Johnson family almost made their mark on dirt tracks instead of drag strips

Jeff Birchfield • Dec 25, 2017 at 5:07 PM

Roy Johnson made his mark as one of the best engine builders in drag racing with his motors powering son, Allen, to 27 NHRA national-event wins, 37 No. 1 qualifying awards and the 2012 NHRA Pro Stock World Championship. But, the local racing legend from Greeneville nearly took another motorsports route.

He was a top dirt-track driver and was offered a ride in a car prepared by Johnson City racers Brownie King and Jess Potter before it ultimately ended up going to Johnson City driver Brad Teague.

In this Johnson City Press interview, Johnson talks about his long career, life on the road and racing memories on both the dirt tracks and drag strips.

What has it been like being on the road with your family?

“My wife (Revonda) and I got Christmas cards and most of them are from out of town. We don’t have that many friends around home because we haven’t been around there. For us, it’s going to be a heckuva adjustment. Even before Allen came along and started racing Pro Stock, we weren’t home. I raced long before 1975, but that year I got a signed contract and started drag racing. I was gone all the time until I quit racing in 1986. Then, we started running flea markets until Allen came along in 1995 and decided he was going to do this deal.”

Most people don’t realize you started out racing on the dirt tracks. What was that like?

“I actually started go-kart racing back in 1961 and we would race all day with Phil Bachman. Phil used to come by and eat soup beans and cornbread at our house. Then, I went dirt track racing and did that until 1971 with the Utsmans (John A., Layman and Cecil), and Brad Teague and all those guys. Lo and behold in 1971, Dwight Arrowood and I signed a drag racing deal. The ink hadn’t even dried when Brownie King and Jess Potter came down to where I was working with a new car. They had chosen me to drive it on the dirt track. I had to turn them down because I had just signed the drag racing deal. Brad Teague drove it and he won some races in it. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I done that.”

Was there a real possibility that the Johnson family would have been known for round-track racing and even NASCAR instead of drag racing?

“That’s exactly right. But, I wanted to keep my word. We had gotten a deal with Quaker State, Hot Rod Barns and Lid Eliminators. At the time of the dirt-track deal, we got $5,000 per car with the drag racing deal.”

If I recall, the worst crashes you ever had were actually in the dirt track cars.

“I wrecked one time at Sportsman Speedway in Johnson City and it looked like a drag racing crash. I hit the wall, going down the backstretch and the car went up in the air. It didn’t go out of the track. My worst wreck was at Appalachian Speedway in Kingsport. I flipped several times, tore the car up and it tore me up pretty good.”

Seeing the dangers of the sport, were there reservations when Allen decided to race?

“When he came out and said we’re going racing, I said, ‘Hell no, I’m not. I’ve been quit 10 years.’ He said, ‘Yes, you are.’ He wanted to race when I had my car, but I sold it and he got mad because I told him, ‘You go get your education and if you ever make any money, we’ll talk about it.’ When he came back in ’95 and said, ‘We’re going racing,’ it kind of forced me into it.”

With all the family went through, the toughest moment was in Phoenix when you nearly died at the race track from a heart attack.

“That was ’07. We made the last run of the day and he didn’t qualify, the last time he ever didn’t qualify. I rode my bicycle back to the truck and in the meantime, the boys (on the crew) had gotten cheeseburgers and brought them back to the truck. I got sick at my stomach. I told them, ‘Those hamburgers you boys got are making me sick.’ Anyway, I went down on the ground. They stented me. I was in the right place at the right time when all that happened. Ten years later, I’m still hanging around.” 







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