The beauty of NHRA drag racing is that there are almost no restrictions on who can participate, and that’s especially true when it comes to age. Despite the mystery surrounding his age, it’s fairly common knowledge that Chris “the Greek” Karamesines drove a Top Fuel dragster into his 90s and 16-time world champ John Force is still among the championship contenders in the Funny Car class at age 74.
And then there is Irvin Johns, who recently made history when he won the Super Stock title at the Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 Nationals, presented by Peak Performance. At age 79, Johns became NHRA’s oldest national event winner, a distinction that he embraces with great pride.
“Well, at least I’ve accomplished something,” he jokes. “Seriously, I feel like you can do this for as long as you like. I think if you just give up and do nothing, there’s a good chance you’ll die sooner. I run a wrecker business in Louisville [Ky.] and I still go to work every day, and I plan to work and race for as long as I’m able.”
Johns drag raced in the 1960s and ran at Indy in 1964 and 1965. By 1969, he’d given up racing in order to start his towing business, and later enjoyed success in tractor pulling. By 2003, he was ready to return to the quarter mile and built another drag car. With the help of his wife, Gina, and a few friends, most notably teammate Todd Frantz and engine builder Jeff Taylor, Johns was able to get up to speed fairly quickly.
Prior to his win in Joliet, Johns had several close calls at national events, most notably at the 2010 U.S. Nationals where he lost a close final round decision to five-time world champion Jimmy DeFrank. Facing the pressure of drag racing’s biggest and most prestigious event, Johns made a good run, but DeFrank was just .015-second better to take the win.
“We had a close race that just didn’t go my way,” Johns recalled. “Jimmy is a great driver and he’s also a close friend. After that final, he gave me a hug that I really didn’t want.”
Johns has also nailed down the win four Lucas Oil Series wins including the 2003 race held at Route 66 Raceway. There was also the 2019 season where Johns won the North Central Division title and finished No. 8 in the national Super Stock standings. Still, nothing compared to the feeling of hoisting a national event Wally for the first time.
“First, my wife found a four-leaf clover that we put in the car for good luck," Johns said. “Then, before I started the car, I realized that in another minute or so, I was either going to win or lose. I was either going to be really happy or really disappointed. I left and saw the red-light on Brad [Zaskowski’s] side of the tree. What a flood of emotions. I just thought to myself, ‘Oh, my God. I just won.’ I think I repeated that all the way down the track. I almost forgot to get stopped before the sand trap.”
With the victory, Johns joins a distinguished group of drivers who have won national events in their 70s including Marlin Snyder, Chuck Gallagher Sr., Mike Saye, and Ken Bowers, who was the previous record holder at age 77 when he won the Super Gas title at the 2018 New England Nationals in Epping.
While he's happy to be the new leader in the clubhouse when it comes to oldest national event winners, Johns gives much of the credit for his success to his wife, Gina.
“She keeps me settled down, but also takes care of the weather, the tires, and the dial-in,” he says. "It's a big team effort."
Gary and Todd Frantz, and Jim Metcalf also pull their share of the load to keep the three-car team running. As for Johns, he’s not about to give up racing anytime soon.
“I’m going to Norwalk this weekend for the Division 3 race. I want to keep going,” Johns said. “The only time I feel like I’m 79 is when I look in the mirror, so we took all the mirrors out of the house. That’s a joke, but it’s what I always say to keep myself feeling young and motivated.”