John Mitchell, a former driver and the privateer owner of the Montana Express Top Fuel dragsters, passed away on Saturday, June 2. He was 67.
Mitchell was a driver in the 1960s and early 1970s. Many Professional drivers owe Mitchell a debt of gratitude for giving them their first opportunities behind the wheel after he returned to the sport in 1987.
Mitchell began racing while living in Burbank, Calif., when he graduated from high school in 1962. He began with a D/G ’57 Chevy and moved up to Top Fuel in 1964 with the Chevy-powered Red Mountain Boys dragster that he owned with Lloyd Yabslee and Dick Hesselgrave. That entry had a propensity for blowing superchargers until Mitchell switched to a 392-cid Chrysler in 1966 and became instantly competitive. Mitchell was a regular winner at San Fernando Raceway and held his own at Orange County Int’l Raceway and Lions Drag Strip.
Following the 1968 season, when Yabslee retired from racing, Mitchell became a driver for hire. He wheeled cars from 1969 to 1972 for “Hippo” Brammer, Tom Larkin, Bill Martin (400 Jr.), and Jim Brissette as well as the Howard Cam Special. The quickest run of Mitchell’s driving career was a 6.37 in the Howard Cam Special at the 1972 AHRA Winternationals. He made his last run down the dragstrip one week later at the NHRA Winternationals and retired from driving.
Mitchell purchased a sheet-metal company, Chapman Industries, in 1969 that would allow his eventual return to the sport. What became a multimillion-dollar business produced precision components such as computer chassis. While growing the company, Mitchell relocated to Ennis, Mont., and relaxed by watching NHRA coverage on television. He decided to get back into the sport with a Top Alcohol Dragster in 1987.
Mitchell campaigned a series of Montana Express A/Fuel Dragsters from 1987 to 1994. His biggest legacy in the alcohol ranks became his eye for talent. The bighearted team owner gave eager talents the opportunity to get seat time that served as a springboard for the careers of Tony Pedregon, Larry Dixon, Ron Capps, and Frank Pedregon Jr.
The first Montana Express Top Fuel dragster hit the track in 1995. Mitchell bought a car from Joe Amato and hired the late Clayton Harris to tune and initially wheel it. The outside-the-box thinkers began with an Arias AA 500 engine and Harris’ pneumatic clutch. Mitchell gave young Sportsman talent “Hot Rod” Fuller his first opportunity in the Professional ranks in 1995 and 1996 and had other drivers such as Andy Woods and Marshall Topping before a multiyear stint with David Grubnic.
The Montana Express team put itself on the map competitively in 1998 with the arrival of Grubnic and crew chief Richard Hogan, both of whom still live in Montana after arriving that season to be close to the team. They upset Cory McClenathan in the first round of that year’s Gatornationals with a 4.57 e.t. and reached the final round at the following event in Houston. With Brissette tuning in their only season running a full schedule, Grubnic netted a top 10 finish in 2000. The team finished No. 9 in 2001 despite missing three events, and Grubnic made his second final at the Sonoma event.
Mitchell’s last hurrah in the NHRA ranks came in 2003 with Paul Romine behind the wheel.
“I was very saddened to hear of John’s passing,” said Grubnic. “John was very instrumental to my career and a lot of the Pros. He was and always will be a true friend. My sincere condolences go to his sons and his family.”
“If it wasn’t for something he saw in me, I would still be working as a crewman instead of driving,” added Capps.
Hogan, who is now the crew chief for Steve Torrence, dedicated their win at the Toyota NHRA SuperNationals to Mitchell.