JoJo DeSarbo, longtime crew chief of dirt track modified racing legend Jack Johnson, died Wednesday of cancer.
For decades, DeSarbo was a familiar and well-respected personality in the pits at dirt tracks throughout the Northeast, and helped “Jumpin’ Jack” win the crown jewel of modified racing — the October classic at the New York State fairgrounds in Syracuse — in 1979 and 1984.
In recent years, DeSarbo worked on the crew of Jack Johnson’s son, Ronnie, and helped the younger Johnson win his first modified championship at Fonda Speedway in 2011.
“JoJo was like a father figure to me,” said Ronnie Johnson Thursday. “My mother tells me that the first words out of my mouth were ‘JoJo.’ That’s how far back we go.
“After all that he and my father accomplished together, to have him be a part of my first track championship at Fonda in 2001 was like a storybook ending.”
DeSarbo took great pride as an engine builder, and was inducted in the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame as the Mechanic of the Year in 2005. In addition to wrenching cars for the Johnsons, he also built motors for Billy Decker and Bobby Varin during the early stages of their modified careers. It was a DeSarbo motor that was under the hood when Varin recorded his first modified victory at Fonda Speedway.
During the early 1980s, when Jack Johnson was one of the hottest drivers in the Northeast, DeSarbo took exception to anyone who said the team was cheating.
“We don’t hide anything,” he said one day from the team’s garage in Duanesburg in 1982. “People can come in here anytime and watch what we’re doing.”
According to Ronnie Johnson, DeSarbo didn’t tell anyone about his illness until recently.
“He had a lot of pride,” Johnson said. “We just found out last week that he had cancer. He said the doctors gave him three months. and he died a couple of days after he told us.”
One of the last people DeSarbo told about his illness was Jack Johnson, who has been battling serious health issues of his own for the last three years.
“On Saturday, Jojo went to see my father,” said Ronnie Johnson. “You have to remember, these two tore up the circuit for 45 years. JoJo went to visit him, and when he was leaving, my father said, ‘One more thing. When you get up there, the 12A will be waiting for us. Make sure you get it ready, because I’ll be right behind you.’
“That was the last thing my dad said to him.”