Q & A : Johnny “Midnight Cowboy” Anderson

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The hall of fame racer on the “good old days” and enjoying life

Interview + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey

Feature | Johnny and Brenda Anderson are sitting at the kitchen table in their comfortable, well-appointed Carmichael, California, home talking about the good old days—the decades when Johnny was driving open-wheel race cars and stock cars, winning races and championships at tracks across California and the United States. Both in their 70s and retired, the married couple happily remembers key moments of Johnny’s career. On occasion Brenda helps trigger a memory for her husband with a question or keyword.

With a glimmer in his eye, Johnny remembers his racing prime when he competed with the best of the best in open-wheel racing. He was one of the original competitors on the World of Outlaw circuit in the late 1970s and ’80 and battled for championships on the NARC (Northern Auto Racing Club) series in California. He raced USAC Champ dirt car events at the long-gone Sacramento Fairgrounds dirt mile in the late ’60s. He was also an innovator as he brought the first American sprint car to Australia to race in ’72. He also brought power steering to West Coast short track racing in about 1976. 

Johnny in his USAC Indy car at Phoenix, 1970. (Archive photo)

Johnny in his USAC Indy car at Phoenix, 1970. (Archive photo)

The rising star also briefly touched the pinnacle of American motorsports in March 1970 when he drove an Indy car at Phoenix International Raceway for J.C. Agajanian and Leonard Faas with teammate Billy Vukovich Jr. Racing at the one-mile desert oval, Johnny was on his way to realizing his professional dream. Only petty politics and sponsor money kept him out of the driver’s seat for more Indy car starts and a shot to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 later that year.

Determined to make a name for himself, Anderson returned to his racing roots in California and continued to storm the bullrings, winning track championships at West Capital and Calistoga raceways. Racing against longtime friends and rivals Jimmy Boyd, Leroy Van Conett, Gary Patterson and Jimmy Sills, to name a few, Johnny won the NARC title in 1976.

In ’78 and ’79, Johnny won World of Outlaw races at tracks across California, Illinois, Florida and Oklahoma during its first years as a series and finished 10th in ’79 Outlaw points behind champ Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, Rick Ferkel, Lee James, Doug Wolfgang, Dub May, Bobby Allen, Ron Shuman and Jack Hewitt.

In 1980, driving the top-tier DuWayne Starr-prepared Tognotti’s Auto World winged sprinter, Johnny won eight main events, including the first Gold Cup event at Chico, beating the regulars on the Outlaws tour. It was another peak in the 34-year-old’s career.

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But a violent multi-car crash about five weeks later on Nov. 3 at Corona Raceway in Southern California nearly killed the driver and brought his career to a screeching halt. Pulled from the wreckage unconscious, without a heartbeat and with one arm nearly severed, Johnny was miraculously saved by emergency efforts. Later that night, a six-hour surgery saved his arm and stabilized his broken neck. He remained in a coma for nearly two weeks and hospitalized for over three months.

After filing reports for their early morning press runs, local newspapers stunningly reported that he’d been killed. Ever resilient, Johnny regained his strength and began months of therapy learning to speak and walk again.

Eventually, his goal was to return to the speedway, and in 1984, Johnny found himself behind the wheel, driving a BCRA midget. But his head injury had taken a toll on his “edge,” and the comeback was halted by a change of course at the insistence of his new wife, Brenda. 

Cementing his legend status, Johnny has been inducted into five halls of fame, including the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame [’12] in Knoxville, Iowa; Motorsports Press Hall of Fame [’06]; Calistoga Hall of Fame [’13]; Bay Cities Raceway Hall of Fame [BCRA, ’04]; and West Capitol Raceway Hall of Fame [’01]

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You started racing when roll cages didn’t exist; you saw a lot of change …
Johnny Anderson:
Yeah, I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen stars, too. (laughs) Racing without a roll cage never bothered me. If you’re gonna race, you’re gonna race. I wasn’t thinking about it.

I raced [USAC] Champ dirt cars at the old [Sacramento] fairgrounds [in ’69 and ’70] and back east and they didn’t have roll cages. My father [Wendell] helped bring roll cages to the sport. He helped promote the idea. He was president of NARC during that time. He had quite a bit of pull. He knew a lot of people. 

Johnny with one of his first hardtops at West Capital Raceway Sacramento. (Archive photo)

Johnny with one of his first hardtops at West Capital Raceway Sacramento. (Archive photo)

As a kid, your dad helped start you racing with quarter-midgets. What do you remember about those days?
Johnny:
There were four of us brothers. I was the oldest. My dad bought a quarter-midget at an auto auction. Well, then he had to go out and buy three more. (laughs) We eventually had a four-car trailer hauling two half-midgets and two quarter-midgets. Being the oldest, I got the first chance [to race]. Then the whole family finally got involved. When I was 10 or 12, I started running a half-midget. We did pretty good. Then I went into micro-midgets [at 15]. My dad had us going at a lot of different tracks. He got us going pretty good. I was rookie of the year in everything that I ran. It was an honor for me.

After that [in 1961] I was racing hardtops at West Capital and Hughes Stadium. I went further than any of the brothers to make a career out of it. We all drove at one time. Wendell, Bill and Bob. He was more of a mechanical man. He liked to work on cars, motors. 

It seems like you were a natural at driving competitively.
Johnny:
Yeah, I think so. Whatever I did in sports growing up, I always tried to do the best I could.

Growing up, you and your brothers must’ve been pretty competitive with each other …
Johnny:
Yeah, we still are. (laughs) 

How old were you when you started racing full-size cars?
Johnny:
I was 17 when I got going [in hardtops] at West Capital. I drove the Jimmy Six hardtop. He was the guy who did Wally Baker’s motors and he did my motors. I was always driving for somebody and we always did pretty well. I had super-good rides, working up. I got hooked up with J.C. Agajanian and Leonard Faas. Ernie Ruiz gave me my first champ-car ride at the old [Sacramento] Fairgrounds [1969 Golden State 100]. Don Tognotti started sponsoring us in the ’60s with the super-modifieds.

I started in a sprint car [in 1966] and for a while I had to go to L.A. [to Ascot Park] to race because you had to be 21 to race in NARC. Down there [with the California Racing Association] it was 18. I used to tow my car with a ’57 Nomad wagon and an open trailer. I was traveling with my brothers Bob and Wendell. 

Well, my dad was head of [NARC] and he helped change the age requirement so that we didn’t have to travel so far. And I started racing up here at Calistoga and the NARC tracks.

I still hold the track record for qualifying in the midgets at Ascot. I took it away from A.J. Foyt.

Brenda: The track closed with Johnny still holding the record.
Johnny: Ascot was the place to go at that time and I liked running the midget there. The big thing was Turkey Night, the 100-lapper. I usually qualified for the trophy dash. I think my best finish was a third.

Teenager Anderson at the wheel of his first sprint car. (Archive photo)

Teenager Anderson at the wheel of his first sprint car. (Archive photo)

But sprint cars was my main thing, and when I got hooked up with DuWayne Starr [in 1980], everything was going great. We were the car to beat, even with the Outlaws.

You’ve always been considered one of the best drivers of your generation; you rose up through the ranks quickly.
Johnny:
I’m the type of person that I don’t like to brag. I’ve run with the best. Like with the Champ dirt car, there was a lot of politics involved at that time. I drove Agajanian’s [Indy] car at Phoenix in ’70. The only reason I didn’t get to go to Indianapolis was Gary Bettenhausen. He and I got into it at Phoenix. He ran into me; crashed me and he blamed the wreck on me. I was the fastest rookie there that day. It was a televised race and he got on national TV and said, ‘A dumb rookie caused the whole thing.’ So, that kinda did me in a little bit.
Brenda: And it’s obvious if you watch the video, [Bettenhausen] ran into the back of him. Johnny didn’t do anything.

How many Indy car races did you end up running?
Johnny:
I ran Phoenix and I did some tire testing. [Billy] Vukovich [Jr.] and Bruce Walkup and I were all teammates.

After that, Agajanian wanted to go back home to get ready for Indianapolis, and I needed to complete so many races to qualify for Indy. So, I kinda got left out of it. But I spent the month of May driving midgets with Vukovich and Bruce Walkup. I ran pretty good. 

You also raced some NASCAR Grand National races for Don Nazum. What do you remember about that experience?
Johnny:
I ran Riverside [’71-’74], Ontario [’72] and Texas [’72]. I had Wynns Oil. They were a sponsor of my Indy Car and I called Carl Wynn and he sponsored me for the stock car races. But stock cars wasn’t the thing to do at that time. I wasn’t that interested in it. I wanted to be in the Indy cars. That was the way to go. But I always had good opportunities and I liked racing … Johnny Rutherford and I went over to Australia and New Zealand to race midgets. We were teammates.

You also brought the first American sprint car over to Australia in ’72.
Johnny:
Yeah, that was my dad’s car. It was the car Parnelli Jones used to run [in ’60-’62] and it was the car Sherman Cleveland was killed in [’66]. We shipped the car from San Francisco and it took a couple of weeks to get to Sydney, Australia. But it was unreal. We blew ‘em away.

The promoters over in New Zealand saw me run it; they wanted me to come over there, too. I spent about three weeks racing over there. I was racing sprint cars, midgets and stock cars. We were racing quite a bit (laughs). And if I wasn’t there, I was at a TV station, doing stuff.

I read somewhere they called you the “fastest man on wheels.”
Johnny:
It was a lot of fun. (laughs)

The sprint car that Anderson shipped to Australia to race in ’72.

The sprint car that Anderson shipped to Australia to race in ’72.

You were a part of some big innovations in West Coast sprint car racing.
Johnny:
Yeah, we started using the drag tires on dirt to make 20-some inches of stagger. This was in the early ’70s. I drove for Don Tognotti, he sponsored us and he had all the greatest stuff. Big “humper” tires [slicks that were grooved for traction on dirt]. [NARC] wanted to outlaw ’em but we kept using ’em. We had the right associations.

For two weeks in a row at West Capital, we won everything. From fast time, trophy dash, heat race and the main event. No one could figure out what we were doing. Tognotti didn’t say anything, but once people found out, Tognotti’s tire sales went crazy and he sold a lot of tires. 

At that time, I think it was Rick Ferkel, Sammy Swindell, Steve Kinser and those guys, that’s what they were doing back east. And we found out about it. That was the hot ticket. So, we had the tires flown out to us. They were already mounted. All we had to do was put ’em on the race car. And we cleaned house. I drove the Tognotti house [sprint] car, and we won everything, pretty much.

!974 Gold Cup victory photo, West Capital Raceway. (Archive photo)

!974 Gold Cup victory photo, West Capital Raceway. (Archive photo)

You also brought power steering to sprint cars. How did that come about?
Johnny:
So, in the super-modifieds I drove for Brandy & Glaspey in about ’76. We were running the big tires in the front and rear and they put power steering in so that I could steer the thing. Without it, it was really hard because of the stagger. And finally, once we had it, everyone else started copying us. 

You won the last Gold Cup in a super-modified in 1974 at West Capital.
Johnny:
Yeah, I won the track championship there that same year. 

What do you remember about racing at Calistoga?
Johnny:
Well, when I first started running there we didn’t have no roll cages. We always had a pretty sprint car, and that track would just ruin your paint job in one race. We would walk the track to pick up the rocks. I busted my mouth one night [from a flying rock]. We wore the leather face masks at that time. I got planted right in the mouth. I kept on running and we won the race.

Brenda: And you had to go over to the little hospital to be sewn up. 

Johnny: We’d take cardboard and duct tape and wrap our arms for protection from the rocks. But Calistoga helped me more than any other track to be ready for racing back in Pennsylvania, Knoxville and places like that with the Outlaws. Those are bigger tracks and flat like Calistoga.

Long before full-face helmets: Johnny holds his leather face mask. It was common for drivers to wear one for protection from flying debris.

Long before full-face helmets: Johnny holds his leather face mask. It was common for drivers to wear one for protection from flying debris.

My brother Billy has two championships there, and I got one. But I only got one because I wanted to go places and he wanted to stay home.

But we had a lot of good races there. Those were good days. 

(Brenda leaves the room and comes back with a thin, spiraled piece of shaved steel in the palm of her hand.)

Brenda: Do you know what this is?

Johnny: That was from the first time I drove DuWayne Starr’s car at Calistoga [in 1980]. Gary Patterson and I were going for the lead and we banged wheels so much that it ground off the metal from the rim. DuWayne kept it and gave it to Brenda before he passed away [in 1999].

Brenda: Johnny won. But that was DuWayne’s memory. He’d had it on his mantle.

Johnny: A lot of good days.

The Anderson brothers,—Johnny (98) and Bill—at Calistoga Speedway, 1974. (Archive photo)

The Anderson brothers,—Johnny (98) and Bill—at Calistoga Speedway, 1974. (Archive photo)

You always wore a white cowboy hat. How did that become a trademark for you?
Johnny:
I used to go up to Ponderosa [Ranch film site, near Lake Tahoe] when I was racing in Carson City, near Reno, and I think I got it up there.

It was where they filmed the TV show “Bonanza.” And then with the Outlaws, I just kinda got known for wearing it. One of my original ones was auctioned off for charity.

Brenda: Did Gary Gerould give you the nickname “Midnight Cowboy”?

Johnny: I think so; yeah.

What would you say were your most memorable races?
Johnny:
Well, there are a few. I won the [1977] Copper Classic at Phoenix on the mile in a sprint car. I ran for Don Snow out of Pinole and I ran his Champ dirt car, too. One of my favorite races was running Ernie Ruiz’s Travelon Trailer Offy at the Sacramento mile and finished seventh [in ’69]. All the big guys were there. At that time you had to race with all of those guys if you wanted to go anyplace. Mario [Andretti], Foyt … all of ’em. And I had no brakes!

Brenda: He lost ’em on the 69th lap. I said, “How in the world did you race like that?”

Johnny: I just tried to drive and manage it any way I could. You know, that’s when I was just starting to come up and trying to get experience with those guys.

You won the Gold Cup again in 1980 against the Outlaws at Chico. That was another big one.
Johnny:
We won against [Steve] Kinser, Sammy [Swindell], Rick Ferkel, a lot of the guys that were coming out. But I don’t remember it. My accident at Corona [Raceway] happened right after.

Tell me about the crash. It put you in a coma. Do you mind talking about it?
Johnny:
Yeah, I was in a coma for about two and a half weeks. The newspapers pronounced me dead. Someone was looking out for me.

(Johnny rolls up his sleeve on his right arm, which he nearly lost in the accident, to show the scar that encircles his right upper arm.)

This is what a wing will do. 

Johnny’s sprint car crashes at Corona Raceway, November, 3, 1980. (Archive photos)

Johnny’s sprint car crashes at Corona Raceway, November, 3, 1980. (Archive photos)

You have no memory of the accident?
Johnny:
Nope. Which is probably good. I don’t remember any of it and that’s a good thing. The helmet I was wearing was sent to the Snell Foundation for research, I think.

Brenda: He don’t have any memory of the Gold Cup [win] just before and that’s a shame. They don’t take movie films [of the races] like they do now. I know he would love to be able to see that.

(Brenda brings out a series of photos from a scrapbook showing the vicious multi-car accident. Johnny’s car is rolling down the front straight.)

What do you think of when you see these photos; does it bother you?
Johnny:
No; it don’t bother me. I’ve known a lot of guys; friends of mine that’ve been killed. My number wasn’t up yet, I guess.

Johnny with the “Yellow Bird” midget. (Archive photo)

Johnny with the “Yellow Bird” midget. (Archive photo)

I’ve read you were in a coma for 12 days and in the hospital for over three months.
Brenda:
He had to learn to walk and talk.

Johnny: And I’m still learning. (laughs)

Brenda: And if you’ll notice, his long-term memory is pretty good. But he’s lost his short-term [memory]. So, he can’t remember short things to do. He’s learned to take notes and I send people with him when he travels.

What were you doing when you were recovering?
Johnny:
I went back to body and paint work. I worked with my dad and brother at his body and paint shop. I was just trying to survive. … and I was going through a divorce.

And after a few years, I started running a midget again. I was driving Bob Miller’s car, the “Yellow Bird.” I always liked running midgets [and finished 11th in BCRA points in 1984].

And, that’s when you and Brenda met, or re-met … 
Brenda:
We got together [as a couple] at our 25th high school reunion.

You take good care of each other. 
Brenda:
Well, I’m a born-again believer and he is, too, and now that I see back, God put me through school, three years in college, learning how to be a counselor and help people that are developmentally disabled. So, I had all of the skills.

I remember when he got hurt, I remember seeing it in the newspaper and I remember kneeling in the living room and praying for him. I had no idea that we’d ever meet [again]. I sent a get-well card and I sent money to a fund for him. I just knew that I cared and I’d had a crush on him in high school.

[When he was younger] he was married to racing. He loved racing. I really think the wives that are married to these men, they have to have a life of their own. Because the race car is their mistress and it’s kinda hard to make a three-way marriage work. (laughs)

… you met Johnny when he was making a comeback in racing.
Brenda:
Yeah, I wanted to be able to help him do that. But I didn’t want to stand around and watch him get hurt again. His brain was already bruised. I told him I wasn’t gonna divorce him but he needed to get it out of his system … and eventually he knelt down beside me and said, “I won’t give you up for this car.” He was gonna quit. 

Not many [car owners] wanted to give him a ride because they didn’t want him to be a Jan Opperman. They didn’t want him to get hurt. He was still very smooth, and he still is today, very smooth in the car. Just a natural.

You both started the West Capital Raceway Alumni Association.
Brenda:
We were coming home one night from a racing banquet and I said, “You know, we ought to do this for West Capital. That sounds like a lot of fun.” [In ’98] I wrote the incorporation papers, got us incorporated and got a board of directors. There were a lot of people that really needed to get together and to bring the old memories back. In our very first meetup, we sold out at 500 people.

Johnny: We had Parnelli Jones come. 

Brenda: We also started the Roseville meetup [All-American Vintage Classic] with the old race cars and we started the hall of fame … and we honored a lot of people. My love was to see these guys receive accolades, and we’ve put some mighty special people inside [the hall of fame]. 

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We put a monument up [at the West Capital Raceway location] and that was another special thing that I wanted to have done.

Johnny, I know you still like going to the races to watch and see people.
Johnny:
Yeah, I see Leroy [Van Conett] at Stockton. We’re good friends. I used to do a lot of body and paint work for him when he had his forklift business. It’s just fun talking and seeing all the old people there. Calistoga, of course.

I also like going back to Knoxville. I was at the Chili Bowl [in Tulsa, Oklahoma] this year with Tommy Hunt and that was a big deal. I saw a lot of people I used to race with. We’re planning on going back.

You were grand marshal at Calistoga in 2017. What was that like?
Johnny:
It was an honor. A big honor, you know. I just live day by day and enjoy life.