For some open-wheel legends, it would seem that from birth they knew they were destined to race cars. This, however, was not the case for Wayne Landon of Hastings, Mich.
For Landon, turning 16 meant the freedom of a motorcycle and the ability to race against three of his older brothers on the flat tracks. The ever-witty Landon said with a laugh, “The first AMA race I ever ran, I was so nervous that my knees were knocking against my fuel tank. Once they took off I figured I would just follow the guys around and I did for a short time, but then it seemed like they were slowing down. I started thinking, ‘Gee! They’re not even racing, they’re just goofing off,’ so I passed them. By the end of the first lap I was leading and I ended up winning the whole race.”
After an incredible start to his career, Landon had no intention of ever experiencing any other form of racing, figuring that there was no way that it could beat the thrill of the bikes. But then a “pretty little girl named Ruth invited me to watch a supermodified race.”
Once he watched that first race Landon was hooked. The next time he saw a supermodified race it was from the cockpit of his own ’37 Chevrolet coupe.
Now, 60 years later, Landon still has a passion for racing and with his wife of 58 years, Ruth, by his side the couple have raised five children and started Landon Engineering, a specialty engine shop building primarily high-performance race engines.
It was actually his friends who prompted Landon to start a performance business. Only five weeks after competing in his first race, Gordon Johncock asked Landon to move aside for a night and give him a chance to run. Landon told him, “No way. I’m having too much fun. If you want to drive one we will build another one.”
From that point on Landon became a fabricator, mechanic, car owner and stiff competition for several of the sport’s greats. Johncock went on to win two Indianapolis 500s.
In the days where there was no such thing as a weekend warrior, the business also allowed Landon the freedom to travel and compete at seven different tracks a week, double dipping on Sunday to allow for a Wednesday off. Even when the time came where tracks moved primarily to weekend action, the Landons didn’t slow down. For 22 years they ventured to Delaware, Ontario, for a Friday night show and Oswego, N.Y., for every Saturday racing program.
When Landon looks back to those early days in his career, it’s not the more than 300 feature wins that first come to mind, or even the numerous track championships. No, instead for the driver who scored his most recent victory a mere three years ago at I-96 Speedway in Lake Odessa, Mich., his focus is on one thing.
“I look at pictures and notice that I have no shoulder belts on and my driving uniform had ‘Wayne’ stitched on the pocket, but only because that was the shirt I wore to the shop, and I wonder what the heck I was thinking,” Landon said.
Landon has seen many changes in the sport from safety equipment to performance and, even though he has had much success both in and out of his famed No. 83 machine, the 1985 Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame inductee has also his fair share of tragedy.
In 1989, he and Ruth lost their son Jerry in an accident at Kalamazoo (Mich.) Speedway. For Landon, one of the hardest moments of his life was going back to the race track, but knowing that racing was such a huge passion for their son, Landon continued and went on to experience one of the most exciting moments of his career: winning the Jerry Landon Memorial.
“I hadn’t won a single feature with the Auto Value Super Sprints that season,” Landon said. “I didn’t even know if I could because there were so many good drivers in the series. I won that race and it was the greatest pleasure I had ever had. I just couldn’t explain it.”
These days Landon may not be behind the wheel on a regular basis, but he is never far from the action whether it be at the shop or sitting in the grandstands with Ruth cheering on their grandson Nick, who is currently competing in USAC events behind the wheel of his No. 82 sprint car.