Remembering Johnny Abbott
We lost former Indy-winning Top Fuel driver Johnny Abbott last Sunday, ending the life but not the legacy of one of the great gentlemen in our sport. You only have to visit his Facebook page and scroll through the images to see and read what he meant to so many people. Countless photos of him with his wife, Kristie, his kids and grandkids, and friends in the orbit around his gravitational pull. Even as cancer robbed him of life, he was lovingly admired and cherished by so many.
I met Johnny in the waning years of his 20-plus-year Top Fuel career but remained e-mail pals long after. I’ll never forget (and still have) the email he sent me in 2008, not long after I started this column, offering his help. “At any time you need some nostalgia information within the circle of friends I raced with, please don't hesitate to call or e-mail me,” he wrote. “I raced coast to coast and border to border for over 15 years and I know a lot of ex-racer friends.”
That’s just the kind of guy he was. Even after he quit racing he formed The John Abbott Racing Group (TJARG) to help other racers get sponsors and even the business that helped fund his racing back in the 1970s, Fire & Safety of Denver, was dedicated to helping people.
He was proud that the second- and third-generations Abbotts continued his legacy in the sport. Son John Jr. and his wife, Sondi Psota-Abbott, compete in Top Dragster, grandson Christopher is a well-respected nitro crewmember who’s worked with champions like Cruz Pedregon, Antron Brown, and now Steve Torrence, two other grandkids, Caylynn and Austin compete in Jr. Dragster, and pretty much the entire family works at TJARG. He’d send me racing photos of the kids, or of Caylynn playing volleyball. He was proud of his family, and the legacy he was able to leave.
For those of you who knew him only as the racer, there’s a heckuva legacy there, too. His biggest and best publicized victory came at the 1981 U.S. Nationals (and, like fellow Indy Top Fuel winner Shirley Muldowney, his win became part of his email address; that’s how much an Indy win means) but he did a lot of other winning, too, including national event titles in IHRA, AHRA, and UDRA competition. Some of you may forget (but I’ll remind you now and refresh your memory later in this column) that he also came very close to winning the 1981 NHRA world championship.
He was inducted the Colorado Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 2006, the NHRA Division 5 Hall of Fame in 2007, and the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2014. That’s quite a career.
Abbott’s drag racing career began in the early 1960s in Chrysler-powered gas dragsters, racing in the high-altitude climes of Denver, Amarillo, and Salt Lake City. His first Top Fuel car, with Pontiac power, came in 1964 and made some of the best at-altitude runs ever over the next two seasons. In 1966, the Chrysler-powered Kading, Abbott & Gear car set numerous track records and in 1967 he partnered with Mark Williams with a pair of cars that dominated Division 5 competition.
After a two-year partnership with Mark Whitted in 1969 and ’70, Abbott sat out the ’71 season before becoming partners with talented wrench Larry Frazier. Although that partnership only lasted a year, they’d be reunited a few years later and become a force to be reckoned with.
Together they won a number of events, including the prestigious Popular Hot Rodding Championships (above) in 1977, a season that ended with a No. 1 qualifying effort at the World Finals.
After Jeg Coughlin Sr. damaged his car in a tangle with the catch net at the ’79 Springnationals, Abbott bought his car and retained Coughlin’s tuner, Ron Barrow, to repair and tune it, and they were runner-up at the 1978 Grandnational and the 1979 U.S. Nationals, both times to Kelly Brown. After re-teaming with early partner George Willett beginning in 1980, Abbott got a second chance at drag racing greatest prize, and it was not wasted; Abbott beat David Pace and the Carroll Brothers’ Texas Whips machine for the 1981 U.S. Nationals title.
After finishing sixth in the championship in 1978 and ninth in ’79, Abbott came within just a round or two of winning the 1981 championship.
When most people think about that 1981 championship, they think only of Jeb Allen and Gary Beck, with Allen holding on for the title when Beck won the event but failed to set top speed (then worth 50 points) and lost the title to Allen by just 31 points.
Well, guess whose top speed Beck couldn’t surpass? Yep, Johnny Abbott’s. Abbott had qualified No. 1 with a 5.64 at top speed of the meet, 247.93 mph, and after Allen went out with a broken blower belt in round one, Abbott became the favorite to surpass both. He needed to win the event and have low e.t. and top speed – and already owned the latter two.
Abbott and the Jolly Rancher team beat Marvin Graham in round one and, had he not had broken the rear end, probably would have beaten Shirley Muldowney in round two, as she slowed to an engine-burning 6.80. Beck then beat Muldowney in the semifinals and Dwight Salisbury in the final, and while Beck’s 5.57 took away Abbott’s low e.t. his 245.23 didn’t take Abbott’s top speed. Abbott finished the season in third, Allen in first.
I reached out to a few racing folks that I knew were friends with Abbott, and the first one I heard back from was fellow Colorado Top Fuel pilot Junior Kaiser. The two had been buddies since Jr. High School in the Washington Park area of south Denver, and went to their first drag race together back in 1955, when the NHRA Drag Safari brought its show-and-tell format to the airbase at Lowry Field.
Abbott, a couple of years Kaiser’s senior, enlisted in the Navy (Kaiser inherited his girlfriend) and by the time Abbott returned from his service, Kaiser was already racing, and it didn’t take Abbott long to follow suit. Back then, there were a lot of places to race locally, including Continental Divide Raceways, Century 21 Raceway, Mountain View (Erie) Dragway, Denver Int’l Raceway (“They called it ‘Thunder Road’ back then; we all called it ‘Stickerville Junction’ because they had a lot of stickers out there”), and, of course, Bandimere Speedway.
“At one time in our heyday we had 21 Top Fuel cars here in Colorado and we never had to leave the hill to race,” Kaiser recalled. “We had a lot of fun and could race twice a week without really leaving town.
“John and I match raced a lot together, and we started the Colorado Pro Racers Association to help do that,” recalled Kaiser. “We’d race all over, even down into Texas and over into Kansas. We had a lot of good times together on the road. He was a fierce racer. He was really into it, because this was our dream to go Top Fuel racing. He didn’t like to lose. I remember him red-lighting against me one time and was so mad he kicked the windshield out of his car.
“When we weren’t racing, John was a lot of fun; he sure couldn’t handle his alcohol though,” Kaiser remembered with a laugh. “We called him Two-Beer John’ because that was about his limit, or ‘Johnny the Babbler,’ because he’d talk your ear off. I remember one time we were racing in Albuquerque – he was driving for Mark Williams then – and he jumped on the hood of my car as I was pulling into the hotel parking lot. I hit the brakes, he rolled off and broke his wrist, and I had to drive his car that weekend.
“Those were good times, working on the cars in the hotel parking lot; what a good life. We didn’t realize then that what we were doing was history and we were pioneering the sport.”
The duo’s fate also was intertwined in the early 1980s. Abbott by then had the Jolly Rancher sponsorship, but was involved in a highway accident before the 1980 U.S. Nationals. Jolly Rancher’s Bob Harmsen passed the mantle to Abbott’s Colorado buddy, and Kaiser reached the semifinals, beating Chris Karamesines, Tony Ceraolo, and Connie Kalitta before losing to eventual champ Terry Capp. Rain Monday forced a Tuesday finish, which allowed Capp time to repair a broken engine but also soggied the ignition points in Kaiser’s magneto, and he lost the Tuesday semi. A year later, Abbott won it all for Jolly Rancher.
Insider regular Simon Menzies, who competed in both alcohol and nitro Funny Car in the 1970s, also palled around with Abbott. A few years ago he shared this funny story with me about of his and Abbott’s adventures in Southern California, where Menzies lived.
“After a few cocktails at the Sea Bucket in King Harbor, we agreed that the intelligent think to do was cross the channel to Catalina for dinner,” recalled Menzies. “This was in ’79 or ’80. It was October and on a good day you might see a whale migrating south so we borrowed [Bill] Simpson’s 38-foot Uniflight Coastal Cruiser and headed out to sea. Captain Simon, girlfriend Jan (the 1st mate), Abbott (the engineer), and I think Chris Karamesines’ daughter and a few others went along that fateful day.
"We were underway, about five miles out, when I heard the uproar. John came up to the bridge with a wild look in his eye, demanding I stop the boat and see a whale. Well, as I came down the steps my whole contingent were leaning over the port side goo-gooing and petting the biggest shark I had ever seen!
“ ‘That ain’t no whale, it’s a f---ing shark, a BIG f---ing shark get your hands back in the boat,’ “ I yelled. The shark submerged and came back up and brushed against the boat. We were just drifting at the time but the shark physically moved the boat as if he was playing with his new little toy. The shark was longer than the boat -- a lot longer.
“We got back under way and the shark stated to mirror our moves and was playing in the bow wash, sort of surfing over it like a kid on a boogie board. It was kind of cool watching him until I realized that we at 15 knots and he was right with us, not showing any signs of tiring. Soon after that we were joined by two other sharks, one about the same size and the other less than half the size. For a few moments we were flanked by these behemoths at speed and still close enough to reach out and touch them from the boat.
“We had played with our new friends a little too long and opted to return to King Harbor for dinner instead of finishing the trip to Catalina. The next day I went to work at Simpson and John went to the library. John’s whales turned out to be basking sharks, the largest sharks on the planet, growing to 60 feet in length and quite harmless. As it turns out they feed by opening their mouths at speed ingesting small fish and plankton and the occasional coastal cruiser. We were in a sense, as true drag racers, supercharging their evening meal with the bow and prop wash.”
So, just a few fun tales from the people who knew and loved Johnny Abbott. I know I won't forget his generosity and passion and love of family.
A celebration of life for Abbott will take place June 22 at Bandimere Speedway.
I also learned this week of the passing of former Top Fuel and Top Gas racer Billy “The Kid” Scott, who certainly could have been part of my Teen Terrors of the ‘70s series last year except that by the ‘70s he was no longer a teenager. Scott died Friday, April 28. He was 68.
Scott grew up fast, racing quarter-midgets at age 5 in San Bernardino, Calif., and by 16 he was an officially licensed NHRA Top Fuel driver, wheeling the Scotty’s Muffler Chevy-powered entry owned by his father, Charles, and reportedly ran 190 mph in his first full pass at Fontana.
Scott drove a number of gas-powered cars, too, including the fabled Freight Train and captured Top Gas honors at the famed Hot Rod Championships at Riverside Raceway in the Adams, Rasmussen & Scott entry tuned by Gene Adams and John Rasmussen.
Scott later transitioned to oval-track racing and even qualified for the Indy 500 in 1976. Unfortunately, he only completed seven laps before a piston failure sidelined him. He later set the all-time track speed record of 257 mph with one of his dad’s cars at the Texas Mile in Goliad, Texas, in 2004.