he’s on can work. Colton Herta moved to Europe by himself at age 14 to advantage of the extra seat time it offered.

“I think it was the most crucial time of my life for getting to be a professional racecar driver,” Herta said.

Four years after that move, he became the youngest winner in IndyCar history. He has won six times since, including the 2021 Grand Prix.

Nikita is several steps away from that. Though No. 17 VRD Racing machine was the fifth-quickest Friday, whatever happens this weekend is merely the start to 2024.

After Sunday’s race, the Johnson have a flight booked to London’s Heathrow Airport. Another track awaits.