Bobby Johns was a NASCAR frontiersman who had dreamt of racing at Indy since he was kid. Incredibly, his wish came true as the Lotus Powered by Ford team-mate [BELOW, LAT photo] to a victorious Jim Clark in 1965.
Sounding 50 years younger than his 82 (he turns 83 on Friday), he fields my call at his place of (full-time) work – a wheel-and-tire distributorship in Miami – and will (politely) cut it ‘short’ because it’s one of his (three per week) “gym days”.
Between times, he provides a tack-sharp, whip-smart résumé of a pivotal 500 and his central part therein.
“Our garage in Gasoline Alley in 1964 was next to Colin Chapman’s, and his Lotus boys were quite interested in us and so we got to know each other pretty good,” he begins.
Their interest was no doubt piqued by Johns’ driving, as a late replacement, of fellow Florida resident Smokey Yunick’s “capsule car.”
“Its chassis wasn’t so much of a problem,” he says of the outlandish Hurst Floor Shifter Special [BOTTOM, IMS photo]. “The problem stemmed from having to sit directly behind its left-front wheel: turbulence at 180mph was fluttering my sleeves and affecting my driving. After I got them to build a raised side panel, I was running fast enough to qualify – but got a little bit hot into Turn 1.
“It was a banzai deal. I clamped down on the brakes – little drums from a Pontiac Tempest – and, though I weighed only 140lb, I was too strong. The anchor pins turned loose and the shoes started rotating in the drums. I’d bent the linkage mechanism, too, and the pedal was rocking back and forth without operating the master-cylinder. I went in. Tail first.
“But Lotus clearly had faith in me [for 1965]. There was a lot of talk about Firestone being behind my signing, or of Ford being behind it, but that wasn’t the case: it was a friendship deal. They called me. Some people thought, ‘What’s he doing in a car like that?’ I didn’t have the answer. But I did have my foot in the door.
“I was driving for Ford’s number one NASCAR team, Holman-Moody, when I got that call from the blue. When I told John Holman he warned that it wouldn’t be good for my career. I replied, ‘Even if it means that I never drive another stock car again, I’m going to Indy.’ There’s no point doing anything if you can’t do what you want to do. And to run a fast car there was top of my racing priorities.”
NASCAR [ABOVE, with Pontiac Tempest in ’64. Postcard] was ‘merely’ Johns’ stock-in-trade.
Although he joined Lotus midway through the Month of May, he arrived to find his ‘fast car’ still incomplete. An April testing crash for Roger McCluskey at Trenton, New Jersey, had triggered the build in the UK of a new Type 38 chassis – albeit one with an old number, 38/2 [ABOVE, IMS photo], to ease its rushed import. And Johns promptly kinked its monocoque – in the pitlane.
“I was used to driving on the left in NASCAR – and even in Smokey’s Indy car! – but now I was sat in the middle,” he explains. “My judgment was not what it might have been and I clipped the car in front and punched a corner. Colin wasn’t impressed but, happily, didn’t sack me.”
Two more days – and a half-inch of left-side wheelbase – were lost to the repair, and so it was decided that he should attempt to qualify on the second weekend rather than the first. Third fastest (155.481mph) on the day, Johns would start 22nd.
“We had a few problems with the Ford engine, otherwise the car was fantastic; more than anything I could have hoped for,” he says. “The only bad side came on Carburetion Day: I couldn’t take it to 8,500rpm whereas I’d been revving to 9,100 in testing. The mechanics told me that they’d fitted an injection booster [a central venturi rather than a nozzle in the side of the body] that atomized the fuel real good, for better mileage. That maybe so, but the car had lost its edge.”
According to Clark’s mechanic Jim Smith, both 38s were in this spec for qualifying and the race. In fact, he’d raised the ratio at Clark’s behest as his Lotus was gradually shunted up the line waiting its turn on Pole Day.
“Jimmy was away and gone in the race,” says Johns. “My traffic situation was different and now I didn’t have the acceleration to close gaps or jump into them. I really had to work on my passes, make them in unusual places and by unusual methods. “After the race I discovered from a Ford liaison guy that they’d also raised the final-drive ratio.
“But, hey, I was just a ‘taxi cab driver’ from Florida. I was a lucky guy just to get the chance. Chapman [BELOW, with Clark, IMS photo]. made good decisions with a view to keeping me in the race and to make sure that his number one had all he needed.
“And Jimmy was far superior to me as an open-wheel driver. I was no competition. We were in two different races. When he lapped me I tried to hang onto him – but it wasn’t even close. He scorched the field. That’s not to say I was a stool pigeon. Yes, I was aboard as a very grateful person with no strings to pull. Yes, they might have had me hand over to Jimmy if necessary – people had noted that we were the same height and weight – but nothing was said to me. I was racing as hard as I could in the circumstances, and with what I knew. I’d had nothing to do with the Lotus in terms of altering its maneuverability.
“I was amazed by some of the things I saw. When I told the guys that it was wandering on the straights, they put some washers, no more than 20- or 30-thou thick, on the drag link between the rack and the top of the spindles. I was minding my own business thinking that something so small couldn’t possibly make any improvement. But, boy, did it! That’s when I realized how much thought and expertise had gone into this car…
“… And into its fuel rig. Chapman kept it covered because he didn’t want people to see. It used a venturi effect so that its flow was much faster than by gravity alone: no bubbles, no rotation of fuel. A great piece of equipment.”
Unfortunately, Johns fluffed his first pit stop, thereby negating its benefits.
“I don’t know why I stalled. Perhaps the higher gear didn’t help. If I’d known I might have given it more revs to compensate. The brakes were another big difference. They’d always been negligible at Indy – until Chapman turns up with cars with these huge rotors: tap the pedal and you stopped. You could come into the pits as hot as the devil and drive hard right up to your bay. I wasn’t accustomed to such performance. It saved time but also increased the pressure on the stop. I guess it all added up.
“I’d had nothing to do either with the Wood Brothers landing the refueling gig – I don’t know where that story comes from – but I was pleased that they were there. I’d raced against Glen Wood as early as 1952 – and beaten him! It was nice to have familiar faces around. Plus I knew they were a good crew that wouldn’t be pulling in different directions. They sure did a fine job of getting me going again.”
Running ninth after 400 miles, Johns eventually edged Don Branson’s Watson-Ford by 0.32sec to finish seventh: “I chased him right to the checkers. Way in over my head, I was either going to crash trying to pass him or succeed.”
While Team Lotus was pleased by his performance – he won $16,886 – Johns soon discovered that this carried no weight with Holman-Moody.
“Back with them at Atlanta after Indy, I was running 3mph slower than I had earlier in the year,” he says. “I liked that track – I’d won the second race there [in 1960] – and was usually near the front. ‘What’s the matter, you forget how to drive the car?’ was the team’s unhelpful response. Mad as hell, I told them to put someone else in. They did – Dick Hutcherson – and he ran 1mph slower than me. I was running in the top 10 in the race, but not doing much of a job, when the engine exploded in Turn 3 and put me in the wall. I coasted into the pits with gas, oil and water pouring out.
“‘What’s the matter this time?’ They didn’t even lift the hood. Mad as hell again, I said, ‘My old Pontiac can run faster than this thing!’ They said, ‘Well, drive that, then.’ They’d created a situation to get rid of me.
“In truth, I was glad to go. I wanted to be back racing with my Dad ‘Shorty’ again. We built a Chevelle and had some fun.”
Although he failed to add to his two Grand National victories during the remainder of his career, Johns has never regretted its path.
“I think I showed that I had enough ability to do something good,” he says. “At a level, NASCAR Sportsman, where money was less of an issue, I was on top, beating a lot of good guys. Things got more difficult higher up the stock car scale.
“But with Lotus at Indy I was operating at the very highest level. And it felt good.”
BELOW: Bobby Johns qualified one more time for the Indy 500, in 1969 driving a Shrike-Offy. He started on the last row but came home in 10th. [IMS photo]