The recent passing of DIRT modified hero Jack Johnson was like the year’s first big snowstorm; everyone knows it’s coming but it’s still a shock.
Stricken with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Johnson was bedridden for more than seven years before his passing, effectively giving the tough-as-nails racer one last win.
Known as “Jumpin’ Jack” by multiple generations of fans, he was just “Jack” to insiders and best described by fellow Hall of Famer “Barefoot Bob” McCreadie as “a man’s man.”
“I learned to race from Jack,” recalled McCreadie. “I’d been racing small blocks and when I went to big blocks, Jack was the king. The first time we went to Fonda Speedway, I watched him hot lap from the infield and my jaw was hanging down. I said to my crew chief, Mike Hayslett, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’
“But I learned by watching him and following him in hot laps, then we started talking and, eventually, we became best friends. He was the epitome of a race car driver; the women loved him, the men respected him and he could race with the best.
“He was a tough guy but he’d make you laugh. He always had a story. Every driver has their own code for how they race, the secret is to figure it out and race them accordingly. With Jack, it was easy. He might come up and rub your side rails but nothing more. He’d never rough you up. But if you passed him and thought you were all set, all of a sudden, he’d be back inside you and pass you back. The man never gave up. If I paid to get in, I’d want Jack there. He always put on a show.”
Longtime Johnson crewman Joe Bellomo will testify to that.
“He was always the same guy and if we had a bad night or even a bad year, he’d just say, ‘We’ll get ’em next time.’ He always had a good attitude. One time we’d left Fonda for Lebanon Valley and weren’t running that good. We finally got going and two weeks in a row we broke while leading a few laps from the end. The second week he got out of the car, looked at me and said, ‘What’s wrong?’ I was really disappointed but he just said, ‘We’ll get ’em next week.’ And we did.
“He was just a regular guy. When we won Syracuse, we stopped at the thruway rest area in Westmoreland to eat, just like every other time we raced out west. I remember Tommy Corellis coming in and saying, ‘You just won Syracuse and you’re eating in the rest area?’ He couldn’t believe it.”
Bellomo, JoJo DeSarbo and a host of others devoted their lives to crewing for Johnson, with a few still helping his son, Ronnie, despite advancing years. When asked why, Bellomo smiles before answering. “No tantrums! Win or lose, we’d just load up and go home. Jack never made a scene. He spent his whole career with a winning attitude and it rubbed off on the rest of us.
“When we ran Lebanon Valley, they paid a bonus for winning two in a row. We won one, then ran second the next week. The next day, I met Jack as I was going to the shop to work on the car. He stopped me and told me to change the quick-change gears because they were in upside down. He never said anything to anybody else because he didn’t want to embarrass anyone.”
Son Ronnie, now a top driver in his own right, doesn’t even mention racing when asked what his father taught him.
“The biggest thing was to have manners and treat people with respect,” Ronnie Johnson said. “He taught me to be humble and kind and treat people the way you wanted to be treated. That’s been a boost in all parts of my life.”
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