Johnston isn’t fazed by being a woman in two male-dominated worlds: racing and welding. She plans to continue chasing her passions and doing what she loves. “You have to prove yourself — everybody wants to make sure that you know what you’re talking about,” Johnston says. “But I’m not going anywhere. It’s so much of a passion that nothing will deter me. Once you’re in the industry and people take you seriously, it’s a family.”
The path to a career in welding wasn’t a straight line for Jessica Johnston.
As a teenager growing up near Boston, Johnston got hooked on rock crawling, four-wheeling and off-road racing. The first time she saw highlights online from the famed King of the Hammers off-road race, Johnston knew that it was for her.
“When I was 16 and could get my license, the only thing I wanted was a little Jeep,” Johnston says. “I ended up getting this Cherokee and a few friends helped me build it up into this little rock crawler. I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career, but I knew I wanted to get into racing.”
That passion for racing eventually led Johnston to her other love: welding.
Now a TIG-certified professional welder by day, Johnston spends her spare time building cars and racing. Last February she realized her dream — racing at King of the Hammers for the first time with the Axis Fabrication & Motorsports team. This fall, she was one of only two women invited to compete in The Trail Hero rock crawl event in Utah.
“I love the adrenaline of all of it — it doesn’t matter what I’m driving,” Johnston says. “You could put me in a drift car and I’d have just as much fun.”
The road to welding
Her early love of racing didn’t immediately translate into a career path for Johnston. After high school she went to college in Rhode Island and earned a degree in film. Unsure of what she wanted to do after college, Johnston and some friends moved to Virginia — after picking the state out of a hat. It was a stroke of good luck, because Virginia happened to be a hotbed of the East Coast rock-crawling scene.
“I was jumping around jobs, doing secretarial stuff,” Johnston says. “That was when my passion for racing was building.”
Johnston wanted to build the cars she would race, so she began learning to weld — teaching herself and getting pointers from friends here and there.
“I was just picking up welding as I went along,” Johnston says. “I just took off with it and thought, ‘yeah, I’m really good at this, so why not do it as a career?’”
Using the welding skills she had learned in her hobby of car building, Johnston became certified in MIG and flux-cored welding and got her first full-time welding job. After gaining a few years of industry experience, she began working for Fabritek, a fabrication company based in Winchester, Virginia, that works with a variety of materials and industries, including stainless steels for the food industry, various types of aluminum for aerospace, and alloy steels for drilling and mining.
“I love doing it. It pushes all my buttons, believe me, because it’s a challenge for me,” Johnston says. “Every new type of welding that I do is a challenge, and I love it.”
With about four years of welding industry experience under her belt, Johnston specializes in aluminum TIG welding at Fabritek. The company has on-the-job training for various welding processes, materials and certifications, as well as an in-house weld inspector.
“Aluminum TIG is definitely my favorite — we get along just fine,” Johnston says. “I spent all those years wondering what I wanted to do for a career. I just wish I got into welding sooner.”
A passion for racing
While Johnston was discovering her passion for welding, she was also nurturing her love of racing and working on her rock-crawling Jeep build. Through the Virginia racing community, she met Alan Woodson, owner of Axis Fabrication & Motorsports. A veteran fabricator and rock crawler, Woodson was impressed with what Johnston had been able to accomplish on her own, and he suggested they team up.
“King of the Hammers is such an intense race, and it’s expensive, and I knew I couldn’t do it on my own,” Johnston says. “He saw the passion I had for doing this, so he took me under his wing.”
Johnston spends her weekends at the Axis shop working on race cars, including her Jeep build. She also drives for the Axis team in competitions across the country, including ULTRA4 cars and moon buggies.
“Alan builds phenomenal stuff, and he knows how to rock crawl,” Johnston says. “His cars are podium finishers. That’s what I really am trying to harness from him.”
Johnston sees the sport of rock crawling making a comeback in popularity.
“We’re hoping Axis can be right at the front of it, when people see these cars we build,” Johnston says.
In her job at Fabritek and at Axis, Johnston relies on Miller® welders to get the job done. She uses Dynasty® 700, Dynasty® 350 and Syncrowave® 350 LX TIG welders as well as an Invision™ 352 MPa machine at her day job and a Syncrowave® 210 and Millermatic® 212 to work on cars at the Axis shop.
“I never thought I’d be so passionate about machines. You can fine-tune them to do anything,” Johnston says. “I’ve fallen in love with that Syncrowave. It blew me away.”
Johnston isn’t fazed by being a woman in two male-dominated worlds: racing and welding. She plans to continue chasing her passions and doing what she loves.
“You have to prove yourself — everybody wants to make sure that you know what you’re talking about,” Johnston says. “But I’m not going anywhere. It’s so much of a passion that nothing will deter me. Once you’re in the industry and people take you seriously, it’s a family.”