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Jocko Johnson is Dead

Jocko Johnson is Dead

One of the most mystifying characters in the annals of drag racing history died last week at the age of 65. His name was Robert “Jocko” Johnson and he made his name porting cylinder heads in the late ’50s and ’60s, but launched himself into a legend with his “Jocko-liner” streamline-bodied Top Fuel dragster.

Jocko, by all accounts was a strange, eccentric guy who could be considered at the same time, artist, mechanic, engineer, and lunatic. The nickname “Jocko” was hung on him during his time as a kid working for George Barris. Apparently, he had a case of the “itchies” that boys in the shop did not soon forget.

During one of his long sojourns into the desert (like years long) he apparently came upon a vision or some form of inspiration to design and build this streamlined dragster. The initial results for the odd looking creation were less than impressive. The heavy girth of the fiberglass body was working against him and the owner/operator Jim Nelson. Nelson then went full-bore with the motor, sticking a fuel burning 450ci blown Hemi in the car.

It was that motor that cemented Johnson’s  name into the books back in 1959 when Nelson drove the mid-engined, full bodied, streamliner of a dragster to the quickest elapsed time ever (to that point) by a couple tenths of a second sprinting to a 8.35/178-mph lap. The team could not back up that moon shot, though, as the body broke and disintegrated into a million pieces on the following lap.

Sensing that he had managed to figure out the drag racing aerodynamics game that had been vexing scientific types for years (with nothing but an “idea” of what a streamlined body “should” look like, mind you) he set to work building another body, this time out of aluminum.

This machine, known as the Thunder Car, looked the part and was powered by an Allison airplane engine, but could never run any truly competitive numbers. Thus it became an exhibition car, prefect for its odd look and airplane power, and toured the country with much success through the ’60s and early ’70s.

As aerodynamics started the creep back into the drag racing scene in the early ’70s, Don Garlits commissioned Johnson to build him a body based on Jocko’s ideas as to what was aerodynamic and what wasn’t. Not surprisingly it came out looking like a duplicate of the original Jocko-liner. The association with Garlits would end up being the undoing of Johnson.

Garlits was building a short wheelbase, mid-engine car that would have been the ideal candidate for the aero-treatment. Garlits proactively called Johnson and enlisted his help. It was a train wreck waiting to happen.

The car was too heavy and Garlits claimed that the few times he tried to drive it the car would try to lift off the ground at speed. This infuriated Johnson from the second it was uttered, presumably all the way to his death last week. We make that assumption based on a scathing letter written to Garlits and the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame (based at the Garlits Museum) in 1997, when they dared to induct the guy into the hall.

There are some gems in the letter, such as, “It is no honor to be connected to Garlits, the liar and the thief.”

The biggest slap came in a reference to Garlits’ two blow-overs with modern streamlined dragsters. Johnson wrote, “Boy did I get a big laugh when you went airborne with two of your own dragsters. I bet you can’t produce photos of video of the Wynnsliner lifting off the deck because it didn’t happen and it can’t happen.”

After the misadventure of the Wynnsliner, Johnson retreated to the high desert working as a sculptor and working on a “revolutionary” engine that was going to solve all of our oil problems with its incredible efficiency.

We’ve talked to people who worked closely on projects with Johnson and to a man they have all said that he was odd, cantankerous, and difficult to work with, but also that he was a brilliant mind and someone who, given another set of personality traits and the same abilities, would have been a tour de force in any industry he landed in.

Well, there’s a brief history of Jocko Johnson, a guy you may have never heard of, but one of the most perplexing and complicated guys ever to make a name for himself in the sport. The Wynnsliner is proudly on display at the Don Garlits museum in Ocala, Florida. We’re pretty sure that pissed off Jocko to no end.


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