Dick Johnson Racing stood on the brink of extinction entering 2013, facing mounting debts, a lack of sponsors and poor on-track results. Less than a decade on, it was back on top as one of the powerhouse teams in Supercars.
It was the latest remarkable comeback story from a team that built its legend on fighting back from adversity, as we reflect on in SupercarXtra Magazine issue #128, our Ford special edition.
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the legend of Dick Johnson and Dick Johnson Racing was born with the championship and Bathurst double in 1981, a year after the devastation of crashing out of Bathurst after hitting a rock while leading. It wouldn’t be the last adversity they faced, with even more remarkable and complex fightbacks over the coming years.
Dick Johnson Racing is currently one of the leading Ford team in Supercars, with a tally of 10 drivers’ championships, becoming the first team to win championships with three different car models – the Falcon, Sierra and Mustang.
It is remarkable to think, then, that Johnson’s team was almost lost to Supercars, following the trough of a 10-year period in which it went from champions to also-rans and near financial collapse to champions again and a current powerhouse outfit.
Dick Johnson Racing’s championship win with James Courtney in 2010 masked the trouble the team was in following a few bleak years. The collapse of 2005 title sponsor Westpoint and the failure of Johnson’s FirstRock Mortgage Centre and V8 Telecom businesses put the team’s budget under great strain, with its impact still felt despite Jim Beam’s backing leading into the championship-winning season.
The bubble burst in the immediate aftermath of the championship win. Charlie Schwerkolt, who owned 50 percent of the business, left in acrimonious circumstances. He leased the #18 entry (his half share in the two-car team) to Dick Johnson Racing for 2011 and 2012. But with a two-year maximum lease option and Schwerkolt eager to start his own outfit, Dick Johnson Racing was left with just one entry, the #17.
Championship-winning team manager Adrian Burgess and James Courtney also jumped ship, leaving significant voids for a team with a budget deficit. Experienced Englishman Malcolm Swetnam replaced Burgess as team manager, and rookie James Moffat teamed with Steven Johnson. But they didn’t produce results befitting the reigning champions with two podiums a far cry from the previous season. The customer Triple Eight Race Engineering Ford FG Falcons were rarely competitive, while Triple Eight had moved on to Holden and Dick Johnson Racing fell down the pecking order of Ford teams.
More significantly for the long-term, though, was the arrival of Ryan Story in an official capacity. Story was a devoted Dick Johnson Racing fan who had a doctorate in mathematics and had developed a lucrative data mining/statistical analysis business. He provided some sponsorship to the team before developing a business plan to attract new backers. His expertise would prove critical in the coming years.
Dick Johnson Racing doubled its operation in 2012 with an expansion to four cars. The two entries that arrived were from tie-ups with Dean Fiore and his Triple F Racing license and Paul Morris and his Paul Morris Motorsport license.
The extra entries would give the team the option to hold on to a license when the Schwerkolt #18 would leave at the end of 2012. Also, with Jim Beam recommitting its sponsorship for the entries of Johnson and Fiore, internet-security company Norton could join as title sponsor of Moffat’s car.
The four-car setup proved unsustainable, though, and the team slipped further down the grid with Johnson the best-placed entry in 17th. Swetnam left the team in April with title sponsor Jim Beam and investor Maurice Pickering also departing at the end of 2012. It was Pickering who had been working on a potential switch to Mazda for the team with the Car of the Future regulations coming in for 2013, though Dick Johnson Racing was left battling for survival entering the new era.
A potential title sponsorship deal with Hungry Jack’s fell through with the late delivery of Supercars’ television-rights deal, adding to the strain given the added cost in the transition to the Car of the Future. Wilson Security stepped up with sponsorship, and Crimsafe co-founder Steve Braback remained loyal to Johnson, while Story became heavily involved by running the budget to ensure the team stayed afloat.
Two cars were entered in 2013, despite initial fears the team would be unable to afford to go racing. With Schwerkolt taking the #18 entry and Morris selling his license, Dick Johnson Racing held onto the #17 and leased the #12 from Fiore. Tim Blanchard and Jonny Reid were the drivers with Steven Johnson forced to vacate the seat to the pay drivers, though Reid was soon replaced by rising star Chaz Mostert.
It was in the second half of 2013 that the stars began to align for Dick Johnson Racing. Mostert claimed a remarkable win at Queensland Raceway, a just reward for those who had worked so hard to keep the team going. But it was off track at the next Queensland round on the Gold Coast when the team’s future partner came into the picture, with Team Penske entering the equation.