Modified auto racing champion and multi-hall of fame inductee Jack Johnson died Thursday after a lengthy battle with ALS at the age of 76.
The longtime Duanesburg resident who went by “Jumpin’ Jack” had a strong desire to succeed on the track and had the skill and know-how to do it, and off the track he gained a reputation as a true sportsman who would help fellow racers and gladly sign autographs.
“He reminds me of Richard Petty,” said John Papp, who would visit with Johnson when he was growing up in Rotterdam and would often watch him race at Fonda Speedway. “He was a vicious competitor on the track, but when it came to fans, you were first. That’s a fan’s driver.”
“I got to know him really well because he won so many races,” longtime Daily Gazette auto racing writer Tom Boggie said. “He was very personable. He was great with the fans. Kids loved him.”
Johnson was a mainstay at Fonda Speedway, where he picked up his first modified victory in 1971, and where won 149 races in his trademark orange 12A cars. That is also where his illustrious career came to an end in 2009 after a crash.
“He was relentless,” Papp, a retired state worker and Sharon Springs resident, said of the man who won 428 times at 35 different tracks in 10 states and two Canadian provinces.
Johnson’s son, Ronnie Johnson, said his father could compete and win in a variety of racing circumstances.
“He could do it all. Smooth. Rough. Aggressive style,” Ronnie Johnson said. “He could fit any role he needed to be.”
Johnson opened Jumpin’ Jacks Pro Speed Shop in 1980 and spent hours upon hours there preparing for races.
“He won races in the garage,” Boggie said. “He built his own cars, got good sponsors, had a great crew with a great engine guy. He had the total package.”
Johnson’s son followed his dad into auto racing — Ronnie won his first Fonda Speedway modified title in 2011 — and still works at the auto shop that bares his name.
“Two nights before he passed, I told him when I was a little boy I used to pretend I was Jack Johnson,” Ronnie Johnson said. “I always wanted to be a race driver. That brought a smile to him.”
Ronnie Johnson recalls his dad smiling quite a bit at the tracks, even on the occasions when he did not prevail or finish in the top group.
“The times he had a bad night — remember, this is how he fed his family — fans would never know he had a bad night,” Ronnie Johnson said. “Something he preached to me was to conduct yourself as a gentleman. Treat people the right way. You never know when someone is watching.”
“He was always friendly away from the track and determined on the track,” Papp said.
Jack Johnson began racing go-karts when he was 13 and began his modified career in 1966 after being discharged from the Army. His cars often were adorned with an American flag decal.
“I’ve got a lot of good memories, too many to even think about unless something triggers them,” Johnson told SPEED SPORT’s Ron Hedger in a 2011 interview. “I loved racing. It was my life. I could never say I had a bad time doing it. I loved every night and every minute of it.”
Jack Johnson enjoyed great success at the New York State Fairgrounds, where he won the Super DIRT Week main event in 1979 and 1984. His 1984 triumph made him the only driver to win every major New York Fairgrounds event in one season.
“He never looked like he was working hard,” Boggie said.
Jack Johnson had other significant wins in the National Dirt Track Championship 200 at Flemington Speedway in New Jersey, the Eastern States 200 at New York’s Orange County Fair Speedway and the Fonda 200 at Fonda Speedway.
In 2012 he was inducted into the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame, Eastern Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame and New York State Stock Car Association Hall of Fame.
“In the last 48 hours, there have been hundreds and hundreds of texts and messages. It’s overwhelming,” Ronnie Johnson said. “The response from people in honor of him shows the respect he gained. It’s pretty cool.”
Jack Johnson won 11 modified championships at Fonda-Speedway, his first in 1975 and his last in 1996, and he also earned a title at Pennsylvania Nazareth National Motor Speedway in 1983.
“He was so many figures to me all in one,” Ronnie Johnson said. “He was my dad first, my best friend, my hero, my idol. He was a great guy.”