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Flashback: Dick Johnson’s redemption

Forty years on, reflecting on Dick Johnson’s triumphant return from heartbreak in 1980 to championship and Bathurst success in 1981.

20 December 2021

After the heartbreak of crashing out of the lead following a tangle with a rock at Bathurst in 1980, Dick Johnson and his eponymous team fought back to win the championship and Great Race double in 1981. Forty years on, we reflect on one of the greatest comebacks in Australian touring-car history in SupercarXtra Magazine issue #123.

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When the dejected Johnson appeared on Channel Seven’s coverage of the 1980 Bathurst 1000 after crashing out from the lead of the race due to a rock on track, the Queenslander questioned whether he would be back at Mount Panorama having “had a gutful of the whole bloody operation.”

The then 35-year-old had already made a name for himself in Australian touring-car circles before he shot to fame as a result of his misfortune at Bathurst in 1980. Johnson made semi-regular championship and Bathurst appearances in the 1970s, initially in privateer Holden Toranas and then with Ford outfit Bryan Byrt Racing.

Following Byrt’s death and the demise of the team, Johnson had two choices: giving up on racing and focusing on his day job running a Shell service station, or setting up his own racing outfit. Johnson bought the car and equipment off Bryan Byrt Racing and formed what became known as Dick Johnson Racing (DJR).

“There’s a chance if we can do this right we can win a few races, so we stuck everything we had into the race car and it went from there,” said Johnson.

It would prove to be worth the risk when he qualified on the front row and led the early stages of the biggest race of the year at Bathurst in 1980.

The unfancied Johnson and co-driver John French were controlling proceedings at Bathurst in an impressive run for the new outfit when Johnson encountered a football-sized rock heading up Mount Panorama on lap 17.

“I just couldn’t believe my bloody eyes with these galoots up there that just throw boulders; that was enormous,” he said post-race.

“This was our big shot; we had sunk every bob into this. With our car the way it was, it was more than capable of winning the race – and doing it easily!” But rather than being a crushing blow, the incident led to an outpouring of support.

As Johnson later admitted, winning Bathurst that year would not have given him the amount of exposure that he received following the crash. “At the time, it was the worst thing, but it turned out to be the best thing,” he said.

More than $70,000 was donated by the public and Ford Australia to get him back on track for the following season, with Edsel Ford matching the public donations. Johnson built a new Falcon XD and won his first championship race at the 1981 season opener at Symmons Plains. He went on to win the championship over Peter Brock following a thrilling finale on home soil at Lakeside.

“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,” reflected Johnson.

“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.

“It was an absolute blinder of a championship because it was one that came down to the last race between Brock and myself and there was only one point in it. It was a race around Lakeside, and we were wheel-to-wheel for the entire duration of the event.”

Brock would later describe the win as a “turning point” in Johnson’s life, giving him the self-belief and confidence as the Blue Oval’s new leader. Following on from that championship success, Johnson returned to Bathurst to make amends for the heartbreak that had occurred 364 days before.

Johnson again qualified in second place and overcame the challenge of Brock and Kevin Bartlett, leading on lap 121 when a multi-car pile-up ended the race early. Despite engine concerns and the uncertainty around the race stoppage, Johnson and co-driver French were awarded the win, completing the remarkable comeback.

“You wouldn’t believe the feeling of relief after we won, firstly the championship and then Bathurst; it was a fitting climax to an incredible 12-month journey,” said Johnson.

“There’s a lot from 1980 that attributes to the win in 1981. Fortunately, I won, which meant it was the first championship, and then to go to Bathurst that year was really something special.

“We had a really good, strong car; we had a good combination in Frenchy and myself; and the car was really strong leading the race quite easily.

“It just so happened that we did everything right during the day, and I think it was about lap 121 where there was a big shunt on top of the Mountain, and it was between Bob Morris and Christine Gibson, and that sort of blocked the track a fair bit because a lot of cars came around unaware of what was in front of them and completely blocked the track.

“So they red flagged the race and because the race had done more than 75 percent, they declared us the winners.

“They went back a lap and actually Bob Morris, who was second at the time, ended up coming second even though his car had crashed, so that’s obviously what the rules were all about.

“It was a hell of a relief for me because all those people had really stuck their faith behind us back in 1980, and to come back the following year and not only win the championship but win the race (Bathurst), which was pretty cruel to us the year before, was special.”

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