The crash that changed Dick’s life
DICK Johnson says a heartbreaking crash that threatened to wreck his motor racing career turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him - thanks to friends and fans in Queensland.
Johnson, who finished at No. 60 on The Courier-Mail / Sunday Mail top 100 Queensland sports stars list, was at his lowest ebb in 1980 - broken in spirit and almost financially - until the passion and generosity of Queensland sports fans ignited a monumental comeback.
Few sports greats are so quintessentially Queensland as Johnson, the laconic five-time winner of the Australian Touring Car Championship and three-time King of the Mountain at Bathurst.
His first high-profile car was a Ford XD known as "Tru-Blu'', named after a sponsor's product and financed by mortgaging his house. In 1980 he turned up at Bathurst for Australia's great motor race with the former police car he had rebuilt in his garage at home in Daisy Hill.
He was leading the race after 17 laps when the car hit a football-sized rock kicked onto the track by what he calls drunken "galoots".
"The car was worth about $50,000 and it was all the money we had in the world,'' Johnson told The Courier-Mail last week.
"The car was wrecked. I thought, 'here we go, that's the end of my career'. But people started sending me letters with money in them to get me back on the track - kids even sent me money from their piggy banks.
"The mailman used to back up to my house with canvas bags full of donations.''
Ford Australia offered to match every dollar the public raised to fund Johnson's comeback.
"They thought they would be up for 4 or 5 grand, but $78,000 in donations poured in," he said. "We ended up with the budget to run a team the next year, when we won Bathurst and our first Australian championship.''
Johnson clinched that 1981 championship at Lakeside, north of Brisbane, on June 21.
"Peter Brock and myself were one point apart going into the last round,'' he said. "It was probably the biggest crowd ever at Lakeside, and probably the most exciting race ever held there.
"In the third lap, I broke a front sway bar and it made the car handle very differently. But I was determined. I finally beat Brock by a car length, and we were never a car length apart the whole way.''
While the 73-year-old no longer races, his DJR Team Penske remains at the forefront of Australian motorsport.
Johnson started driving at the age of eight.
"I did a lot of swimming at the Valley Pool in those days and dad would be up at 4.30 to take me. The only way he could make sure I got out of bed on time was to say, 'OK, you can drive'. So I'd be driving over the Story Bridge at 4.30 in the morning with him in the passenger seat.
"I remember riding my pushbike from home at Coorparoo to Lake Kurwongbah (50km) to watch the motor races at Lakeside, and dad also took me to the old Strathpine racetrack, and to races at Lowood.
"I used to work on the neighbour's cars as a 13, 14-year-old kid. I'd do valve grinds and all sorts of things, and I ended up working at a BP service station helping one of the owners, who was a qualified mechanic.''
Johnson would drive from his parents' new house at Mount Gravatt to work in Greenslopes every morning, then race the same FJ Holden at Lakeside on the weekend. His first official race was there in November 1964.
"In those days, safety standards weren't high. I put a lap seat belt in, but it wasn't compulsory. Fireproof suits were unheard of. Some blokes raced in shorts and thongs. Some went barefoot.''
After two years of national service, Johnson began working as a mechanic under his parents' Mt Gravatt house, then at his South Brisbane workshop in Stanley Street.
"I had a little shed where I could only fit two cars. From there I could build up the race car I had. I sold my FJ Holden to my brother and then I got an EH Holden.
"Jill, who was the girlfriend of a customer, became my girlfriend. She had a Mini and I persuaded her to sell it to buy something a bit bigger, an HR Holden, so we could tow my car to the races.''
Jill became Johnson's wife and they've been together for half a century.