Remembering One Of The Good Guys
If you are like me, you enjoy listening to Donald Davidson on The Talk of Gasoline Alley every weeknight in May, as Donald tells stories of the days of yesteryear from the Indianapolis 500. If you’ve listened to him very long, you know how much Donald loves talking about the less heralded drivers that never got as much publicity over the years as some of the bigger names did.
While Donald can be an expert discussing the career of former winners Wilbur Shaw, Bill Vukovich or Sam Hanks; he seems to glow a little bit more when he is telling stories about someone like Jimmy Daywalt, Walt Faulkner or Clay Weatherly – drivers that were excellent drivers in their own right, but were dealt a slightly different hand by fate.
We lost one of those drivers this past week. Herm Johnson passed away Saturday at the age of sixty-three. Many longtime fans of the Indianapolis 500 were distressed at the news of his death. To others, Herm Johnson was mere footnote in history if they had even heard of him at all. To me, that’s a shame.
Herm Johnson came up through the ranks in the seventies, when the ranks were not as clearly defined as today. Front-engines sprints and midgets were no longer the preferred path to the rear-engine cars that were running at Indianapolis. But there was not a fully structured ladder system like the Mazda Road to Indy that exists now. Johnson won the SCCA Super Vee Nationals at Road Atlanta in 1976 and USAC’s Mini Indy championship in 1977.
Hailing from Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Johnson became friends with Wisconsin businessman John Menard, whom he had gotten to know through racing snowmobiles during the bitter Wisconsin winters. Together, they decided to race Indy cars with Johnson driving a car sponsored by Menard’s still young Menard Lumber Company.
The pair did not qualify for Indianapolis in 1980, but don’t let that mislead you. Competition to make the field of the Indianapolis 500 was fierce in the eighties. Unlike today, there were sometimes more cars and drivers that didn’t make the race in the eighties, than those that did. Twenty-nine drivers were entered in 1980 that failed to qualify. Herm Johnson was one of those.
Johnson and Menard suffered the same fate the following year, although at one point Johnson was in the field before being bumped. He was the first alternate starter of a group of forty-two entered drivers who failed to qualify, in addition to the thirty-three who made it in. Times were much different in those days.
The 1982 Indianapolis 500 brought much better luck for Johnson and Menard. With a brand new Eagle chassis, Johnson qualified fourteenth and finished ninth; in a race that featured the famous Gordon Johncock – Rick Mears dual at the finish, with Johncock barely beating Mears at the line. At the time, it was the closest finish in Indianapolis 500 history. If you’ve seen video from that race, you’ll recall as Mears made his final pit stop on Lap 183 – he made light contact with a slower car on pit lane as Mears was rushing toward his pit (there was no pit road speed limit in those days). The slower car was that of Herm Johnson.
After missing the 1983 race, Johnson qualified his March-Cosworth on the outside of the third row and finished eighth in 1984. It would be only his second and final appearance in the race. He failed to qualify again in 1985 and had a horrifying crash during practice for the 1986 Indianapolis 500. He suffered neck injuries, a broken back and two broken feet in the crash that effectively ended his racing career.
All in all, Herm Johnson drove in two Indianapolis 500’s finishing in the Top-Ten in both; and thirty-six IndyCar races between 1980 and 1986, with a best finish of sixth at Atlanta in 1982.
After recovering from his injuries, Johnson began a successful new career – painting custom racing helmets. His “Just Herm Design” helmets became very popular among drivers across several racing disciplines.
Johnson had been in poor health recently. News spread late last week that his passing was eminent, before he succumbed to liver and renal failure on Saturday December 10.
The accolades that poured in after his death from those that knew him and raced against him were numerous. It was evident that Herm Johnson was a really good person and humanitarian. According to his friends, he was truly one of the good guys in racing. It was also evident that Johnson was no backmarker on the track. The common theme was that he was a pure racer that would race anything, anywhere and anytime. His friends say that all he ever wanted to do since childhood was race. Unfortunately, the injuries sustained at Indianapolis in 1986 prevented him from ever reaching his pure potential.
History will probably best remember Herm Johnson as nothing more than being the first of many drivers that drove for John Menard in the Indianapolis 500. Donald Davidson will remember him as one of those lesser-known drivers that had a very brief but fairly successful career in the Indianapolis 500. But Johnson’s friends will remember him as a really exceptional human being that fulfilled his childhood dreams and was very good at it. Like so many others, the economics of the sport limited his meeting that full potential before fate ended his career entirely. That’s how we should all remember Herm Johnson.