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Johnson is the epitome of a true-blue Aussie battler. He won over the heart of the nation following the now infamous incident with a rock in 1980, which led to a public appeal and his first Bathurst win a year later.
“There’s a lot from 1980 that attributes to the win in 1981,” explains Johnson, who created Dick Johnson Racing in 1980 following the demise of his former team, Bryan Byrt Racing.
“We went to Bathurst in 1980 with a car that we built from a second-hand ex-police car and we had one race prior to that, which was at Amaroo.
“Amaroo was a pretty good thing for us; we were leading most of the race until right near the end the back tyre wore out and I had a spin and ended up coming second.”
In light of the good result at Amaroo, the team was ready to take on the Mountain, even though a Holden had won the last two races there.
“We went to Bathurst and we were fairly confident the car was going to go well there because it had been a long time since a Ford had been up front, let alone leading the race,” says Johnson.
“Anyway we went there and pole position was worth 10 grand and second was worth nothing. We missed pole position by about a tenth of a second or something to Kevin Bartlett.”
Johnson’s team had plans to run the car “pretty hard” early in the race.
“Unlike today when you can run the cars flat out all day, you had to be a little conservative with these things because they weren’t as technologically advanced as what the cars are today,” he explains.
“We ran around there at a fairly hot sort of pace and pretty much broke the field up.”
When Johnson’s two main rivals, Peter Brock and Bartlett, struck trouble, his Tru-Blu Falcon appeared to be the likely winner, even though it was still in the first stint of the race.
“We were then looking really comfortable, just cruising around, when I came around through The Cutting and saw the white flag out saying there’s a slow moving vehicle there,” he reflects.
“That was in the days when they had tilt tray trucks picking up all the broken down and crashed cars. And I just rounded the corner and at the crest you can’t see much, but what I saw was the truck, and once I really got over the top of the hill I saw there was a rock in between the truck and the bank.
“I really had nowhere to go, so I tried going up the bank and ended up hitting the rock.”
What happened next not only saved his career, it also set the foundations for the success of Dick Johnson Racing/DJR Team Penske that followed over the next four decades.
“It was the best thing that happened,” reflects Johnson.
“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.
“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.”
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