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Embracing change keep Dick Johnson's need for speed alive

As his DJR Team Penske team prepare to tackle the Supercars Castrol Gold Coast 600 on October 21¬23, Aussie motor racing icon Dick Johnson tells journalist SHERELE MOODY about his relentless drive to win.

"CHANGE". This is probably the most important word in Australian motor racing legend Dick Johnson's vocabulary.

"Over the years things have changed considerably," the 71-year-old says as he shows Weekend Magazine around his pristine state-of-the-art Dick Johnson Racing Team Penske headquarters.

"I think one of the big things (for success) is being able to accept that change happens and being able to move with it because if you don't, you're just going to be an also-ran and that's not where I want to be."

Embracing change has long paid dividends for Johnson, whose last appearance behind the wheel was in 1999 - the year he and his son Stephen teamed up to compete in the Bathurst 1000 where they qualified in 10th place and finished in fourth.

Johnson's been in the racing game most of his life and in that time cars have got a hell of lot faster and the technology behind them is light years ahead of the good old days.

"What makes this a fast-changing industry is that it's so competitive," he says.

"When the entire field is qualifying within a second over a 6km racetrack you know damn well it's very, very competitive.

"Just trying to find the very, very small adjustments that you have to make to get that extra 100th or 200th of a second is - well it means a hell of a lot."

While he hung up his helmet 17 years ago, Johnson says he will never completely walk away from the sport he fell in love with as a kid growing up in Brisbane.

"It's not that you lose any one ability," he says of deciding to stop racing.

"I probably just lost a bit of everything and I didn't feel as comfortable in the car as I once felt.

"I thought 'You know, now's a pretty good time to call it quits'."

Talk of stepping off the track easily turns to why he started racing in the first place.

"I didn't have a lightbulb moment," Johnson says, reflecting on finding his need for speed as a lad under the watchful eye of his father who wanted him to be an Olympic swimmer.

"All I wanted was to drive.

"It was just a passion I had ever since I was a kid."

And so, life, luck - and yes, a whole lot of hard work - came together, ensuring Johnson's ambitions were realised.

"I suppose I've been one of the fortunate people who's been in a situation where my dreams came true," he says.

"All I ever wanted to do was race motorcars and that's what I did."

 

Johnson's initial signs of greatness emerged when he was a fresh-faced 19-year-old, scoring his first career-making race on just his second outing in an FJ Holden.

A few years later he upgraded to an EH Holden and signed on the dotted line with sponsor Shell - a partnership that continues today.

While the Shell relationship endures, Johnson's commitment to Holden ended when he started driving Fords in 1977.

"My favourite car was any one that won a race," he says, easily deflecting a question about his brand loyalties.

It was 1980 - the year he smashed into a rock allegedly thrown onto the track while leading the Bathurst 1000 pack - that he really captured the heart of our sporting nation, with fans from all sides of the track really connecting with their new "battler" hero.

 "So moved was the public by Johnson's plight, they jammed the Channel 7 switchboard with calls, pledging money to help him rebuild his Tru Blu Ford Falcon XD," the DJR Team Penske website says.

Ford Australia's head, "Edsel Ford called through with a promise to match dollar for dollar every public donation received …. Which launched Dick Johnson Racing and turned Dick into a national celebrity."

From 1970 to 1999, Johnson drove in hundreds of races, claiming Australian Touring Car, Endurance and NASCAR titles on iconic Aussie tracks Bathurst, Sandown and Eastern Creek.

"There were times when you could win and you'd feel disappointed because you'd know damn well that you didn't do your best and get everything out of it that you could have," he says of his career.

"And there were other times when I've come third or fourth and thought, 'Well damn - that's the best I can do and I was just beaten by somebody better on the day'."

 

Like all great racing drivers, Dick Johnson's had his fair share of crashes.

But there is no doubt the worst crash happened far from the roar of crowds and engines.

In 2008, DJR went into receivership.

"I'd owned a $2.1m property, a $1.3m factory and I had $4m in the DJR bank," he wrote in his book Dick Johnson: The Autobiography of a True-Blue Aussie Sporting Legend.

"I also had an expensive boat and two of the most famous and expensive race cars in the history of Australian motor sport.

"I am now fighting to save my team and my house. The rest is lost."

Somehow, Johnson held onto DJR and now, with a significant financial and professional commitment from American motor racing icon Roger Penske, the tireless fan favourite has a real chance of once again leading Australia's motor racing pack.

"DJR is Australia's oldest team," Johnson says with obvious pride.

"When Roger Penske brought into the business, that was a huge step forward for the team.

"We're just now starting to find our feet and starting to become more competitive."

Johnson hopes drivers Fabian Coulthard and new recruit Scott McLaughlin will steer the DJR brand to ongoing victory.

While drivers are a key component of any good racing outfit, they really are only one part of a complex puzzle.

It takes a massive team of highly-skilled professionals - including engineers, machinists and panel builders - around 10 days to build a DJR V8 Supercar from scratch.

And almost every component is created or refined in-house.

Johnson says each vehicle is worth around $600,000 and once the race is over and it's back at DJR headquarters it is pulled apart.

"A lot of people don't realise what's involved in racing and what we do here," he says.

"Those fans that do come to visit are quite surprised to see just how much work is entailed in presenting these cars at each race meeting.

"After every race meeting the cars are pulled right down to virtually nothing and rebuilt.

"That's to make sure we have reliability and this gives us an idea just how long certain parts will be functioning on the car before we have to change them.

"It's a very intense process."

If "change" is one of Johnson's key words, the other one is "team".

"It's more so about having a group of people that can work together," he says when asked about the key to winning.

"It's not any one thing that wins races.

"It's the combination of many, many things and the team is a big part of it.

"Everyone has to put in and, irrespective of how good you are at your job, you've got to be part of the team."

 

Not one to fade quietly into retirement, Johnson spends a lot of his time in the sprawling DJR Team Penske headquarters, near the iconic Yatala Pie Shop on Queensland's Gold Coast.

Every day a steady stream of fans - young and old - wander through the massive glass doors into the foyer that also houses a small museum commemorating their hero's achievements.

It's interesting to watch young boys and girls shyly sidling up to the non-descript white-haired gentleman who could easily be their great grandfather.

Handing autographs out like candy, Johnson knows that the kids basking in his legendary light are the future of racing.

"I'm the same person as now as what I was when I first started - I've never let anything get to my head or anything like that," he says of being the object of widespread adulation.

"I've never been big-headed.

"I've always treated people with the utmost respect and tried to give back to those people who put me where I am.

"I've always respected anyone who comes to get an autograph.

"I'm not the most outgoing person but at the end of the day when they come around and they want something, I'd do my best to give it to them.

"You can't lose sight of the fact that the fans are the ones who made you what you are and they're people who keep the sport going."

# The Supercars Castrol Gold Coast 600 is on October 21¬23.

 - ARM NEWSDESK