Desert racing legend Johnny Johnson died Monday in his hometown of San Felipe after a battle with liver cancer. He was eighty years old.
Johnson was one of the early pioneers in desert racing, scoring fifteen Baja 1000 victories as early as winning the Modified class at the second running in 1968. That began a three-peat in the category before he moved on to a variety of buggy divisions, even winning the overall alongside Bobby Ferro in 1973. His final Baja victory came in 1992. He also had two wins in the Baja 500, the most recent edition taking place just two days before his passing, and a pair of SCORE class championships in 1980 and 1981.
In 1971, Johnson starred in the television special Behind the Wheel, hosted by renowned writer George Plimpton, alongside Formula One great Jackie Stewart.
He was inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2010.
“Johnny won 112 races in his career, including a remarkable 15 Baja 1000 wins, but it was his love for life and willingness to help his friends and fellow racers that we’ll remember most,” stated the Hall of Fame.
Since his retirement, he resided in San Felipe—host of the SCORE season-opening San Felipe 250—and occasionally returned to desert races in a support capacity, which garnered him a reputation as one of the friendliest faces in the sport. In 2019, Johnson served as the grand marshal for the San Felipe 250.
“SCORE International and the off-road racing community are saddened to announce the recent passing of SCORE Legend Johnny Johnson from a recent discovery of Liver Cancer,” reads a statement from the sanctioning body. “Johnny had just recently celebrated his 80th Birthday and was one of off-road motorsports’ major icons and larger than life characters.
“Johnny Johnson was one of the early champions in off-road racing with 112 career class victories from 1968 -1992. This included fifteen SCORE Baja 1000’s and four SCORE Baja 500 class wins, where he proudly claims ‘l never got out of the car!’ Johnson was one of the very very best in the dirt. He was inducted into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2010. Revered by his fellow racers for his fabrication and tuning skills, it is his humility and willingness to help anyone, anytime, that his friends say is his defining trait.
“SCORE’s heartfelt condolences go out to Johnny’s family.”