HARRISBURG, N.C. — The exact year has long ago faded from our memory, but we can recall the conversation as if it took place last week.
We were heading across the rapidly emptying infield of Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway following a World of Outlaws sprint car event when we crossed paths with series founder Ted Johnson.
At the time, the way the nomadic sprint car series conducted its restarts closely resembled organized chaos. The leader was told to accelerate somewhere around the middle of the backstretch, which meant the cars at the rear of the running order were in turns one or two when the racing resumed. Under this twisted system, several drivers would make nearly a full lap at high speed before actually taking the green flag. As a result, jumping was rampant.
On this night, a crash-filled B main had produced numerous restarts and a handful of WoO regulars were desperately trying to race their way into the main event. Each restart was their chance to gain a few spots. More than one of the Outlaws drivers played the system and jumped the restart — some on multiple occasions.
None of those drivers were penalized as the officials in the tower conducted the race as if it was business as usual.
It was during this same time that many race tracks and sanctioning bodies had started using a traffic cone on a rope to define a restart point and keep the cars in line until they passed that point. The World of Outlaws was not among them and, after the controversy during that night’s B main, we wanted to know why.
“That won’t work with our series,” Johnson responded bluntly to our question in the Williams Grove infield. “That’s fine for most tracks and series, but I’ve got to the take care of my guys.”
Our rather testy conversation continued for several minutes, but there it was — “My guys.” Those two words formed the foundation upon which Ted Johnson had built the World of Outlaws, and I didn’t fully grasp the concept until we had that conversation.
While a traffic cone might have been bright orange, Johnson saw it as black and white — and he wasn’t a fan of black and white. When it came to race procedures, he preferred plenty of wiggle room because nine times out of 10 a judgment call would fall in favor of the racer who followed his traveling circus from sea to shining sea.
In the early years of the World of Outlaws, the top two or three cars made pretty decent money, but the rest of the series regulars barely made enough to get the next race. Johnson understood he owed it to the promoter and the fans to have as many touring drivers as possible when his band of Outlaws rode into town.
As a result, there are countless stories of him helping those he considered to be “my guys.” We had always heard stories about Johnson slipping a racer some cash from the T-shirt trailer after a bad night, or him talking a contingency sponsor into to giving another racer a part he needed in order to be at the next race.
But it wasn’t until that long ago conversation in the Williams Grove infield that we understood the magnitude of what Ted Johnson had to do to keep this band of renegade racers on the road during the sport’s early years. It was truly an amazing accomplishment.
So as we celebrate the 40th season of what is now the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series, every sprint car fan around the world should pause and tip their hat to Ted Johnson, because his vision and passion forever changed the sport.
And, by the way, just a few weeks following our conversation in the Williams Grove infield, Johnson gave in and the World of Outlaws started using a restart cone. We have no idea what changed his mind, but he must’ve come to believe the rule would somehow take care of those he called “my guys.”