Delmo Johnson was a saint, a sinner and a beautiful, devilish, rascal of a man who crammed 10 lifetimes’ worth of fun, adventure, accomplishment and trouble into his 82 years. Whether it was racing cars, flying airplanes, running businesses, chasing women, riding motorcycles or doing any one of a hundred other things, Johnson was all in.
He inherited his energy and enthusiasm from his father, Delmo Johnson Sr., an entrepreneur, outdoorsmen and world traveler whose foray into the automobile business set the stage for his son’s lifelong love affair with racing and all manner of fast machinery. In 1924 the elder Johnson went to Ford seeking a franchise, but none was available in the central-eastern part of Texas. “So he walked across the hall to Chevrolet,” Delmo Jr. told this author in a lengthy 1998 interview, “and they said he could have a dealership and they would put him in that afternoon.” The dealership was located about 35 miles south of Dallas in the small town of Ennis, a railroad hub and cotton-producing center populated primarily by refugees from the war-ravaged Confederate South.
After the Great Depression began in 1929, it became increasingly difficult to sustain the dealership in Ennis, which had a population of only 7,000. That’s when Delmo Sr. relocated to Marshall, which had been a governmental center for the Republic of Texas in the mid-19th century, a major Confederate city during the Civil War and then a large railroad hub after the war. Though not huge, its population of 17,000 held out more promise, and Delmo Sr. built a larger dealership than the one he left behind.
The dealership flourished, and the younger Johnson went to work there when he was just 12 years old. He took a full-time position there after graduation from North Texas University, but just four months later received a draft notice. After a stint in the Army, Johnson was discharged on November 7, 1957, and the next day took over the day-to-day operations of Johnson Chevrolet.
To the casual observer, Johnson looked like he was settled into a sedate life centered on career and family, but nothing could be further from reality. He had married his high school sweetheart in 1951 and they had a son together, but Johnson’s wild nature wasn’t compatible with marriage. “I was married until 1960 or 1961, and in 1962 I married another girl. I was married to her for seven years and then got a divorce and was married to my third wife for five years. I got [another] divorce in 1974 or 1975 and have not been married since.”
“I bought a 1959 Corvette with no intention of racing it. At that time Jim Hall and Carroll Shelby had a sports-car showroom on Yale Boulevard in North Dallas. There was a Playboy Club above the store and a lot of racers went there. One night I walked in and a bunch of guys were grinning from ear to ear. I said, ‘Judging from the grins every one of you must have gotten laid today!’ They said nobody had gotten laid—they had all just gotten back from a race. So I said, ‘If racing is that much fun, I ought to be doing it!’ I started racing January 1, 1959 at Frost Bite in Fort Worth and continuously raced until April 1965.”
At his very first race, Johnson’s raw talent brought him a class victory in his ’59 Corvette. He found racing addictive, and winning made it all the more intoxicating. “I raced to go fast and to win—I never expected to finish Second. At the same time, if it wasn’t fun I’d have quit. And it was always fun. Hell, if I’d have had any more fun, I would-n’t have been able to stand it!
Johnson took his racing very seriously, or at least as seriously as he took anything else in life, but he was always there to have fun, and for him part of the fun was annoying anyone who took the sport too seriously. “I met Dave Morgan and Hap Sharp at Frost Bite in 1959. Dave and I became friends at that first race, and we’ve been friends ever since. We very often drove together, and we were too relaxed, or maybe too confident, for some people. I turned my ’59 Corvette into a pure racecar, but I left the heater and radio in it. I would sit on the grid with the radio turned up, listening to music. The local bunch decided Dave and I were getting factory help because we usually won. The locals thought they couldn’t compete, so we started driving the racecar to the races instead of trailering it, just to rub it in their faces. We [did] that for one whole year! We brought a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, two quarts of oil and a case of beer. That would really piss them off.”
Johnson continued racing his ’59 Corvette in 1960, including his first entry at Sebring. He and Morgan co-drove there, finishing Third in class and 35th overall. “Dave and I finished every Sebring we drove together, and in most cases we finished pretty good. We only had one real engine problem, and that was in 1960. We had to put two new pistons in the car in the middle of the race.”
“It didn’t look too good for the Chevrolet dealer to be driving a Jaguar, but at least it had a Chevrolet engine. I bought it because it was a good racecar, and I raced it all over the country along with the Corvette. I’d race the Jag as a C-Modified and the Corvette in a production class. I also frequently raced a Formula Junior in the same time frame. I had a little Elva, the car Jim Hall won Sebring with in the first Junior race in 1960 or ’61.”
At Sebring in 1961, Johnson and Morgan drove a new Corvette to First in class and 11th overall, their best finish together at the 12-hour classic. In addition to Sebring, Johnson raced at every available opportunity that season. “Most of the time, including 1961, I ran 50 weekends a year. Normally, I’d run the Corvette as a production car, the XKSS as a modified and one or two other cars as well. I ran one season in a Renault Dauphine for Snuffy Smith Motors. We ran the 12 Hours of Marlboro in the Renault, and it was a pretty fast little car. I also ran one of the Purple People Eater [Mini Coopers] for Overseas Motors a few times.”
At Sebring in 1963 he and Morgan drove a new ’63 Z06 to 16th overall and Second in class behind the Phil Hill/Lew Spencer/Ken Miles Cobra. “We’d have done considerably better if we had brakes. Zora gave us some experimental brake shoes that only lasted two hours. By the end of the 12 hours, we wore right through the shoes and only had a little ‘T’ bar left. I told Zora we had no brakes, and he said, ‘You have brakes, you’re just not pushing hard enough on the pedal!’ Ten hours without brakes is a long time.”
In 1964 Johnson continued racing his Corvette as well as various other cars. “I drove quite a bit for John Mecom in 1964 and ’65. I drove his DeTomaso…it had an Alfa engine and it was a good little car. In addition I drove a Formula Junior for Mecom, and once in a while I’d drive his Indy car in a sports-car race just for fun. I also drove his Grand Sport Corvette, which we called the ‘Lightweight.’” Johnson subsequently purchased his own GS. “At first I wasn’t really interested in the Grand Sport. I had driven Mecom’s and it was a very fast car in a straight line, but overall they were pretty shitty cars. It wouldn’t steer, stop or turn. It was really better suited to a drag strip. It was a 200-mph car, but by 160 mph it was already unpredictable as to where it was going to go.
Johnson and Morgan co-drove the GS at Sebring in 1964. Its 377-ci V-8 produced more than 500 horsepower, which was enough brute force to make the 1,900-pound car literally fly. It was faster than anything else in the race on Sebring’s straights, including the Ferrari 275Ps that finished One-Two and the 330P that turned the fastest race lap, but handling difficulties and mechanical woes yielded a poor finish.
Later in 1964 Johnson did a different kind of racing with the GS. “There was a guy named Jack Ferrill. He owned a Chevrolet dealership, and he had an AHRA champion Corvette. He was the fast guy, and he challenged the Grand Sport to a drag race over at Green Valley. The Grand Sport was not set up for drag racing, and I was not a drag racer, but I still managed to wax his ass five times. His driver, a guy by the name of Phil Mote, drove the first three races, [after which] Jack said, ‘Get out of the car and let me show you how to beat him.’ His car beat me off the line, and I didn’t get rolling until halfway down the track. My car had 3.55:1 gears and by halfway I had a head of steam, and by the end it was not even close. I waxed Jack’s ass too.”
The tone of the event is aptly conveyed by Johnson’s recollection of the Mexican president’s pre-race address to competitors. “The president of Mexico said, ‘Here’s the deal: I’ve got 3,500 Mexican soldiers guarding the road from here to Acapulco. For 30 days we’ve been telling everybody we are going to have the high-speed races, so there is not supposed to be anybody on the street. But if anybody walks out in front of you and you have to go ahead and hit them, it’s OK. If you kill ‘em and your car is still running, you’d better get going because their family will probably kill you.’ He was serious.”
After the contest began, Johnson sped along at a race-leading pace until differential failure struck 12 miles inside of Vera Cruz. “An oil line broke, and the rear end welded itself together. I was going about 150 mph when it quit and left two long, black skid marks. I pulled to the side of the road and hitchhiked into town. Two hours later I was sitting in a bar drinking, and my mechanic walked in and said, ‘I sent someone after the car, I’ve got a rear end coming from Mexico City and I’ve rented a place to work on it tonight.’ I said, ‘How did you know where I was?’ and he said, ‘Simple: This is the first bar within the city limits.’”
When the Carrera was finished, so was Johnson’s GS. “I sold it after that adventure because it was wore smooth out—it was absolutely done. Fuel could be hard to come by, so I carried 55 gallons in the car. At every stop I poured a can of pop into the tank with an octane booster I got from Garland Chemical. Fifty-five gallons of gas can be pretty heavy, and at 190 mph when I hit bumps, I hit them hard. I knocked the shocks off and actually wore the frame clear through from scraping on the ground. It was a tired, old bird at the end of that race.”
At Sebring in 1965 Johnson and Morgan co-drove Alan Sevadjian’s GS in horrendous rain. “It always rained at Sebring, but that was the year it really rained. We were lapping consistently about every three minutes and 15 or 16 seconds, [but] when the first drop of rain hit it took 12 minutes for the first car to come around. The track had six to eight inches of water in one corner and the pits had 10 inches. I pulled into the pits, got out of the car and tripped over a floor jack I couldn’t see because it was underwater. At the end of the race I was wet, tired, hungry and freezing to death. I said to David, ‘My father raised a smarter son than this. I stop as of right now.’”
After he stopped racing Johnson got more involved with another of his passions, flying. He had begun flying in 1948 but started participating in aerobatics competitions all over the country after he quit racing. He also regularly performed at air shows and even did a stint with the U.S. Postal Service, flying airmail “just for fun.”
Johnson also got heavily involved with competitive shooting after he stopped racing. As with everything else, he did this purely for the joy it brought. “I shot 25,000 rounds in competition and probably another 25,000 in practice.”
It was in that hangar, on May 14, 2015, amidst his planes, cars, machine tools, antique barber chairs, trophies, books, toys and countless other reminders of a life well lived that Delmo Johnson passed away. The world lost a great, larger-than-life character, and everyone who knew him, including me, lost a beloved friend.