Motorsports icons pass away close to Christmas

Episode 295

December 22, 2019

NASCAR legend Junior Johnson dead at 88 years of age

Junior Johnson Motorsports Hall of Fame photo. Johnson’s wife Lisa said he died in hospice care from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease. (NASCAR Twitter photo)

1966 Ford Galaxy built by Junior Johnson and driven by Fred Lorenzon. The “Banana” car featured several innovative rule stretchers including laid back windshield, lowered roof, and curved downward front end. Holly Farms Poultry was the company to which Johnson sold his chickens.(Photo by Tim Talbert at 2010 Sonoma Historics)

It seems like this pre-Christmas episode of UpNorth Motorsports is somber with the passing of two motorsports legends this past two weeks. I remember Junior Johnson as the moonshine driver, chicken farmer, NASCAR driver, and team owner. For his exploits on and of the track, Tom Wolfe in 1965 Esquire magazine article called him, “Last American Hero”.

Interviews I recall were always fun to watch and attempt to understand. Junior from Ronda, North Carolina with his heavy southern drawl could be hard to understand. I sometimes wondered how this team that talked so slow could race so fast!

Johnson was so well-respected that he was part of the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class in 2010 along with Bill France Senior, Bill France, Junior, Richard Petty, and Dale Earnhardt. Johnson became a fixture around the Charlotte based hall of fame assisting with events and visitors.

Johnson’s first race as a driver was Darlington in 1953, first win at Hickory Speedway in 1955, and final race at Rockingham in 1966. He gave up ownership of his race team in 1966 to Brett Bodine.

Johnson was also known for bringing in the huge sponsorship money from the Winston cigarette company. This infusion of funds moved NASCAR from its deep southern roots to nationwide status over the course of the next several seasons.

Motorsports safety man, Bill Simpson 79, dies after suffering stroke

It was a hot day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when I was covering the Brickyard 400. I am unsure of the exact year, however, I do remember talking with Bill Simpson in the sponsor garage inside Gasoline Alley.

Simpson was talking about a piece of property he was considering buying, Clermont Deluxe Drive-In Theater located directly across from the entrance to Lucas Oil Raceway in Clermont, Indiana west of Indianapolis. He wanted to build a 24,000 square foot building for Impact! Racing a new company he had formed after resigning from Simpson Racing Products in 2001.

Simpson was very friendly to me, talking approximately 15 minutes about his plans for a motorsports center in Clermont. Later that year some of my students and I found the Clermont Drive In Theater. I had some of them pose at the site. I have not located those photos yet and fear they may be lost.

The Clermont Deluxe Drive-In Theater that Bill Simpson wanted to purchase for a future motorsports business park. As far as I can determined, the property which sits directly across the road from Lucas Oil Raceway, NHRA owned track, and is vacant.(Unattributed photo)

Regardless, I am glad I got to meet the man who was famous for developing among many safety devices a drag racing parachute that worked. I remember the story about he and his drag racer friend Mike Sorokin trying out one of their first prototypes. They were testing it at 100 mph on the street when upon deployment, the chute yanked the car into the air and the out-of-control Chevy wagon slammed into a tree nursery.

The two safety pioneers landed in jail.  Later Simpson Drag Chutes was formed for drag racers.

Simpson met NASA astronaut Pete Conrad in 1967. Conrad introduced DuPont’s flame resistant material, Nomex to Simpson. A short while later in 1967, 30 of the 33 drivers in the race were wearing his nomex firesuit.

Simpson was involved in building many more motorsports safety items including fire resistant gloves, top fuel dragster breather mask, window net, roof net, shoes, underwear, and the first carbon fiber helmet.

He made national news when he set himself on fire while wearing his safety apparel to demonstrate the fire resistant quality of his suits. The photos were splashed over network news stations around the country and sales of the product increased. He did that demonstration multiple times in his younger days.

Bill Simpson Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame photo

Motorsports Hall of Fame of America inducted Simpson in 2003. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame inducted Simpson in 2014. Simpson sold Impact! Racing in 2010 to MasterCraft Safety. He continued to promote safety until his death on Friday December 16, 2019 after a stroke three days earlier.

Ben Rowe at PRI

I found out that Maine’s Ben Rowe was at the Performance Racing Industry Show (PRI) as a representative for Five Star Race Bodies. While at the show in Indianapolis, Rowe produced the video below.

Rowe has competed at all three Pro All Star Series (PASS) races at Spud Speedway with his third in the 2019 Firecracker 200 his best.

Penske 2020 Featherlite hauler launched

I thought you might like to see the 2020 version of Penske Racing team transporter before the interior was filled with the equipment deemed necessary to race.

Penske 2020 transporter team meeting room located near the front of the hauler. Room for engineers as well as other team members as well as overhead storage. (Featherlite Trailer photo)

Inside Penske’s new Featherlite transporter looking from front to back. (Featherlite Trailer photo)

Christmas 2019  Joyous Noel

I hope you take the time to ponder what this week means in this time of trials and tribulations. The earth seems to be groaning under the burden of everyday events. The birth of a Savior and what he did for us is worth once again reflecting on this week and into 2020.

The reason I celebrate Christmas is not gifts, Christmas trees, family, friends, food, or even church. I recognize that the history of planet earth changed on a chilly Bethlehem night some 2000 plus years ago. That baby boy born in a cave with animals and placed in a feed trough for his bed that night was to be the perfect sacrifice for my sins when he died on a crude Roman cross thirty-three years later and was resurrected three days later and became my Savior a quiet Sunday July 22, 1990. He can be your perfect gift this Christmas season which will change your life for eternity. John 3:16 says it well.

Merry Christmas,

Tom Hale

Soli Deo Gloria (Isaiah 9:6)

Tom Hale

About Tom Hale

Tom wrote 14 years as freelancer for the Bangor Daily Sports covering motorsports in Maine. Now blogging and concentrating on human interest stories about people and places in racing. He races Champ Karts and owns HTF Motorsports in remote Westmanland, Maine