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Minter: Roosevelt Johnson A Hero On And Off The Drag Strip

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 15 2011

Roosevelt Johnson and friend Fred Simmons at Southeastern Dragway in Dallas, Ga. (Photo courtesy of David Dilbeck of GeorgiaDragRacing.com)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Most folks don’t get into the sports reporting business for the money. They do it for chances to write about people like Roosevelt Johnson.

Johnson, one of the South’s pioneering drag racers, died this week at the age of 80. I interviewed him several times over the years, visited in his home, watched him work on racing engines in his shop, rode up and down the road with him, and even went to a NASCAR track with him.

Johnson was one of a group of Atlanta-area drag racers who got tired of racing just among themselves in the days before Georgia’s drag strip were integrated. So they asked for and received the OK to begin competing against the white drivers at the old drag strip in the south Atlanta suburb of Fairburn, a track that at the time was hosting two nights of racing each week – one for blacks and another for whites.

When Johnson and his fellow black drivers showed up on the night set aside for whites, there was no big fuss, according to those who were there that night. They just raced, and integration was achieved.

But there were some times at tracks across the South when the integration didn’t go quite as smoothly. Johnson and his peers were in demand back then for the match races that were popular in that day. They’d come in from out of town to take on the local hotshoe. It was a recipe for potential disaster, but more often that not things went better than most could have expected, for the most part.

“I heard those racial words and was called ‘boy’ and everything,” Johnson said as we talked once back in 2004. “But it didn’t mean anything to me. I was a smart enough man to ignore them.”

Johnson, his brother Joe, and their fellow drag racers like Adell “Thunder Road” Penson,

Today's drag racers only have to contend on the track. Roosevelt Johnson's struggles extended much further. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

Wallace “Georgia Fox” Jones, Charlie Scott and others didn’t win as much in the integrated races, as there was much more competition. But Johnson said that didn’t matter to them. They wanted to race against the best drivers out there, even if it meant the wins didn’t come as often.

Johnson and his friends didn’t have as much luck integrating the oval track racing circuits. He and some of his racing buddies went to a NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway back in 1961. They bought tickets to the infield and wore the white racing coverall, the uniform of their racing club.

They wound up bloody and beaten after an altercation with some white fans. Only the quick actions of track superintendent Alf Knight prevented the situation from becoming even worse. Knight, a giant of a man in many ways, got Johnson and his party away from the mob and safely to a local hospital.

As Johnson recounted that story, I asked him if he’d ever been back to a NASCAR race. He said he hadn’t.

I said he ought to give NASCAR another try, and he agreed.

So on the Friday morning of a Sprint Cup weekend, I picked Johnson up at his Austell home and we went back to the same infield where he’d been beaten 30 something years before.

“Thunder Road” Penson went along as well. Penson wasn’t involved in the 1961 incident. In fact, at that time he had only missed a couple of Cup race at the Atlanta track.

This time, the reception was much different for Johnson. He and Penson roamed the garage, visited with several drivers, including their fellow Georgian Bill Elliott, and even swapped a few stories with NASCAR president Mike Helton, who invited them to return any time.

Still, I got the feeling that both Johnson and Penson had rather been driving those cars instead of just looking at them.

They were true racers.

Rest in peace, Roosevelt.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 15 2011
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  • Robbie Stuart says:

    Rick, I used to go down to Fairburn, Houston Brothers Drag Strip some, & there is another black driver that comes to mind, I think his name was Roger Wattly (sp). Roger was a hard charger, but never seemed to have very good equipment. I have often wondered what became of Roger. Thanks for another fine article.