By ROBIN YASINSAC-GILLESPIE
On Thursday, July 25, Modified sensation Danny Johnson will join racing’s elite as he is officially inducted into the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame. The 28th annual induction ceremonies will be held in the Hall of Fame Museum located on the grounds of Weedsport Speedway in New York.
The second-generation driver is extremely appreciative of the celebration.
“Certainly this is huge for me — it’s a great honor to be included in this induction,” said the 59 year-old Johnson, who resides in Phelps, NY. “It’s been 40 years I’ve been racing now, and I guess I’ve done something right along the way to end up here.”
One of the winningest drivers on the circuit today, Johnson has racked up 593 victories in the past four decades for 40 different car owners, which is a challenge in itself. The guy can drive a race car — one that he’s familiar with or one that he’s never seen before; one that’s hooked up perfectly or a car so ill-handling that he needs to carry it across the finish line. And Danny’s done it at 55 different speedways in 13 states and two Canadian provinces — a feat unmatched by any other driver in the modern era.
“I was born into it, I didn’t really know anything else,” Johnson said of his adventurous career. “My dad [Milt] raced, my brother [Alan] raced, and I was 18 years old and I needed to do something with my life, something to stay out of trouble. I had the opportunity — with my parents’ help — to put some sponsors together and get a race car,” he related.
His first checker was at nearby Canandaigua Speedway in 1979.
“The first win was so cool! I was racing with Will Cagle at the time. He tried to get me on the bottom and I kind of closed the door on him and went off to win. Cagle was always the guy to beat so that felt good, real good.”
The future superstar’s role model was his older brother, Alan, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017. The Johnson brothers occupy two of the top three spots on DIRTcar’s all-time Modified win list.
“On DIRT, [my idol] would have been my brother,” Johnson revealed. “I used to go to the races with him, I would help work on his car and I wanted to do what he was doing. And I wanted to be good at it! That was the competitive side of me, always coming through.”
The pair traveled up and down the highways, looking for the next race show. Both going their own ways eventually, and both becoming legends in the auto racing arena.
“When [DIRT promoter] Glenn Donnelly had all those tracks, we were racing a lot. If you didn’t make some money one night, you would most likely make some money on one of the other nights, so it kept you going,” Johnson said.
He followed Donnelly’s Super DIRT Series, ride-hopping much of the time in order to maintain a full schedule. Johnson had huge success, and a steady gig from 1992-98, with Ray Bramall’s Freightliner Express team.
In those seven years, Ray and Danny won 92 times, starting with a DIRT Asphalt Series event at PA International Speedway in the spring of 1992 and ending with a Super DIRT Series race at Weedsport in September 1998. In between, the Freightliner team took both the SDS and Mr. DIRT Mod series titles in ’92 and ’97; Mr. DIRT 358 and 358 series championships in 1996; point titles at Orange County, Ransomville and Rolling Wheels; three of Danny’s six Eastern States 200 victories; two Eastern States small-block races; the 1994 Syracuse 358 event; and — the mother of them all — the 1997 Super DIRT Week 300. It was Ray’s third time winning that big one on the NYS Fairgrounds mile, and Danny’s first of two.
Bramall, who’s had no less than Brett Hearn in his seat, summed up Johnson as a racer who “had more natural ability than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
All told, Johnson has four overall Mr. DIRT Modified titles, three Super DIRT Series trophies, five Modified championships at Rolling Wheels, four at Canandaigua, two at Weedsport, three on the Florida tour, and 89 Super DIRT Series victories. On the 358 side of the ledger, Johnson’s scored four Mr. DIRT 358 and three series titles, championships at Ransomville, Orange County and Weedsport, and 56 358 Modified Series wins. His pair of SDW Mod triumphs came in 1997 and 2006.
“I was fortunate to have been involved with a lot of good people over the years,” Johnson said. “I’ve made good money at it [racing] but I also spent a lot of money on it, too. I’ve seen every part of it.”
And as Johnson became one of the most feared drivers out there, controversy often followed him, mostly due to his aggressive driving style.
“Somebody wrote something about me the other day and it wasn’t the nicest,” admitted Johnson, who acquired the nickname “Danimal” before settling down some to become known as “The Doctor.”
“I didn’t ever go out and try to crash people. Sometimes things happened while we were racing, but that was just racing. We were all out there trying to make a living at it,” he reasoned.
Throughout his career, Johnson always had guidance from his late father Milt, a former racer and successful engine builder. The elder Johnson’s B&M Speed Shop in Rochester, NY, supplied the power to such high-profile racers as Richie Evans, Jerry Cook and Merv Treichler. In 2013, Milt posthumously received Hall of Fame honors for his contributions as a mechanic. As Danny ages, his resemblance to his dad is uncanny.
“I saw a picture of me the other day and I couldn’t believe how much I looked like him,” Johnson reflected on his father. “I think I’m a lot like him — there’s no doubt that he rubbed off on me. As I get older, I wish I would have paid more attention and spent more time with him.”
Johnson also respected what he learned from car-building mastermind Maynard Troyer, who passed away last year.
“I don’t know if we had a close relationship, but I spent a lot of time racing his cars,” said Johnson. “And in 1983, I started working for him, and that went on for quite a while. I learned a lot from Maynard. I recently had a dream about him! It was pretty cool seeing him again.”
Like most, Johnson can’t believe how fast time has gone. But he’s really enjoyed the ride along the way — the good, the bad and the ugly.
“There has been a lot of success, a lot of hard work and a lot of time! But I feel very fortunate that I didn’t get hurt over the years doing it,” Johnson said, remembering a long-ago incident where a broken driveshaft severely damaged Will Cagle’s leg. “Look at Cagle! I was driving the same car he was driving — that could have been me! But I’ve been fortunate and I am so thankful for that.”
Johnson is a dad to seven children — do they realize their pop’s accomplishments?
“To them, I’m just dad,” chuckled Johnson who has one son (Daniel) already racing. “There would be more racers in the family if there was more money.” The son has raced on and off for a couple of years. “He makes his own deals and does his own thing,” Danny informed. “I think his desire is as strong as mine was when I was his age. He works really hard for me at the race tracks and has put in his time, so I hope it works out for him.”
As for dad — he’s not stepping down anytime soon. He’s still wishing for more seat time.
“We don’t race that much anymore, not like we used to,” Johnson lamented. “There aren’t enough shows anymore so it’s hard to make a living at it.”
And he admits the competition is greater.
As his career begins to wind down, “The wins seem to come few and far between now. But they still feel really good,” Johnson bottom-lined.
Despite having reached the Hall of Fame career milestone, he’s not done yet. Danny is still actively looking for that next ride and next race.
“I will probably stop when I can’t get in the car anymore or when I don’t have someone that wants me in their car,” laughed Johnson. “I don’t feel any different than I did 20 years ago. I may not be as fast or as spunky as I was, but I’m fortunate. You just can’t plan the future — it is what it is and that’s pretty much how I’ve been doing it my whole life. I do things day to day. And today’s not over yet.”