Stock car racing: Jack Johnson Tribute was a night to remember

The visual impact of Wednesday night’s tribute to Jack Johnson at Fonda Speedway was simply overwhel
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The visual impact of Wednesday night’s tribute to Jack Johnson at Fonda Speedway was simply overwhelming.

It was literally a sea of orange.

Standing near the fence in the first turn and looking down the walkway into the fourth-turn area, there was more orange than a Syracuse University homecoming game. Fans wore all sorts of orange (part of Johnson’s trademark color scheme), from retro T-shirts to the recently prododuced Jack Johnson Tribute shirts, and there were even a couple of B&H Racing 64 orange tees mixed in.

Everyone wanted to pay tribute to Johnson, the winningest driver in the rich history of the Mohawk Valley speedway, who is battling Lou Gehrig’s disease. Heck, Hall of Famer Brian Ross even went to the store earlier in the day and bought a plain orange T-shirt just for the occasion.

“I’ve got some orange shirts, but they’ve got other drivers’ names on them,” said Ross as he took in some of the prerace festivities in the parking lot. “I didn’t want to disrespect Jack.”

While the night was one big tribute to Johnson, many of the drivers paid special homage to the king of Fonda Speedway. Stewart Friesen, who won the 50-lap feature, had his car redone with a yellow-and-black paint scheme to duplicate Johnson’s 2008 Syracuse car.

A.J. Romano had a likeness of Johnson on his rear quarter panel.

And when Johnson gave the command to “Fire ’em up!” during a surprise phone call (well, a surprise to the fans, anyway), there were few spines that weren’t feeling some goosebumps.

Everything went perfectly (hold the complaints about the dust or the long intermission), and the Lakata brothers, the Kollar clan and promoter Matt DeLorenzo should all be congratulated for their efforts.

And they should put this on the shelf for the rest of eternity.

Nothing will compare to this one. There were just so many things that can’t be replicated. I talked to legends Will Cagle and Bill Wimble in one of the tower suites. Two of Johnson’s longtime rivals from his soirees into New Jersey — Sammy Beavers and Billy Osmun — were also there. I wouldn’t expect to see them at the sequel.

Look at the list of lap sponsors. It’s amazing to see so many of Johnson’s rivals supporting the cause. The list included C.D. Coville (who was his old irascible self, especially when they tried to make his wife, Sue, pay to get in the pits, even though Coville was driving the pace car), Kenny Brightbill, Billy Pauch, Brett Hearn, Merv Treichler, Jimmy Horton and Dave Lape, just to name a few. Will their support fade away?

The tribute shirts, the Jack Johnson replica street-legal modified, the trophy with Johnson’s likeness, the retro tinwork that Custom Bob Niemitz produced for many of the raffles.

And then there was the phone call from Jumpin’ Jack himself. It was all perfect — for one night.

This was a perfect storm. Let’s keep it that way.

Don’t turn the Jack Johnson Tribute into “Thunder Along the Mohawk.”

Remember Thunder? Ralph Compani’s 1992 brainstorm that became the biggest event in the history of the speedway? People were lining up at the front gate at noon for a 7 p.m. race, and the crowd was so large that the overflow from the covered grandstands wound up in the infield.

Ironically, Johnson won that race, which paid $15,000 to win, and afterward, Compani said he couldn’t wait for Thunder II.

Was there even a Thunder II?

Around the tracks

Included in the lap money for the Jack Johnson Tribute was a whopping $1,244 put up by former driver Jim Senzio for the leader of lap 12 (Johnson’s number). That went to Danny Johnson. Jeff Heotzler won the $1,012.12 bonus for running 12th on lap 12.

Drivers went through the stands during intermission and collected more than $4,000 from fans to be donated for ALS (amoytrophic lateral sclerosis) research.

Following Friesen across the finish line Wednesday were Danny Johnson, Billy Decker, Tyler Dippel and Keith Flach. Dippel, who suffered spiral fractures in his hip during a mishap at Lebanon Valley Speedway earlier this season and missed two months, came up light on the scales and was disqualified.

Following the Super DIRT Series is really helping Flach, who is becoming a much more versatile driver this season.

Friesen also recorded his first World of Outlaws sprint car victory Tuesday night at Ohsweken Speedway in Canada.

Lost in all the hoopla this week was Kyle Sheldon’s first modified victory of the season last Saturday at Lebanon Valley Speedway. Sheldon’s car is powered by a 5-year-old homebuilt motor.

“Our engine is homebuilt in the back of our garage by Alex Thompson,” Sheldon said. “To be able to get this together on our own and compete with guys who can spend $50,000 on engines, it just goes to show you that the backyard guys can still do it.”

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