Stock car racing: Joe Johnson remembered as easy-going driver

Last Thursday, 65-year-old Joe Johnson died at his home, surrounded by his family. He was the brothe

One of the hardest things to do as a writer is to remember a driver from a local race track who recently died and deserves recognition for his accomplishments in racing.

Last Thursday, 65-year-old Joe Johnson died at his home, surrounded by his family. He was the brother of Jack and Jeff Johnson, and the uncle of current Fonda Speedway modified campaigner Ronnie Johnson.

When I first I started going to the races at Fonda Speedway at age 10, Joe Johnson was racing a modified car with the number 32. I can still remember seeing a picture that my brother still has of the yellow-and-white Pinto-bodied race car that was one of the nicest cars to compete at Fonda on a weekly basis. At that early age, my recollection of Johnson racing at Fonda is cloudy, at best, so I incorporated the help of some of his friends to bring his memory to life.

Johnson had a total of 10 feature wins at Fonda, eight of them coming in the late model division, and two in the sportsman division. He also had one modified feat­ure win at Albany-Saratoga Speedway on July 15, 1977. Johnson also raced modifieds at Fonda, with a total of 22 top-five finishes in features, and 18 heat-race victories at the Track of Champions.

Johnson ran a Mobil gas station on Curry Road in Rotterdam when he and Artie DeSorbo bought a tow truck together. That started a long friendship between the two that not only included being in business together, but alsoracing.

“We were tied at the hip,” DeSorbo said. “We had the tow truck together, we fished together and we raced together.”

According to DeSorbo, Johnson’s first car was a 1954 Chevy that came from a junkyard that they put together as a late model and raced at Fonda in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, along with good friend Harry Peek. Two years later, Pep Pepicelli built a car for Johnson that brought Joe many more wins in the late model division.

“That was an awesome race car,” DeSorbo said. “Joe had six wins in that car, including a win on the same night that his brother Jack won his first career modified feature at Fonda [Aug. 7, 1971]. There were big headlines in the Gazette the next day saying Johnson and Johnson win at Fonda, and that wasn’t the talcum powder, either. Not only did Peppy build the late model that Joe won with that night, he also built the modified car that Jack won with that night, as well.”

Just before he was to go racing in the modified division, Johnson got another ride in a late model owned by Dave Hunt, which was built in Mike Budka’s garage. Hunt drove the car himself a couple of times before realizing that driving a race car wasn’t his cup of tea, so he turned the car over to Johnson after that.

“One night at Fonda, C.D. [Coville] went by me in the second turn like I was standing still, and it was then that I realized that I wasn’t made to be a driver,” Hunt said. “Joe was set to go modified the following season and didn’t have a car to drive at the time, so I decided to put him in my car because he was a winning driver and had a lot of experience. Although we ran well together, we only had one feature win, as fluky things just kept happening to us.

“Joe was an easy-going guy who loved to fish,” Hunt added. “He didn’t have a harsh word for anyone, and reminded me a lot of Harry Peek.”

Over the winter, the modified car that Johnson was set to drive was completed at Budka’s house, and Joe moved up to the modified division.

“Joe was probably the nicest guy that you would ever know,” Budka said. “He was laid-back, always laughing, and there wasn’t anyone that didn’t like Joe.”

When Joe Johnson moved up to the modified division, his brother Jack was driving for Joe Leto, and Leto provided Joe Johnson with his first modified motor.

“I bought a motor from Joe [Leto] that was blown so I rebuilt it, and we put it in the car,” DeSorbo said. “Joe was more of a family guy who never took money off the table or from his family in order to race. He always said, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ after getting into racing, and he always blamed me for getting him involved in the sport.”

Last Saturday, before the modified feature at Fonda, a moment of silence was held in honor of Joe Johnson. My cond­olences go out to members of his family on their loss.


Last Saturday at Fonda, there were two drivers in the modified division who had their best career finishes.

Robert Perry started the 30-lap feature on the outside pole, and led 10 laps before Matt DeLorenzo took over the lead and went on to the win. Ronnie Johnson also got by Perry for second with one lap to go, but Perry’s third- place finish was his best ever.

After blowing his modified motor early this season and being sidelined for weeks, modified rookie Luke Munroe was back in action last Saturday. After finishing second in the consolation race, Munroe lined up in the 21st starting position for the 30-lap feature, and when the checkered flag flew, he ended up with a hard-earned eighth-place finish, also his career best.


Today from 5-9 p.m., the No. 1M 602 sportsman car of Mark Mortensen will be making a sponsorship appearance at the Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive In in Scotia.

Autographed pictures will be available and children will also be able to sit in the race car. Mortensen has two feature wins in 2011 at Fonda, and is also the point leader in the 602 sportsman division.

Weekend schedule

Tonight at Albany-Saratoga Speedway, a regular show in all divisions is on the racing card at 7. It will be School’s Out/Kid’s Night Out at the track, with the Animal Support Project Fundraiser also part of the program.

Also tonight, Glen Ridge Motorsports Park will be back in action with a regular show in all divisions on Cancer Awareness Night. Staring time will be 7:30.

On Saturday, Fonda Speedway will hold a regular show in all divisions starting at 7 p.m.

Categories: -Sports-

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