Last week’s Wonder Wagon tale delivered a fine response from the Insider Nation, many of whom remember well those cars and some who were lucky to see the Vega panel wagons run in their relatively short life span. By all accounts from the parties involved, I got the story right, which was important, especially when you're dealing with 40-year-old memories and some raw emotions.
Richard Shirley actually had more of a hands-on experience with the Schumacher cars because he worked for Tom Daniels in Elgin, Ill., who we did most of the chassis repair, updates, and so on for Schumacher in that time frame.
He remembers an interesting trait of those Vega panel wagon bodies in general, saying that the roofline would completely collapse at midtrack and would make visibility zero and steering impossible. “The yellow car was so far ahead of its time but weighed a ton and actually turned out to be a slug, but it’s still my favorite!” he added.
Cliff Morgan wondered what ever became of those ill-fated Vega panel bodies. “I saw what I thought was one of them in gray primer, at Speedworld in Phoenix, say 20 years ago, running with the old CIFCA Funny Car group (7.50 index). Does anyone know if they still exist?” I don’t know the answer to Cliff’s question, but I do know that five existed at one time: the two original bodies for Glenn Way and Kelly Brown and the three that Schumacher received when he took over the deal.
There have been several Vega panel wagon Funny Cars over the years, none of which were successful, and most of which also were ill-fated. Gary Gabelich had a wild, four-wheel-drive Vega panel built (with which Bob Kachler had been involved in the beginning), but he destroyed it on its maiden voyage at Orange County Int’l Raceway in early 1972, severely injuring the world’s fastest man in the process. Gabelich was doing burnouts at OCIR, and the throttle reportedly locked down. According to a witness, the car hit both guardrails, rolled several times, and ended up on its side and on fire. He had one hand nearly severed and a broken leg. The hand was reattached, but the one leg was so fractured that the bone was replaced with a steel rod.
Dave Bowman had the sometimes-memorable California Stud stretched rear-engine Vega, a car that, when it debuted, was featured in Drag Racing USA (Sept. 1972) under the headline, “Can The California Stud Be For Real?”
Bowman, a truck driver by profession from Yorba Linda, Calif. (hmmm, that sounds kinda familiar), had fielded a fuel altered and a Top Fueler before that, and the names of those mean machines might give you an insight into his personality: Mental Cruelty and Death Cheater. Bowman then bought Gas Ronda’s Funny Car but, apparently in search of more excitement, decided to go the rear-engine route. He and Pete Bagnard built the chassis themselves from a Woody Gilmore design (Gilmore, of course, was the builder of the only truly successful rear-engine car, Jim Dunn’s Barracuda). The body was custom-built at J&E Fiberglass.
Bowman actually scored a runner-up at the OCIR PDA event in 1973 with the weird car. After taking a first-round bye run, he got beat in the second round by “Smokey Joe” Lee but got back in on the break rule and somehow upset Bobby Rowe (who had just left the Schumacher camp for the Mr. Ed ride) in the semifinals, 7.20 to 7.30. Danny Ongais had no problem handling the Stud in the final, though, driving the ex-John Mazmanian Vel’s/Parnelli Jones Barracuda to an easy 6.77 to 7.16 triumph. I read that Bowman later suffered severe injuries in a non-racing-related crash in his 18-wheeler and retired from racing. The car (with an updated nose) ended up as a sand drag race machine, fielded by Pat Parkhurst and renamed Quick Delivery.
Wayne Mahaffey had no more luck than Gabelich, piling up Billy Holt’s Alabamian rear-engine Vega panel on one of its first outings, too.
Insider regular “Chicago Jon” Hofmann also built a Vega panel-bodied Funny Car, but it wasn’t rear-engine nor even full-size.
“I always wanted to see one of the panel wagons, never did. Last year, stumbled onto the AMT panel wagon Funny Car model (actually an Astre) and for the first time since my youth, when I built ‘the car I never saw' in plastic form, and hoped to do better than the kits of mine you featured in Insider previously. I bought the wrong decal sheet from Slixx but made do anyway (like how I ad-libbed the 'hood-slot-decals' into making it a ’74 Vega'?)”
Reader Harry Pearce was watching an old VHS tape of the Last Drag Race at Lions “and there was footage of one of the Vega panels making a qualifying run, and it made it through the quarter-mile with no problem. I was wondering if the car qualified for the field at the Last Drag Race?”
The car, driven by Kelly Brown, did indeed qualify for the field, in the No. 15 spot. There’s no time listed in the National Dragster (or DRUSA) coverage, but the bump was 6.82, so it was probably high 6.70-something. Brown didn’t make it out of round one, though, because the car wouldn’t come out of reverse after the burnout, and Billy Meyer got a bye run.
Michael Hedworth wrote in to ask, "I remember for at least one season after the Wonder Bread deal ended with Schumacher that there were the Revell Super Shoe cars, which included Don driving a yellow one.”
Right you are. After running the low-rider Wonder Wagon Vega coupe for a relatively few events (it debuted at Indy 1973 and was done before the start of 1974), the Wonder deal ended, and Schumacher fielded another slick but more conventional slat-nose Vega in 1974, his final year as a driver. The car, shown in this photo, was still a lowrider, minus the flow-through body, but it did retain a huge cowl scoop in front of the blower (this 1974 Winternationals promo photo — Schumacher was the defending event champ — was shot at exactly the wrong angle to show that).
The car is best remembered for its outing at that year’s Gatornationals, when the body came unhinged in qualifying after a large wheelstand and flipped over the chassis, cracking it at the rear wheelwells. Schumacher and company repaired the body overnight and reached the final round Sunday, only to fall to Don Prudhomme. You can find a sequence of photos of that incident, and other bodywork the car received in a tumultuous season, in the “More Cars With Scars” column I wrote back in November 2011.
Michael Anderson, who was able to see Schumacher’s original Wonder Wagon at an IHRA race in Lakeland, Fla., remembered seeing Johnny Gray drive a Wonder Wagon tribute car a few years ago and wanted to know if Wonder Bread was involved in that effort.
That car, which did not enjoy any sponsorship bread, was driven by Gray at the final six events of 2004, beginning with the U.S. Nationals. Gray had joined the Schumacher team just a few weeks earlier, agreeing to run an R&D car for the team to help the championship pursuit of DSR drivers Gary Scelzi and Whit Bazemore.
"To be able to bring out a nostalgia car that thousands of fans ask me about all the time is just great," Schumacher said at the time. "It was a very unique car back in its day. The aerodynamic design and other innovations we made to the car to help advance the sport of NHRA Drag Racing really opened up a lot of eyes and changed the way Funny Cars were run from then on.”
Dan Olson, who was the co-crew chief on Bazemore's Matco Tools Iron Eagle Dodge Stratus and Gary Scelzi's Hemi-powered Oakley Dodge Stratus, was the crew chief. They qualified the Dodge Stratus at all six races but didn’t get a round-win, and although he lost to each once in the first round, he also couldn’t help Scelzi or Bazemore stop John Force from winning his fourth championship in five years.
Thanks for the great questions, guys. By the time you read this, I’ll be in Charlotte for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. This is the fifth year of the Four-Wide national event and the sixth time zMAX Dragway has done this, counting the exhibition Four-Wide in September 2009. When that extravaganza took place, I dug through the archives for some cool photos in a column I wrote back then, showing some pretty cool four-wide racing from back in the day, including jets! You can check that column out here.
I’ll see you next week.
There’s nothing I love better than getting to the bottom of a good mystery, and when it comes to drag racing history, no chapter may be more misunderstood than Wonder Bread’s involvement with the sport back in 1972-73. Most longtime drag racing fans are familiar with Don Schumacher’s ultra-swoopy Wonder Wagon Vega coupe that he debuted at the 1973 U.S. Nationals, and some may even remember that the sponsorship program actually began with a completely different team, with Vega panel wagons at the end of the 1972 season, but the real mystery meat of this story sandwich has never been told, as far as I know. I’ve told the story as I “knew” it several times, and that version was as stale as two-week-old bread, and each time I wondered if I had the true story.
Well, wonder no more.
I’m not one to loaf around, and I relished the chance to slice through half-baked rumors to really sink my teeth into the project and cut away the crust of confusion. I
mustard mustered all of the resources and began methodically tracking down all of the players, which included original dealmakers Bob Kachler and Don Rackemann, original drivers Glenn Way and Kelly Brown, and, of course, Mr. Schumacher. The interesting thing was that all of them also were eager to share their involvement to set the story straight and provide what I hope will be the definitive telling of the story.
What’s really important to remember in this little chapter is that ITT Continental Baking (maker of Wonder Bread) was probably the first Fortune 500-type company from truly outside of drag racing to get deeply involved in the sport. Of course, Mattel/Hot Wheels is considered the groundbreaker in that department, but there was a natural car tie-in component to that deal, where there wasn’t to the Wonder deal.
Where there’s a Way …
Glenn Way, left, with Kelly Brown and the original Wonder Wagon.
Although everyone else seems to get a hunk of the credit, it’s actually Glenn Way, a fuel altered driver from Arcadia, Calif., who was the genesis for the deal. He approached Kachler, a respected dealmaker and owner of a multifaceted business, Racing Graphis, in Long Beach, Calif., to help him get a sponsorship for a new fuel altered team, but with the growing popularity of Funny Cars, they went that direction instead.
Kachler, who shared office space and a creative environment with super artist Kenny Youngblood, future National Dragster staffer John Jodauaga, and talented photographer Jere Alhadeff, had a knack for creative thinking. “I always liked to do something different,” he told me. “If you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, you’re in a crowd. How are they going to spot you?
“At the time, Revell had some model cars they made called Deals Wheels, which were all of these wild car designs, including a Vega, and I got the idea of the Vega panel truck that it would make a great deal for a sponsor that used delivery trucks, like a UPS or Federal Express kind of company, so I mocked one up,” he remembers. “It was actually Glenn who thought of Wonder Bread or Hostess. I tried three or four companies before we got to Wonder Bread, but they were really looking for an unusual program, and this was it.”
(According to Way, they also had solid interest from both Wrigley chewing gum and Burger King, but decided to go with Wonder.)
Kachler found an ally in another out-the-breadbox thinker in ITT’s Jim Anderson, who liked the idea. Kachler flew out to the company’s headquarters in Rye, N.Y., where an agreement in principle was made. He flew home to tell Way the good news.
“I told him they wanted to fly out to see the cars; Glenn went gulp, and said, ‘There are no cars yet; I was going to use the [sponsor] money to buy one.’ I was totally shocked. Fortunately, John Durbin put me together with Don Rackemann, whom he said wanted to get back into racing and could probably help.”
Rackemann had been a hot rodder since a young teen in the mid-1940s and had done everything from running speed shops and dragstrips to publishing; he knew everyone through his business, The Action Co., and knew how to talk the talk.
“Bob and I had been partners before, but when they laid this whole program out for me, I told Bob that I didn’t want to get involved without a name driver,” recalled Rackemann, now 84 and as full of spirit as ever. “Glenn had driven the fuel altered, but I really felt that if we were going to do a dog and pony show, we needed a bigger name, and that was Kelly Brown. We knew Kelly, knew he could drive and that he was a cool customer.”
Rackemann was able to purchase the ex-Stan Shiroma Midnight Skulker Barracuda and associated parts, pieces, and tools, and suddenly the team had a car. Don Kirby put together and painted the first body (which, the first time the Wonder Bread people saw it, was actually the fiberglass "plug" and not a real body). A second car would soon be built by John Buttera, with the original plan being for Brown to run the national events and Way, who had a regular 9-to-5 job in SoCal, would run the match-race scene.
Waiting for the dough to rise
Kachler and Rackemann flew back to New York, ostensibly to sign the contracts, but they were ushered into a meeting with someone other than Anderson.
“We’re sitting in this cubicle, and this guy was very evasive with us,” recalls Rackemann. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, are we signing contracts today?’ He looked at me and said, ‘No, I never said that.’ Now, Kachler is a pretty low-key guy, but he was pissed and ready to go over the desk at this guy. I reached behind him and grabbed hold of his coattails to stop him. We left without the deal, did some sightseeing in New York, and Bob went home. I stayed because I have a friend who has a boutique on Madison Avenue in New York, and I was looking for some new suits.
“Later that night, my phone rings, and it’s Jim Anderson. He tells me they’d like to revisit the opportunity. I told him I could be there about 11 or 11:30 the next day after I had my fitting. I showed up for my fitting at 9:45, but he’s helping this lady, and she’s just buying up the whole store. I’m looking at my watch because I have to get going. Finally, she gets done, and my tailor friend introduces me to her, and it’s Ethel Kennedy. We sat down and talked for a long time about everything for hours and forgot where I was supposed to be.
“I didn’t get out to Rye until 1:30, and the receptionist tells me they’ve been waiting for me in the conference room for hours. I could see Anderson was pissed. When they finally got everyone back together, I apologized for being late. ‘I’m sorry, but I was having breakfast with Ethel Kennedy, and I just couldn’t break away,’ I told them. They about crapped themselves, and we made the deal.
Brown, right, with ITT Board Chairman Harold Geneen.
“So it’s Friday afternoon, and we’re all shaking hands, and they said, ‘We’ll send you a check.’ I said, ‘Wrong. We have another company that wants this program. If I don’t leave here without at least $25,000, we don’t have a deal.' They told me they didn’t think they could find the treasurer, so I told them we had a deal set with Arby’s — we had sent them a package, but we didn’t have a deal yet — and they were ready to sign. They found the treasurer, and I got the check. That was the biggest cash deal in drag racing at that moment because [the Mattel] deal was for a piece of each car they sold.”
Once the first car was completed, it was sent to Rye, where ITT employees, including ITT Board Chairman Harold Geneen, got to see it for the first time. Brown even got Geneen into the car.
“He had probably never seen a Funny Car before,” Brown told reporter Deke Houlgate after the presentation. “He sat in the car, and we explained the controls to him. He asked very legitimate questions about the spoilers and aerodynamics. Not the sort of thing you expect from a businessman. The people standing around suddenly were smiling and obviously relieved. It turned out that he loves cars and owns a Maserati, which he goes ripping around in.”
(Above) The Wonder Wagon made its official debut at the 1972 Supernationals but couldn't crack the field. (Below) The team tried to cure the car's spooky handling characteristics with canard wings at the 1973 Winternationals. This is Jake Johnston in the second car. Neither car made the field.
Brown had quite a few hairy moments in the car, including this fire at OCIR. "I was worried about getting killed in the car," he later said. Brown sent me pages and pages out of his personal scrapbook to help illustrate this column.
The first car made its unofficial debut at Orange County Int’l Raceway in front of a full contingent of Wonder Bread executives.
“We’ve got the president and the vice president coming out, we have helmets and firesuits just like Kelly’s with their names on them, and it’s a really big deal,” recalled Rackemann. “The car had never even been down the track, so I tell Kachler and Kelly to just do an easy burnout, and if they want a parachute shot, just blossom it and drive the car slow. But their publicist tells them, ‘I really want you to smoke the tires and blossom the chute.’ Kelly nails it, the body comes down on the throttle, and he can’t shut it off and hits the guardrail and scrapes the right side of the car all the way down. We’re supposed to do a show at the Ambassador Hotel for all of the local division directors of Continental Bakery and all of the storeowners. Buttera doesn’t have time to fix it, so he told them just to park that side of the car against a wall and put stanchions all around the car so no one could get to that side.”
The car was repainted in time for its official debut at the 1972 Supernationals, with Brown driving. The car went 6.70 at 210 mph on its first pass but can’t crack the 6.51 bump spot. They ran both cars at the 1973 Winternationals (with Jake Johnston in the second car because Way did not have a license) but didn’t qualify and at a few other races, also with little success. As has been told many times by many people, the Vega panel body was not conducive to high speeds.
“We had a lot of handling troubles with them,” admitted Brown, “and we tried a lot of different things. The car would just get loose in the middle of the run. We put wings on it; Buttera even cut the back window out once to relive the pressure in there, but the chutes went into the back window when I pulled them.”
"I told them they had to louver the roof to kill the lift; they wouldn’t do that,” recalled Kachler. “Air going over the top of the car was low pressure; it’s going to lift the back of the car. I had studied aerodynamics, but they didn’t want to believe me, they didn’t want to do that." [The team did later add canard wings to the sides of the car.]
They had hired Ed Pink to do the engines, so they had plenty of power, but they were the only things that were running smoothly, at least in Kachler’s eyes.
“Rackemann was friends with Lou Baney — Jerry Bivens, who was Baney’s son-in-law, was the crew chief — and I felt like they really were beginning to take over the deal. I felt that they were really pushing Glenn out of the picture, and they wouldn’t listen to me about the car. I didn’t like the way it was shaping up. Rackemann agreed to give me $6,000 as a commission for finding the sponsor, and I left.”
Way tried to get his license at Bakersfield, but had problems with the brakes. Brown, meanwhile, soldiered on with the other car and got a little (ahem) toasty after he rode out a big fire at OCIR. On another run, vibration broke the throttle and the steering but got it stopped OK. The car actually reached the final round of the AHRA Northern Nationals at Fremont Raceway in Northern California before a blown engine stopped him.
“I got to thinking it was time for me to look elsewhere,” said Brown. “I loved those guys, but I was worried about getting killed in the car.”
A bad ending, any way you slice it …
"The Rack," Don Rackemann, still preaching his gospel at 79 (five years ago).
Things didn’t get any easier after that. What Rackemann didn’t know at the time is that NHRA worked with the Continental Baking group to bring out a lot of their representatives and dealers to the Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, with a full-on suite and more, and the ITT folks used some of the race car budget to fund it, which Rackemann didn’t discover until he went looking for his second payment.
Coincidentally, Rackemann, who was doing well in other aspects of the business world, had purchased a new Ferrari Dino for himself in December of 1972, and it didn’t take long for people to start drawing lines between the missing money and the new Ferrari.
“Everyone got it in their minds that that was what happened, but it wasn’t,” insists Rackemann. “What people didn’t know was that I’d already put a lot of my own money into the car to have it fixed a couple of times. It was kind of frustrating, and I got tired of it and just said, ‘Screw it,’ and parked the car.”
The timing of this is roughly around the Gatornationals, shortly after the Northern Nationals outing. The car did not make it to its planned outing at the Gatornationals.
About this same time, the folks at ITT apparently caught wind of all of the bad vibes and called Kachler.
“I got a call from Jim Anderson, saying they loved the program but didn’t like the people running it, and he asked me for recommendations,” he recalls. “Don Schumacher didn’t have a big sponsor, and he took over the deal. Don was pretty upset with me at first, but I told him I didn’t fight against him, that they called me. We were able to remain friends throughout the whole deal and still are. Schumacher took over the deal, but he didn’t want to run the panel. He did, but he crashed it, too. The whole thing was a very sorry story. I feel sorry for Glenn because he started the whole thing, and I feel he kind of got pushed out.”
Enter the Don
Way, who today takes part in Cacklefest events with his restored Groundshakers Jr. fuel altered, understandably remains "pretty bitter" about how the whole deal, his baby, was pried from his grasp. "It didn't take long for me to see that the whole deal was getting away from me," he said. "When they'd start to have meetings and I wasn't invited, it became pretty obvious. It all turned to crap right in front of me, and there was nothing I could do. The final straw was when I found out my pay was getting shorted, I decided I didn't want to have anything more to do with it. In hindsight, I just was not experienced enough to know how to do any of this and got steamrolled."
Don Schumacher, left, with ITT's Larry Batly at a bakery display in mid-1973.
After the Vega panel body was shelved, the Wonder Bread colors went first onto Schumacher's Plymouth Barracudas (above) then onto Vega coupes. (Below) That's a pre-Blue Max Raymond Beadle in one of the Vegas.
There was a lot going on for Schumacher in 1973. He had expanded to three cars in 1973, adding a pre-Blue Max Raymond Beadle in the ’72 car along with he and Bobby Rowe (who left the team early that year and was replaced by Ron O’Donnell). Schumacher won already both the NHRA and AHRA Winternationals, the AHRA Northern Nationals, and an AHRA Tulsa Grand Am event in a yellow Stardust Barracuda on the way to the AHRA championship. He remembers exactly when and where he was when he got the call from Anderson.
“I was sitting in a hotel room in Tulsa [Okla.] when I got the call,” he said. “I kinda shrugged my shoulders. I actually thought it was a bit of a lark at first. ‘OK, send me an airplane ticket, and I’ll come out there.’ I, of course, had seen the cars earlier that season and thought the idea was really cool. I knew they weren’t running well, but I thought that was because of the overall operation they had, not necessarily because of the body.
“The whole program was a tool for the actual salesmen who went store to store in the bread trucks and stocked the shelves, so they could attract the store managers to come out to the races, ply them with hats and tickets to help make sure that their bread was put on the shelves at eye level [to the shopper],” said Schumacher. “I thought it was a great idea.
“I flew out to New York and took the train out to Rye and put the deal together for a three-car team: My car would run the NHRA, AHRA, and IHRA national meets and whatever match racing I could fit in; Bobby Rowe’s and Ron O’Donnell’s car was going run the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars circuit; and Raymond’s was a match-race car.”
Schumacher took delivery of three wagon bodies, with the first mounted on the chassis of his successful Stardust machine. Schumacher debuted the car at a match race at Great Lakes Dragway in Union Grove, Wis., but it only took him one run to change his mind about the body.
“I got 400-, 500-, 600 feet into the run, and the car just came loose and went crazy; I almost turned the car over,” he remembers vividly. “I said, ‘That’s it, these things won’t work.’ It was clear that the body just didn’t have the aerodynamic characteristics to go down a racetrack. I sent my guys back to our shop in Park Ridge, Ill., to get the Barracuda body and finished the race with that body.” (In an interview I did with Schumacher a few years ago, he had told me that the panel-wagon-bodied car had, “all the aerodynamic qualities of a desk.”)
“We were all very naïve aerodynamically back in those days,” Schumacher admitted. “Even today, racers tend to think they know what’s going on aerodynamically until you get an aero engineer involved. We were all just kind of guessing about what we thought we should do.”
Schumacher, being a savvy businessman, had the foresight to have it stipulated in the contract that if the panel wagon did not work, he could go back to a conventional body, which he did. Although the idea of a bread-wagon race car was (ahem) shelved for good, a panel-wagon version sometimes made non-racing appearances before match races with Way -- whom Schumacher had graciously hired-- shepherding the car.
The Barracudas were all painted in Wonder Bread colors, as were a couple of standard Vega coupe bodies that followed. The crowning touch — and the best-remembered part — of the Wonder Bread program was the super-trick, aerodynamic Vega that Schumacher debuted at the 1973 U.S. Nationals. It was awarded the Best Engineered Car honors, and although it never lived up to its looks, it nonetheless got people thinking.
Highlights of the swoopy Wonder Wagon were a flow-through grille, hood, fender blisters, and rear window, as well as side windows and Moon-style wheel covers.
Learning to fly
Built by famed fabricator John Buttera at his shop in Cerritos, Calif., the low-slung slot car looked fast even standing still. It was 3 inches lower in the front and 5 inches lower in the rear than any previous Vega Funny Car. Buttera also reclined the driver position an additional three degrees, which, in effect, lowered the top of the roll cage some 9 inches. The driver actually sat so low in the chassis that Schumacher often couldn’t see the staging lights on the Christmas Tree, so a Lexan window was cut into the roof to help his vision.
The body that cloaked the chassis most definitely was unlike any other out there. It was built using an existing Vega body with heavy modifications. Louvers cut into the hood allowed air to pass through the working grille of the flat-nosed body — Buttera used the actual grille from a production-line Vega — and onto the hood, meaning that the air first did not collide with the nose but moved through the car and up onto the hood, supercharger, and windshield, which aided downforce in the process. Any other air trapped under the body exited through a louvered rear window, again to dual benefit: Air trapped under the body was lifting the rear wheels and directing it right onto the rear spoiler. With this direct flow, Schumacher and crew chief Steve Montrelli were actually able to use a smaller rear spoiler.
The body was made even more slippery with fully enclosed side windows — a given today but outrageous back then — and an outrageous hood bubble that covered the supercharger. Front fender blisters — which had come into vogue the previous year to lower the body around the tops of the front tires — were enlarged and vented in the rear to help trapped air escape. Moon-style disc wheel covers also aided the aero package.
“The car definitely wasn’t as successful as I hoped,” admitted Schumacher. “It’s a shame we didn’t have a wind tunnel and a shame we put so much weight in the body by just altering a body and not building a new one. The car was nearly 400 pounds heavier than any other car. The principles were phenomenal, but it was really my fault for asking for a stiff car. I had Buttera build the car with a stiff chassis because of all of the [match-race] dates I used to run; I got tired of rolling the car out of the trailer and finding something broken. We didn’t know how critical it was to have a flexible car. It just didn’t react well.”
Although Schumacher’s efforts certainly brought new luster to the Wonder Bread deal, the Continental Baking group pulled out of their sponsorship before the start of the 1974 season, and Schumacher retired from driving at the end of that season and remained out of the sport until son Tony began racing in the mid-1990s.
Wrapping it up
It’s really a shame that the Wonder Bread deal was so short-lived and, with its rocky start, never was able to make the kind of full impact it could have, which might have led to more similar deals and helped build a better sport in more ways the bread’s famous “eight ways” slogan.
“Without a doubt, I really believed that having Wonder Bread in the sport was going to be the start of having a lot of non-racing sponsorships in the sport,” Schumacher said.
Kachler, too, mourns what could have been, including the great idea they had conceived for a television commercial that begins with an outside shot of an industrial building.
“You hear the sound of the door rolling up, then you hear an engine start, and the car rolls out of the door and drives past, and in the back window were little loaves of bread,” he tells me, his voice still filled with, well, wonder, at the thought. “Kelly would do a burnout, and then we're going to do a planned shoot of the car going 200 mph down the freeway, then coming down an off-ramp and rolling to a stop in front of a supermarket, headers still cackling and popping. Kelly, still in his firesuit, would go to the back of the car and come around the other side with a tray full of bread. He walks by this guy who’s hosing down the sidewalk at the store, and the guy says, “Good morning, Kelly … I see it’s still fresh to you every day,’ and Kelly says, ‘You bet!’
“Unfortunately, it never got made. It would have been one of the great commercials of that era. It could have done so much for the sport because people would have seen how dynamic it is — the noise, the color, the crowd.”
So that’s it, friends and bread lovers. I hope you enjoyed this little slice of drag racing history.
You know me, I’m always thrilled when a story is not only well-received, but also elicits responses that allow a follow-up, and that has certainly been the case after last week’s column on 1970s Funny Car driver Jake Johnston. Not only was he very appreciative of the column, but many of you also let it be known that you had no problem remembering him and hold his career in high esteem.
Wrote Richard Pederson, “Perhaps with the attention brought by the story, he may realize that he was/is rather revered, with his legendary status only fueled by his absence, and maybe show up, say, at the Bakersfield Hot Rod Reunion sometime. There's just enough missing to warrant a short follow-up piece maybe next week!”
Your wish is my command, Richard, but the question is, how much Jake can you take?
Some of the email I got demanded answers and brought not only me, but also Jake, to the realization that there was more to tell, leading to a couple of additional long and fun phone calls to try to expand on some things.
One of the topics that always comes up when I talk to the guys who lived that early 1970s match race circuit is the sheer number of dates they would run and all that went with it, and Johnston surely had his share of tales.
“At the peak of the season, in the summer, we’d run three or four times a week,” he remembered. “It was just me and one crewman, Ronnie Guyman. Ronnie passed away a few years back. It was just the two of us, and we busted our asses. Sometimes we’d travel 500 miles between back-to-back races. Back then, we didn’t have to take the engines apart after every run like they do today; we’d tear them down after every other race, maybe every six runs. I was easy on equipment.
When Jake Johnston was on the match race trail, it was just a two-man show, him and crewmember Ronnie Guyman, who's shown in this photo from New England Dragway submitted by Insider reader Gregory Safchuk.
“Racing was good to me,” he asserted. “I was young and got to travel the country and see almost every state in the union. It was a storybook kind of life. We worked hard and raced hard. Match racing was really our meat and potatoes; we enjoyed the prestige of going to a national event, but for me, they became just another race to win. No matter where or who I raced, I always wanted to win, and I was fortunate to win most of the races I was in. I wasn’t there to roll over and just collect the appearance money.”
Johnston got a percentage of what the car brought in, between 30 and 40 percent as he recalls. Gene Snow paid all of the running expenses on a budget that was just short of six figures despite running close to 100 dates a year. A typical deal for a popular car like his was $900 to $1,200 for three runs, guaranteed no matter his result.
Another subject that always comes up when talking about those days is the variety of tracks that the teams were booked into. One week you could be running at palatial and well-lit Orange County Int’l Raceway and the next at one of those tracks that my old pal Bret Kepner likes to jokingly refer to as a “big four” track: short, dark, narrow, and slippery.
“You never knew what to expect when you got booked into a new track,” Johnston agreed. “I remember running a track in Virginia one time. I checked it all out in the daylight, but we were scheduled to run at night. It was a narrow track, but it looked OK, but when we pulled up to run at night, they were lighting the track with searchlights and people’s cars parked along the track. There was plenty of light going down there, but when I got to the lights, the track dropped off, and suddenly there were no lights. It was like being in a closet. It was pitch black, and I had no idea where the end of the track was, let alone where I was.”
I came across the photo at right of Johnston racing Tommy Ivo’s Top Fueler in 1972 at Maple Grove Raceway, one of only two times that he remembers being paired against a dragster (the other was against Art Malone). According to the caption information on the back of the picture snapped by longtime track photographer Jim Cutler, Ivo broke the two-speed on the run, and Johnston won with a 6.86 at just 199 mph.
“Those kind of races didn’t mean a lot to me,” Johnston said. “When I raced, I wanted to run against equivalent cars."
The Insider’s ol’ pal, Cliff Morgan, wrote, “The year he ran that 6.72 at OCIR in the Blue Max, that made a huge impression on me. I was at that race and had come out early to watch qualifying. Gary Cochran was there in his front-motored Top Fuel car, a 392 Chrysler, and ran 6.72 on a test run. When Johnston ran that 6.72 later that night, I was astonished that he'd run as quick as Cochran's dragster.
“I am also wondering if Jake Johnston was the driver for a race at Lions in December 1971. Bill Leavitt ran the Quickie Too Mustang, with a real 392 Chrysler whale motor. Leavitt ran 6.48, which was the quickest e.t. ever for a flopper, but one of Snow's cars ran 6.49 (with an Elephant motor). I'm wondering if Johnston was the driver at that race. Of course, Leavitt's 6.48 with a 392 motor was wild! That's why I loved Lions -- you could see low e.t. of the world there on occasion.”
Morgan’s memory, as usual, was pretty darned good but not perfect (hey, it was 40-plus years ago). Leavitt did indeed shock the troops with a 6.48 at the event, billed as the Lions Grand Finale, but it was Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s mighty Vega who ran the 6.49.
Johnston was there driving for Snow and, as the photo at right attests, ran against Leavitt in the final. Foster had broken a rear end in the first round and made the 6.49 on a test pass between rounds. Leavitt ran 6.53 in round one to beat “the Tentmaker,” Omar Carrothers, a wild 6.51 in the second round to dispatch Gary Burgin, and an easy 7.99 after Ron O’Donnell and crew couldn’t get Don Cook’s Damn Yankee out of the pits due to a transmission problem. Johnston, meanwhile, had run 6.68 on a first-round bye, a soft 7.76 when Jim Dunn couldn’t return after pitching a rod in round one, and a stout 6.59 to beat Kelly Brown.
Johnston got the drop on Leavitt in the final and had the lead until half-track before he lost traction and watched Leavitt scream to the 6.48 and a new national record. Johnston still posted a respectable 6.97 at just 177 mph.
While perusing Johnston’s photo file, I came across this interesting image, which I also remembered seeing in Drag Racing USA in 1972. The photo, taken by then National Dragster Editor Bill Holland, shows the frantic attempts by crewmembers to remove the parachute from Johnston’s car after it accidentally came out on the starting line in the semifinals at the 1972 Winternationals. Johnston had already beaten Leroy Goldstein and Dunn when the bad thing happened.
According to Holland, the group got the chute detached from its mounting point, and Richard Tharp carried it forward to show it to Johnston. Back then, there were no in-car radios to alert a driver that an opponent was having trouble, so Johnston did the only thing he could: stage the car against Ed McCulloch and pray for a red-light (which never came). Johnston did not run the car -- as it would have probably led to a lengthy conversation with officials – not that he didn’t think he could.
“I could have run the car,” he insists. “Every time I made a run, I assumed the chute wasn’t going to come out, so I was always on the brakes right away, and we had good brakes.”
Another interesting question that led to another of those “I never knew that” moments was a query from reader Don Wright about which other cars Johnston had driven, citing (correctly) that the DragList website lists Johnston as possibly having driven both Don Schumacher’s trick Wonder Wagon Vega coupe and “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s ’76 Monza.
It’s another case of close, but no cigar, as it turns out. Johnston never drove for “Jungle,” but he did drive a Wonder Wagon Funny Car -- just not Schumacher’s memorable, swoopy, low-riding, aero-cheating Vega, but that car’s complete opposite, the boxy, ill-handling, crash-prone Vega panel wagons that launched the sponsorship before Schumacher got involved. As I’d always heard the story, promoters Don Rackemann and Bob Kachler signed a three-year pact with ITT Continental Baking for the Wonder Bread deal, and Kachler came up with the idea to run the Vega panel wagons to simulate bread-delivery vehicles. Glenn Way, the driver of the Groundshakers fuel altered, was tapped to drive one and Kelly Brown the other. Brown struggled with the first car before its planned debut at the 1972 Supernationals, and, until he got his Funny Car license, Way asked Johnston to drive his car at the 1973 Winternationals.
“They couldn’t get the cars to run,” Johnston remembered. “Aerodynamically, it was bad. The car was never going to work. The shape of the back was a real low-pressure area, and at midtrack, it would get up on the tires and start skating and then break the tires loose. We tried putting spoilers on the back and opening up the back window, but nothing worked.”
Although National Dragster does report they were there, I can’t find a record of either driver listed on the final Winternationals qualifying sheet, meaning they may have withdrawn from the event during its unmemorable three-week rain delay. Johnston says he and Rackemann couldn’t agree on the financial part of him driving the car, and he left the team. The whole arrangement eventually collapsed, and Schumacher salvaged the deal with his team but couldn’t make the panel wagon work either and ended up running a pair of Vega coupes driven by him and Raymond Beadle. I'm trying to get the whole story on this weird and misunderstood part of drag racing history, so look for that in the future.
Johnston also reported that he had one-event shots driving for Tom McEwen (1973 March Meet) and in Dunn’s car in 1976 or 1977 when, for some reason, car owner Joe Pisano couldn’t get their car ready, but he never drove for Liberman.
OK, gang, that's it for another fun week. Thanks again, as always, for your contributions and support. See ya next week.
I don’t remember prolific 1970s Funny Car racer Jake Johnston having a nickname, but if I were to give him one today, it would definitely be “What If?”
What if Johnston hadn’t suffered freak mechanical issues in the final rounds at the 1971 and 1972 World Finals?
What if more Funny Car teams had forsaken their precious automatic transmissions and jumped on the Crowerglide and/or direct-drive system that Johnston and team owner Gene Snow ran on their Funny Cars in the late 1960s?
What if Johnston and Snow had been successful with their experiments with a turbocharged Funny Car running methanol instead of nitro? Or with a car that ran on bottled air that was squeezed under pressure into the engine instead of ground into the manifold through the rotors of a supercharger?
What if, indeed?
Well, for starters, had Johnston won those two final rounds, he would have become a true and unforgotten legend in the sport as Funny Car’s first two-time world champion, three years before Don Prudhomme became famous for being the first to accomplish that feat.
And where might Funny Car performance be today with another couple of years of clutch development under its safety belts or if we hadn’t had to wait until 1988 for direct-drive to become the hot ticket?
How much faster could Funny Cars go without a big ol’ blower and injector sticking out of the windshield that disrupted the airflow? Without a blower, it would also remove the concern of drive-belt failure or backfire. How much cheaper would the cars be if they burned alcohol but still ran in the threes? (And what if, for the sake of this discussion, you could forget for a second that we’d be losing the appeal of that look and the heavenly roar of a nitro-burning, supercharged flopper?)
What if, indeed.
I’ve been a Jake Johnston fan for the longest time. He retired from driving before I came to work at NHRA in 1982, and I had always wanted to interview him about his career, but, despite working my Texas Richard Tharp/Raymond Beadle/Dave Settles connections, the best I could come up with was that he lived in California now. He hadn’t been to the races in more than 20 years because, like a lot of former drivers, he makes a lousy spectator, and he was ever fearful of getting the bug again. I finally caught a break when his I saw that his son, Beau, had some interactions with NHRA’s Twitter account. One thing led to another, and then, voila, last week, I was on the phone with Jake.
I’ve always felt a bit bad for him for what happened to him at the 1971 and 1972 World Finals, as I’m sure the rest of you could empathize with. I mean, geez, two bad breaks robbed him of legendary status, right? He goes from potentially being a god of the class to someone most fans today don’t even know?
Well, guess who isn’t feeling bad for Jake Johnston: Yep, Jake Johnston.
“I don’t look at it that way, I really don’t,” he told me. “Of course I was disappointed at the time, but in racing, you have to keep going. I raced a lot and won a lot of races. You win some, and you lose some. They were both just simple, stupid things that happened. If you’re going to compete, that kind of thing is going to happen. I would have loved to have those trophies under my belt, but I don’t dwell it, that’s for sure.”
He’s a better man than me, for sure, but as you’ll see, that was his nature.
Johnston, right, with Gene Snow in 1969.
In the beginning
Johnston got involved in the drag racing scene as a teenager in Fort Worth, Texas. He was enamored with cars and built a ’36 Ford coupe to race. Johnston’s sister was neighbors with Dean Davis, who was a crewmember for Lone Star legend Vance Hunt, and heard about the youngster’s love of cars. One thing led to another, and young Jake soon was invited to join the team at Green Valley Race City (Smithfield, Texas). He graduated from wiping oil pans and tires to hands-on work and earned a reputation as a reliable crewmember always eager to learn more.
By this time, Snow had been running his injected Rambunctious Dart in a variety of classes, with and without nitro, and wanted to build a supercharged car because the Funny Car phenomenon was beginning to take off.
“Gene knew that I’d worked with Vance and that I knew blowers and how to tune the engines,” said Johnston. “I was only 18, but he hired me through a mutual friend and gave me a lot of responsibility for someone that young. Even though Gene wasn’t yet in the oil business, he had a used-car lot that seemed to give him a pretty good income, so we were never wanting for parts.”
Johnston began attending the University of Texas-Arlington, studying engineering, which certainly helped when Snow began to look for new and innovative ways to go faster. While most of their fellow Funny Car racers were still running automatic transmissions, Snow and Johnston began experimenting with the new clutch-based Crowerglide and even direct-drive setups, and the results were impressive: They consistently ran more than 5 mph faster than their competitors in 1969.
“Gene was willing to try a lot of stuff, and while I went through a learning curve with it, I learned a lot,” remembered Johnston. “The automatic transmissions were a real weak link; you had to go through them every week. I don’t think there were even many dragsters running the Crowerglide at the time. When we tried direct-drive, the car would start out slow but would really make up the difference at the top end, and we started winning a lot of races. The lighter we made the car, the better it ran. We had a pretty good advantage before the Lenco [transmissions] came out.”
But Johnston had bigger plans for himself than just tuning.
A driving passion
“I wanted to drive; it was a burning passion I had since I was working for Vance when I was 15,” he said. “I let the word out, and it was Harry Schmidt, who was building the first Blue Max, who gave me my first ride. He knew that I knew how to tune and make a car run fast and was willing to give me the opportunity to drive if I could do that.”
Schmidt began to pair a Don Hardy chassis with a Ramchargers engine (“even though I was a Keith Black kind of guy,” noted Johnston) to create the first Blue Max in late 1969. While the Blue Max was under construction, Johnston continued to work with Snow, who, perhaps seeking to appease his talented young mechanic, gave him more money and his own car, a very narrow Charger built by Dennis Rollain and John Buttera at their Wisconsin shop. “I’m lucky I didn’t get killed in that car,” he laughs today. “It was a very light car; the body was just gel coat because we didn’t want to even add paint. It wasn’t all top-notch equipment, though, and it blew up on me at Irwindale my second race out. The crank broke in half, and the whole clutch and bellhousing came out. I got sideways in the lights and was just about ready to roll over, but fortunately, I had just pulled the chute, and it brought me back straight.”
Johnston and the Blue Max made their debut at the 1970 Winternationals, where they set top speed at 203.61 mph, but not long into their first tour, a highway accident claimed the rig.
“Somebody cut across the grass divider of the interstate and came over into our lane," Johnston remembers. "Harry was driving and had to swerve to miss them, but the race car came completely off the ramp truck and was demolished. We both cried; it was pretty much still a brand-new car, and we were on tour and ready to kick ass. We loaded all the parts and pieces onto the ramp truck and drove it back to Hardy’s, and we worked just about 24/7 and built a new car in just about three weeks. The new chassis, with its narrow roll cage, more closely mimicked the successful Mickey Thompson Mustangs with which Pat Foster was enjoying success and also narrowed the body.”
The car ran solidly that summer but really made its mark that fall at the famed Manufacturers Meet at Orange County Int’l Raceway, where Johnston ran the lowest elapsed time in class history, 6.72, and, in the final, beat Rich Siroonian in “Big John” Mazmanian’s Barracuda on a holeshot, 6.89 to 6.88.
“That really put us on the map,” Johnston remembered.
Seeing this success, Snow — who, ironically, won the world championship that year without Johnston — wooed him back with some big money and a topflight second car.
Reunited and it feels so good
“By this time, Gene had gotten some more sponsors who were willing to pay for that second car to be a good one, and he let me call my shots on my car,” Johnston said. “It worked really well. Those were some of my best years of racing.”
Snow and Johnston fielded a pair of Chargers in 1971 — known as the “ram horn cars” for their distinctive paint scheme — and enjoyed great success on the match race and divisional trails. Johnston and Snow would take off in separate directions to better canvass the country and meet the need for their bookings, with Johnston plying the Midwest and East Coast and Snow challenging all comers out West.
“Very seldom did we cross paths except at the national events,” recalled Johnston. “When we did that first year , I was not allowed to beat him if we did race, but that changed the next year.”
Johnston, near lane, was on his way to victory in the final round of the 1971 World Finals when his car broke its rear end.
Both Snow and Johnston earned enough points during the 1971 season to be invited to the winner-take-all World Finals in Amarillo, Texas. Snow, representing the Western Conference, was the low qualifier with a 6.98, just ahead of Johnston’s 7.00, and Leroy Goldstein was the low qualifier for the Eastern Conference with a 6.90 in the Candies & Hughes entry.
Snow, Johnston, and Goldstein all got first-round byes because only 17 drivers were qualified for the 32-car field. Although Snow broke the rear end in round two against Phil Castronovo in the Custom Body Charger, Johnston easily moved past Al Marshall and Goldstein around Art Ward. Goldstein then took out Jerry Ruth with a 6.93, and Johnston dispatched Kelly Chadwick with a blistering 6.91.
The expected final-round match between Goldstein and Johnston was thwarted in the semifinals when Goldstein, holding a commanding lead on Castronovo, broke the rear end just before the finish line. Johnston earned another bye in the semifinals and made an easy 7.39 but was the heavy favorite in the final based on his earlier 6.91.
But the same fate that befell Snow and Goldstein before him collected Johnston as well. With a significant jump at the Tree, he was on his way to capturing the event win and the world championship before the rear end broke, and he could only coast to a 9.23 and watch Castronovo win in his first final-round appearance with a 7.15.
“I raced him all the time back East, and he’d never beaten me,” said a chagrined Johnston.
Johnston, far lane, was the top performer at the 1972 World Finals but dropped a cylinder in the final against Larry Fullerton.
In 1972, both Snow and Johnston again qualified for the World Finals with their now-Snowman-themed Chargers, but Johnston this year represented the Eastern Conference and Snow the Western. Johnston qualified No. 2 with a 6.79, well behind the surprising 6.61 of Butch Maas in Mart Higginbotham’s Vega, and Snow was well down the list of Western qualifiers.
Snow was upset in round one by Preston Davis in Raymond Godman’s Tennessee Bo Weevil, but Johnston motored easily into his second straight World Finals final with a solid string of e.t.s — 6.79, 6.61, 6.65, and 6.51 — to defeat Kelly Chadwick, “Jungle Jim” Liberman, Leonard Hughes, and an engine-destroying Maas and set himself up again as the prohibitive favorite against Larry Fullerton, whose best e.t. with his and Kevin Doheny’s Trojan Horse Mustang had been a 6.64.
Again, though, the hands of fate decided against Johnston, who dropped a cylinder on the starting line in the final and slipped to a 6.69, well behind the impressive event-best 6.59 registered by Fullerton.
“It just loaded a cylinder on the line, which it would do from time to time.” said Johnston. “We didn’t have dual mags to burn the fuel. Just another bad break.”
Johnston and Snow experimented briefly with a turbocharged Funny Car in 1971. (Steve Reyes photo)
During their time together, Snow and Johnston also experimented with turbocharged power during the 1971 season. Snow had put together a deal with Hilborn to try to develop the setup using one of his cars. Both he and Johnston drove the car.
“We used to come to California in the winter to build our cars, so he tested the car on the West Coast,” recalled Johnston. “Eventually Gene had to go on tour, so he brought me out; I drove it for maybe a month. We were always trying to do something new and unique and maybe get an edge for a season or two, but the turbo car never did pan out. The guys at Hilborn had done a good job to tailor the turbos to where they were pretty responsive, but it never ran like we hoped it would, and it was pretty quiet. I don’t think the fans would have liked that. Still, all that experience with way-out stuff was a good learning opportunity for me.
In 1973, Johnston was hired by John Keeling and Jerry Clayton to drive their beautiful California Charger Mustang and, on occasion, he also drove their sleek Top Fuel dragster. One of their most memorable outings was the 1973 PDA event at Orange County Int’l Raceway, where Johnston drove both cars and won in the dragster. (That great tale was featured in the column I wrote on Keeling & Clayton last March.)
“I had never really driven a dragster — if you look at the photos, I was still wearing a Funny Car helmet and face mask [as opposed to the traditional full-face helmet used by most Top Fuel drivers], and I had to have Jerry on the starting line to tell me what rpm to leave at. I’d rev it up a bit, look at him, and he’d use hand signals to tell me when I had it right. That was a cool ride; it was fun being out there in the breeze.”
The cold-air car. (Steve Reyes photo)
The cold-air car
It was also around this time that Johnston signed on with Cragar on a new project, a Funny Car that ran on bottled air that was pressure-fed into the manifold in place of a supercharger.
“It was perfect for me because the Keeling & Clayton thing was more of a weekend-warrior deal where we didn’t go run a lot of national events, so I could do both,” said Johnston. “I wasn’t going to be on tour, so I decided why not?”
According to the May 1974 issue of Drag Racing USA, the system, developed by Bob Keane, fed a mixture of pure alcohol and cold air into the engine through onboard tanks. The car would be fired, do its burnout, and launch on just the alcohol, but the blown system would kick in seamlessly shortly after the launch. Horsepower was advertised at about 2,000 at 30psi of boost, with the boost being scalable up top 45psi.
“There were a lot of advantages to the system,” declared Johnston. “For starters, you didn’t get the kind of detonation you would on nitro. It was a very cool and sophisticated way of spontaneously getting air to engine.”
Other benefits were reduced engine heat (temperatures at the manifold were -10 degrees, which kept the engine and the oil at “warm”); a fuel cost savings of 80 percent (alcohol over nitro); and, of course, the removal of the potential for devastating blower explosions and/or blower belt breakage.
Although the car eventually ran in the 6.90s, it never came to fruition despite extensive testing.
“We rented Irwindale two to three times a week testing,” remembered Johnston. “It had a lot of potential but was just too complicated for the time, and we had no data logging. We had a 35mm camera mounted on the steering wheel to photograph the gauges, but they always came out blurry. If we had a computer system like is available now to manage that whole system, it would have worked, but it was all mechanical.”
Johnston raced with Joe Pisano for three seasons, highlighted by a runner-up finish (below) at the 1977 Cajun Nationals and a Division 7 championship.
Racing with Joe P.
Johnston had no real driving prospects after the cold-air car was shelved, but after veteran handler Sush Matsubara broke a leg (and an arm, in some accounts) in an off-road motorcycle crash, Johnston filled in for him in the Pisano & Matsubara car at the 1975 preseason Winter Classic in Phoenix.
“Joe asked me to fill in for just that one race, but Sush never came back, and Joe was really pleased with what I was doing, so we went on,” recalled Johnston. “We raced together for another couple of years and won the Division 7 championship [in 1977].”
That championship run was not without drama, either. Late in the season, on their way to the Division 7 event at Bonneville Raceway in Salt Lake City, their tow rig blew the radiator outside of Las Vegas.
“We limped the truck to the only shop around, but the guy told us it was going to be a day or two before they could get us a radiator,” Johnston remembered. “Joe got on the phone and found this guy who had a car, and Joe made arrangements for me to drive his car. We called a cab, and Gary Slusser and I took a cab to the airport and flew to Salt Lake City.”
The guy was Rich McMichaels, a little-known racer from Salt Lake City, who owned the Pink Chablis Vega.
“I don’t remember the details — if he was new to the car or hadn’t run it much — but it had never even been in the sixes before,” said Johnston. “We put our tune-up in it and got it qualified and got some points and even ran in the sixes [6.97]. We lost in the first round, but we still won the division championship.”
Other highlights for the team were a runner-up, to Johnny White, at the Cajun Nationals in 1977 and a career-high eighth-place finish for Johnston in 1976. (It’s rather ironic that Johnston’s three runner-ups were to drivers — Castronovo, Fullerton, and White — who won their only national event against him.)
At the 1972 National Challenge in Tulsa, suffered a brief but intense fire in round one. “We burned a piston and the engine laid over in the lights,” he recalled. “I don’t remember if it put a rod out or not, but it got going pretty good. It burned all of the stitching out of my gloves; when I finally got out, I didn’t even have to pull them off; they just fell off.”
Hanging it up
Johnston got out of the game in 1978 and was replaced in the Pisano car by Pat Foster.
“I’d gotten married and was expecting a son and had started a business,” he explained. “I just felt it was time. I was always a hired driver, never owned my own car. Maybe if I did, I would have stayed longer, but being a hired guy was always up and down and then got down to just being a weekend-warrior thing, not even on tour. I looked at the future, and there were no big sponsorships out there. It seemed like maybe it was just going to be a dead end for me.”
Johnston’s business, a manufacturer for aerospace and defense with customers such as Boeing and Northrop, was a huge success, and he retired last September and lives in Anaheim Hills, Calif. Just don’t expect to see him at a drag race anytime soon.
“I haven’t even picked up a drag racing publication in probably 20 years and haven’t really even been in touch with most of the people I raced with since then,” he admitted. “I haven’t been to a race since I left. I’m weak. It’s so addictive. I’d probably want to come back again.”
It’s a refrain I’ve heard many times, that old drivers make lousy spectators, but Johnston promised to call me if he ever changes his mind. It would be great for him to be out among today’s heroes, sharing some of those great “what if” stories and reminding everyone of how it used to be. Me, I’m just honored to share his story.