Land-speed racers defend their sport as the last bastion of pure amateur racing, in which the participants compete for personal achievement rather than for glory or big sponsorship checks. They talk about the guys who keep coming back year after year to eke out another few miles per hour or to break a speed record in some needle-specific class. They pattern their pursuit after guys like Harold Johansen, who raced for more than 70 years and who died over the weekend at age 94.
Unsurprisingly for a racer active in the sport for seven decades, Johansen racked up a number of land-speed accomplishments, chief among them the 60 records he’s held and his membership in the 200 MPH Club. Retiring from the sport just didn’t seem to suit him, however, despite the macular degeneration that kept him out of the driver’s seat in recent years; after all, he still had one more record he wanted to capture – and probably would have had another after that.
Born in the Lincoln Heights section of Los Angeles in June 1924, Johansen got his automotive education in part through vocational classes in high school and in part after buying an already hopped-up 1929 Ford Model A roadster from an impound lot before he got his driver’s license. He street raced with it during World War II then in 1945, as he told Richard Parks for a circa-2008 interview, he took it to the first postwar SCTA dry lakes meet and promptly blew a head gasket.
After that, he vowed to never race his street car again, so after graduating from high school he bought a 1927 Model T, joined the Bungholers car club, and with his fellow club members’ help fit the T with a flathead V-8 with Riley overhead-valve conversion heads. Ready for the October 1946 El Mirage meet, the T posted a speed of 108 MPH.
In pursuit of greater speeds, Johansen picked the minds of some of hot rodding’s pioneers, among them Clem Tebow, Don Clark, and the Tipton brothers. He switched to the Outriders club later in 1946 and then in 1949 founded his own SCTA-affiliated club, the Road Masters, with Clark, Tebow, Jim Khougaz, and Ben Harper. He traded off the Riley engine for a Mercury flathead V-8 good for 123 MPH, but he still wanted more.
He’d later build another 1929 Model A, this one on a 1932 Ford frame and powered by a 300-cu.in. Chevrolet six-cylinder good for 194 MPH. Another Chevrolet engine, this one a V-8, got him into the Bonneville 200 MPH Club in 1974 with a 208.86 MPH record in the C/Gas Roadster class.
By that time, the Road Masters had disbanded and he’d joined the Sidewinders to keep racing. With his red hat secured, however, Johansen decided to chase another 200 MPH record – this time in a car powered by a four-cylinder Ford engine. He started another club, the Super 4s, in 1978 (the year he retired from the Los Angeles Fire Department and went to work as a consultant to the movie industry, specializing in fire and explosive safety), meanwhile collecting parts and expertise in extracting power from early Ford four-cylinder engines.
According to Hot Rod, the closest Johansen ever got to his goal was 164 MPH. However, he kept returning to the dry lakes and to the salt to campaign his roadsters, and while other hot rod pioneers from the pre- and post-war periods remain today, Johansen was perhaps the only one to continue racing the entire time.
Johansen died in his sleep on Saturday, according to the American Hot Rod Federation. No funeral services have been scheduled for him.