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Thread: Ken Johnson (1947-2000)

  1. #1

    Ken Johnson (1947-2000)

    It was on this day six years ago that Indy lost one of its most passionate fans. As I look back today in memory, not sad, not upset, only with a sense of celebration for life and enthusiasm, I remember my father this day. I have not previously taken the time to give a proper eulogy, especially to the close-knit racing world. It only stands to reason that in what will be our family’s twenty-fifth “500” this year, we remember him for the enthusiastic fan he was.

    I doubt any TF members knew Ken. He passed away before he could actively peruse the message boards. I had him set up for internet on his machine about two months before his passing, only to have the old computer crash before he could really use it. I was not able to get it going again before he was gone. Either way, his fourteen years on the IMS Safety Patrol was more than enough time to establish himself as a friend of “500,” and consider himself a part of its innermost community.

    After years of watching it on television, he finally had the opportunity to go to the race in 1981. Immediately he was hooked, and brought me to the Speedway the following year. Three years later he found himself working as a yellow shirt in the backstretch bleachers. It may have been, quite possibly, the worst location to watch the race from, but as we all know, it did not matter. The only thing that mattered was “being there,” and seeing the friends you got to see once a year.

    The many misadventures of the yellow shirt world found him move to the turn two infield once (where you could not see any better), and the year he got caught up doing infield “lake duty” halfway through the race, causing him to miss the finish. Thankfully, for the 1995 Brickyard 400, they moved him to the south end of the old yellow Tower Terrace, a move that would be permanent for both races (no F1 back then). It was actually his first race watched from the mainstrech in over a decade. The south end of the pits was the place to be, especially on race day. Mingling with who’s who of Indy, and having the enviable ability to peruse the pits whenever he felt, free of cost. A single “flash of the badge,” as they called it, was perhaps the only intrinsic benefit from being a yellow shirt. Working in the Tower Terrace had its own quirks back then too. Few may know, or remember the doors on the side of the TT grandstands, accessible from the Gasoline Alley entrance, and other corridors, but they actually led to a room underneath, their break room. As dark, dank, and dirty as that room was, it was all seen as a benefit that few got to experience at Indy.

    We all have our traditions for Indy, and his were no less personal, and yet no less superfluous. We always had to drive into town a certain way, we always had to play certain songs in the van, and we always had to park in a certain place. It just was not Indy if we did not do it like we did every year.

    It was April 1999, when he got that annual thick envelope from the Speedway- the paperwork for his yellow shirt employment for the month. At the time he was out-of-work, and suffering financially. A move to southwest Florida sparked a new chord in his life, one that had been heading down a dark road for every bit of the last decade. He planned to drive up and spend nearly the entire month there, and I would drive up separately to meet him for race weekend with my soon-to-be wife. Only at the end of April, the diagnosis was in. Cancer. I was not there when he had to call the IMS office to cancel his employment for the month, but I cannot imagine it was easy. He had so little left in life at that point, that Indy was what brought him back to life annually. I did go, and it was odd to be there without him. Nevertheless, we planned for him to return in 2000. What made it a little tougher was that 1999 was going to be his fifteenth consecutive year working at IMS, and that would have qualified him as an Oldtimer. While he was not enthusiastic about being called “old,” he graciously welcomed a chance at membership in that club.

    The month of May came and went, and it did not seem to outwardly bother him that much that he missed it, although we know he did. The summer and fall were spent in treatment, and his attitude was always positive. It was a live changing experience, and what was for so many years a tumultuous life, seemed for once at ease. As I look back, the tough times that we all had with him over the years were always soothed during those thirty-one days in May. It was the one thing in life that brought him back to the man we remembered growing up with, albeit temporarily each year, and it probably kept him from falling off the path completely.

    In all, he went to the race from 1981-1998 working every year from 1984 on. He worked every Brickyard 400 from 1994-1998, and even worked the Brickyard test session in 1993. He started our family tradition of going to the “500” as an annual rite of passage. Along the way, he took other relatives, friends, co-workers, and of course yours truly. I have kept the tradition going, missing only once. Very seldom can you find an annual family tradition, be it Indy, or whatever it is, that lends itself so deeply to the appreciation of life and the bonding together that it creates. One that can bring people together, regardless of their differences, and allow bygones to be bygones for a day or so. In the years since, the people I have brought along myself have come to realize the same thing we’ve known for years, “just knowing what Indy means.”

    We remember Ken Johnson (July 15, 1947-February 24, 2000)

    The picture above was taken during his last year at Indy on pole day 1998, at his work location, south Tower Terrace.


  2. #2
    Join Date
    Apr 2003
    north judson, in
    Great post!!!! I have attended nearly all of the my 29 500's with my father, or at least hooking up with him for a while on Race morning. It is family tradition for us as well, and that is something I'll always cherish.

    My Band's website!!!!

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jun 2003
    Speedway, IN
    RIP to your dad and blessings to you for a beautiful tribute. My screen is awfully blurry right now!
    It really IS all good!

  4. #4
    thanks for sharing Doc - too many of the young un's just don't know what Indy means .....

  5. #5
    R L I roach's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2002
    Reno, Nv
    Part of my pre-race ritual is to go over to the backstretch where the "Reserved Parking" along the outside wall used to be, and visit the spot where my dad died. He always said that he "wanted to go fast and for it to happen at a race track". He got his wish on May 26, 1991 during the Parade Laps.

    Never Push A Loyal Person To The Point Where They No Longer Give A Damn

  6. #6
    I bump this for yet another year.

    There are many things that are important in a person's life, faith, family, friends, patriotism. Yet there are also a few things that I believe are specifically placed in our lives simply for our personal enjoyment. There was nothing he enjoyed more than being at the corner of 16th & Georgetown on race day.

    I find it quite fitting that the day I remember him once again, is the day that tickets for this year's race arrived in the mail. We'll never forget you.

  7. #7
    Ken's 3 seconds of ABC television fame I suppose...that's him, in the backstrech Safety Patrol area, cheering Bobby Rahal onto victory on the final lap of the 1986 race...

  8. #8
    Yet another one of Ken's "permanent homes." In Tom Carnegie's 1987 book Indy 500: More Than a Race, you can find him in this picture if you look carefully.

  9. #9
    I love this sport so much dalz's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2002
    Work, probably
    Blog Entries
    A wonderful tribute Keith. I'm embarrassed I never caught it before.

    How cool is that...ABC caught your Dad on the most exciting moment of the most anticipated day of the happiest month of his year.
    "Everyone in front of you is cheatin', and everyone behind you sucks!"- nonpareil racer T. Kester

  10. #10
    1984. Those were the days.

    Bump for another year.

  11. #11
    Another "TV spot" so to speak. 1991 24 Hours of Daytona. Part of the pit crew, sneaking himself into the camera shot. That's Dick Greer (the GTU winner) being interviewed by Marty Reid, with Ken over his shoulder.

  12. #12
    The entire collection is still intact. From the 1980s:

  13. #13
    From the 1990s:

    Last edited by Doctorindy; 02-24-2009 at 09:14 PM.

  14. #14
    From the Brickyard 400:

  15. #15
    Bump for 2009.

  16. #16
    I've brought out some more IMS Safety Patrol paraphernalia from his collection.

    The typical IMS envelope, this one from 1984, for the Safety Patrol paperwork. It would usually come in late March. Notice the 1984 Indy 500 postmark stamp from the post office.

    Once you accepted, you got a postcard with your assignment. Notice the start time of "4 A.M."

    Starting in 1991, IMS started requiring Safety Patrol members to have ID cards attached to their badges. It seems many people were letting their friends "borrow" the badges in order to get free garage and pit access. This curtailed that.

  17. #17
    Lucky for me my dad spent a brief time employed in the Indianapolis area when he was a young man. He met my mom, who was working for the phone company at the time, and her twin sister and husband. He saw his first race in 58. Despite moving back to Detroit, we spent a few weeks every May visiting my mom's sister and her 7 kids. Tons of family fun, plus long lazy days at the track. I was born the day practiced open in 1963 for the 500, another sign

    After spending 12 years in the stands, Dad got to know better and better my favorite driver Mel Kenyon, and he went on to help out on the Hopkins crews for about 8 or 9 years, before retiring back up in Stand J.

    This will be the second 500 he has missed after making them all from 58 to 2007. He has had a series of small strokes that has made travel more difficult, especially race day. I am trying to talk him into coming back for pole day, nice shady spot in turn 1.

    Thanks for the post about your dad. I am glad I have a 16 year old who will be joining me for his 10th straight 500. I know my best memories with Dad were within the confines of the brickyard.

  18. #18
    Ten years to the day...almost ten years to the exact minute.

    Makes me wonder what he'd think of that Delta Wing thing...


  19. #19
    Bump for 2012. All the best!

  20. #20

    Found him 17:36

  21. #21
    Join Date
    Jun 2008
    Newfoundland, Canada
    That tribute brought a lump to my throat.
    While my father and I never shared a love of racing, I have fond memories of many things we did before he died of cancer 16 years ago.

    I'm sure your father would be thrilled to see how you keep his memory alive and how you share him with the other members of this community.

    Thank you for causing me to look back as well.

  22. #22
    All the best...

  23. #23


  24. #24
    Is Bat Boy KevMcNJ's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2002
    In a flagstand somewhere in the Carolinas
    Ive been seeing this post pop up for years.

    Never clicked on it because I had no idea who Ken Johnson was.

    It sounds like he was a pretty good guy

    Live like Dave

  25. #25
    Quote Originally Posted by KevMcNJ View Post
    Ive been seeing this post pop up for years.

    Never clicked on it because I had no idea who Ken Johnson was.

    It sounds like he was a pretty good guy

    There actually was an ARS driver named "Ken Johnson" (no relation).

    On at least a couple occasions, the old man pretended he was that Ken Johnson in order to get into some areas he wasn't ordinarily privy to.



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