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Thursday, 22 November 2018 11:33

Dick Johnson: The Falconer


Ford’s most successful, enduring and popular figure in racing for nearly 40 years, Dick Johnson is synonymous with the Falcon. Here he takes a walk down memory lane to pay tribute to the iconic Aussie car that helped make him one of the all-time greats.

No one has raced more Fords for longer than Dick Johnson. Since 1977 Johnson has been the Blue Oval’s standard-bearer on the track, driving Fords for more than two decades and still running them today.

As a minority co-owner of DJR Team Penske, the 73-year-old Ford folk hero remains the best-known face in Australian motorsport. More recognised than Craig Lowndes, Daniel Ricciardo, Mark Webber, Alan Jones and even fellow Ford treasure Allan Moffat.

And when it comes to Falconry on the track, Johnson is the master of the bird of prey. He is to Ford Falcons what the late Peter Brock is to Holdens. Brock versus Moffat popularised the Red versus Blue rivalry, but Brock versus Johnson raised it to a new level.

Johnson, of course, shot to overnight fame by hitting a rock while leading the 1980 Bathurst 1000 in his Tru-Blu XD Falcon. Out of despair came salvation, with a TV fundraising campaign – matched dollar-for-dollar by Ford – securing his future.

Of Johnson’s five championship wins, the first three were won in Falcons and, of his three Bathurst 1000 triumphs, two were in the Aussie iron as well. In between his Falcon flights the laconic Queenslander raced Mustangs – unsuccessfully – and Sierra Cosworths – very successfully – in the Group A era, when the international rules didn’t allow a then non-existent local V8 Ford.

Since 1993 Dick Johnson Racing has remained faithful to Falcon, with the alliance continuing through American mogul Roger Penske’s takeover to form DJR Team Penske (DJRTP) in 2015.

DJRTP last year joined Triple Eight Race Engineering as one of the powerhouses of Supercars and will now replace the ageing Falcon with a DJRTP-developed Mustang Supercar in 2019.

The return of the Mustang brings the sport full circle, harking back to the dawn of V8 tin-top racing’s popularity in the mid-1960s. Ford’s two-door coupe battled with Chevrolet Camaros and homegrown Holden Monaros into the early ’70s.

Johnson is the figurehead of the long Falcon racing era that is ending, but even he is more enthused about Ford Australia’s comeback with the Mustang, Australia’s – and the world’s – hottest selling ‘sports car’.

You’re the driver and team owner most synonymous with the Falcon, so it’s truly the end of an era. Your thoughts?

Well, it was something that was inevitable once the vehicle itself was no longer produced. The name’s disappeared, but it’s certainly served us very well in motorsport and I think it’s been a very good brand for Ford. It’s well-known and it still has a huge following. I’ve always been a very loyal person. I tried to be loyal to Holden once, but that didn’t work, so when the opportunity came to change to Ford I grabbed it with both hands.

You helped make the Falcon such an iconic car but equally it helped make you, didn’t it?

Oh, absolutely. Without the series of events that I went through, I probably never would’ve had a career like I’ve had. We stuck with Falcon the whole way because we knew the car pretty well and, as it turns out, it rewarded us. And there was quite a difference, really, between the Fords and the Holdens. They were different from the point of view that they had different strengths and weaknesses, and I think that’s what the punters really enjoyed and what made it more exciting.

That was especially so in what many would regard as the golden era of Group C, when it was a five-litre Commodore against a 5.8-litre Falcon.

Yeah, but the Falcon was a lot heavier and a lot bigger, and not as nimble. Even further back, the Torana XU-1s were a very nimble little car when they were up against the GTHO Falcons. It was always a very interesting era and it depended on which track you went to as to which one dominated.

As you say, you started racing Holdens but you switched to Fords and you’ve stuck with them ever since. Why have you stayed with Fords for so long?

Well, like I said, I’ve always been a very loyal person, but I’ve also stuck with Ford because we had all the stuff that worked with them. Remember, we were a privateer team, as much as might think we were a factory team. But that was never the case. I had to pay my own bills and all the infrastructure I had centred on the Ford. And to be quite honest, I thought I had a much better chance of winning in the Falcon because it was a bit more powerful and it was reliable.

It was the Tru-Blu XD that made you famous but your association with the Falcon started with the XB through Brisbane Ford dealer Bryan Byrt. That was the trigger for you to switch to Ford, wasn’t it?

Yes, it was because I was in a situation where I was paying all my own bills and funding my own motorsport. Having said that, the opportunity came along where I actually drove a Holden Dealer Team XU-1 at Surfers Paradise International Raceway once and I also drove an XU-1 for Zupps (big Brisbane Holden dealer) for a few years, but then Zupps decided they didn’t want to continue in racing. 

So there I was, left with nowhere to go and back to funding my own motorsport. Luckily, Bryan Byrt came to me and asked me if I’d like to drive his car. Right about then it could’ve been a Skoda and I would’ve been in there because someone else was paying the bills! Seriously, though, it was a good, competitive car (XB Falcon Hardtop). 

Sure, it took a while to get my head around things and get the preparation of the thing right. We were up against the factory then, too, where Moffat had the factory cars. But we held our own in certain places and led a couple of championship races, only to have some minor failures very close to the end, which was disappointing. Obviously, the wins were to come later.

And that program sowed the seeds for the XD.

Absolutely. When Bryan Byrt unfortunately passed away just after Bathurst in 1978, the business got taken over and sold. The guy who bought it, John Harris, continued backing the team in ’79, but the writing was on the wall and I offered to buy all the bits and pieces, which we could transfer into an XD body. 

I also asked Harris to supply me with an XD – which he did, an ex-highway patrol car, would you believe? – and that was the deal that started Dick Johnson Racing. 

We built the XD race car out of the patrol car and the bits from the XC two-door. I gave him back the XC with all the 351 V8 running gear out of the XD cop car. He sold it as a road car. I think it was found in recent years and rebuilt into the race car again. That’s how Dick Johnson Racing started and we did it all in the garage from our home.

‘The Rock’ incident at Bathurst in 1980. Absolute heartbreak, but it actually made your career.

It was the best thing that happened. At the time, it was the worst thing, but it turned out to be the best thing.

We’d put an awful lot on the line to get to there and it seemed like it was going to be the end, but because of one of the callers to Channel Seven (who launched a fundraising appeal), what happened saved us. 

Seven’s switchboard was absolutely jam-packed with people ringing in to donate money to get us back on track and one of the callers was Edsel B Ford II (Ford Motor Company heir and then assistant managing director of Ford Australia). 

Edsel said that for every dollar donated he would match it one-for-one – and he did. He may have thought it was only going to be four or five grand, but 78 grand later, he’d given us a pretty good budget to do the full season the following year, which I needed really bad. In a sense, that put an awful lot of pressure on me. 

I’m not one to let people down, so it made me, not try harder, but it made it more important for me to get out there and make sure I did the best job for all the people who supported us.

Was $78,000 the total or what Edsel had to match?

That’s what he had to put in.

So it was $156,000 all up? That would have bought you a nice new car.

Too right. That was a lot of money in 1980. But we never really did it easy because there was only the two of us. It was (Dick’s brother) Roy and I. We were building the car together and I was building the engines and gearboxes. Roy and I used to drive the truck everywhere and we’d live in the truck. We didn’t have the budget to stay in motels. There were some interesting times, I’ll tell ya.

Ford tipped in on that occasion and provided varying levels of support over the years, but DJR has never actually had full factory backing, has it?
Not 100 per cent. They obviously got to a point, in the latter years, where they were putting in pretty good money to support our team. But back in ’81, after the rock thing, it got me into Ford through Motorcraft (parts and accessories division). 

Doug Jacobi headed up Motorcraft and he was absolutely fantastic. He did everything he could to support what we were doing, sort of through the back door. And that led to bigger things later on when Howard Marsden returned in the mid-to-late ’90s when Ford Australia got more involved again. We had a meeting with Jac Nasser (then boss at Broadmeadows) and Peter Gilitzer (then marketing chief). 

As you’ll remember, Gilitzer was a huge supporter of motorsport and Nasser saw the commercial benefits for the Falcon being involved in racing. It was really in ’93, after the Sierras when we went back to V8 Falcons, that we started getting some serious support. Then under Marsden, who came from Tickford, the main Ford teams all got significant backing. But we were never the official factory team like Ford Performance Racing.

You mentioned 1993, which was the return of the Falcons and the start of the V8 era. As good as the Sierra Cosworths were, it must have been great to be back in a V8 Falcon?

It really was. And that was a result of the team owners getting together as a group and starting TEGA (which still exists as a legal entity to hold the teams’ shareholding in Supercars). That grew to the point where, along with trying to work with CAMS, we could control our own destiny. And that was a real fight, I can tell you. 

It was almost wholly funded by Fred Gibson and myself, and the one person that changed TEGA dramatically when he came to work for me was Wayne Cattach. He virtually masterminded the whole operation of converting TEGA into what we see today. It was the foundation of what became Supercars. 

We were just a bunch of owner/drivers that really wanted to see our future secured. Motorsport was changing from being a part-time thing into a full-time occupation and that was pretty significant for me because after about 1985 or 1986, I didn’t have another means of support. When he came in and saw how this thing was being run by a bunch of team owners he said, ‘Look, we really have to dismantle this to rebuild it.’ He brought in the idea of franchises for each of the teams and put some structure around it. 

Wayne did a magnificent job in laying down the rules and then, after I finished driving full-time at the end of 1999, he joined V8 Supercars as its chief executive officer. But let’s go back a step. In ’96 Tony Cochrane and James Erskine came along and pitched the team owners on taking over the running of touring-car racing and we knew we needed something like that to take us to the next level. 

Anyway, in the early ’90s, Group A was dying. Our TV ratings were going down, our attendances were going down, so we sat down as this group as asked, ‘What are we going to do to turn this around?’ And the answer was what had already worked, which was the Ford and Holden V8s. So that’s how that was born, and then Cochrane came along and they took it to the next level again. It’s what we still have today, which is Ford versus Holden.

We’re saying goodbye to the Falcon, but the exciting replacement is the Mustang. Of course, you’ve been there once before with the Group A Mustang in 1985/86. It’s a bit like Groundhog Day. Very different, though, this time. Just explain why you had to switch to the Mustang in ’85.

Well, when Group C finished after CAMS decided to go to this worldwide Group A category, there wasn’t a Falcon that was suitable to go racing (the V8 road-going model had been dropped in 1982). 

Our priority was to remain as competitive as possible because at that point we knew the Sierra was coming in a couple of years. It was too soon to go down the road of the Merkur XR4 Turbo, which they were already running in Europe (as a forerunner to the Sierra RS Cosworth), and it was something totally different to what I was used to. It had computerised electronic engine management, whereas I was just a carburettor and distributor guy – the old Model T Ford stuff. I needed a bit of time to find the right people and get my head around what was coming. 

So the Ford that fitted the bill was the Mustang, which Zakspeed had been running in Europe with engines built by Jack Roush. Ross Palmer (of Palmer Tube Mills, DJR’s main sponsor) and I went over to Germany to Zakspeed and asked them if they wanted to sell the two cars they had, which they did. 

One of them had never been raced and the other one had been raced a couple of times. So we bought the two cars and brought them back to race here.

To be fair, it was a struggle with them, wasn’t it?

It was. It was difficult, but we could’ve done a much better job if we had’ve been able to get into the factory to give us what was there and available, and get it homologated. 

Unfortunately, Ford was never involved because the Americans weren’t interested in Group A. It meant nothing to them and was, really, unique to Australia that the Mustang was going to race in Group A. 

They didn’t see any benefit in it. We made the most of what we had and it filled the gap we needed to fill until the Sierra.

So the new Mustang next year. How much are you looking forward to that?

Well, the Falcon is past it’s use-by date. Not only has it been out of production for a couple of years, but technically and physically the FG X Falcon racer is at the end of its life. 

The ZB Commodore was a huge step forward and the Mustang will enable us to catch up. You’re only talking about very small gains, but in such a tightly controlled category little things make a big difference. It’s crucial to have everything spot-on.

It’ll be popular with the fans because the Mustang is sold here in right-hand-drive and it’s now Ford’s signature model in Australia. It’s what those people out there want to see. And it’s great to have Ford Australia involved in racing again. 

I think they’re really excited about it, too. I don’t think they expected the reaction they got from the public when they announced they were coming back to Supercars with the Mustang.