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Johnson’s role in ’69 Bathurst crash aftermath

A YEAR before his first Bathurst race and four before his ‘Great Race’ debut, Dick Johnson was on track at Mount Panorama – as a Good Samaritan.

Johnson had been a mountain devotee since the early 1960s, making the annual trek down from Brisbane after work on a Friday afternoon, sleeping in the car across the weekend before driving home on Sunday night in time for work the next day.

In 1969, Johnson had a front row seat to one of the most dramatic moments in ‘Great Race’ history – and it involved his good mate, and future Bathurst co-winner, John French.

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“Jilly and I were with his wife Marie, standing just up from the Dipper, after they come over Skyline,” Johnson told the V8 Sleuth Podcast in 2021.

“We saw this car come over Skyline upside down, I said ‘gee, this is gonna be interesting!’ And sure enough there were cars going everywhere…”

The scene a couple of laps after the crash; marshals had moved the stricken Alfas and Mini aside, with the inverted GTHO Falcon still to be shifted. Pic: an1images.com / Terry Russell

The upside-down car was that of Bill Brown, who had ranged down the inside of Mike Savva at Skyline only for the latter to reclaim the line and force Brown up the grass embankment to the inside, sending his Ford Falcon GTHO into a gentle roll onto its roof.

It had been the opening lap and the pair had been battling over 11th, meaning some 50-plus cars were about to crest Skyline at race speed to find the track almost blocked.

French, near the head of the next group of cars, all but stopped in time but a hard hit from behind tipped his Alfa Romeo 1750 GTV into a violent roll.

The white Alfa copped yet more hits as the smaller class cars arrived; by the time the dust settled, four cars were out on the spot including the inverted Brown and French, and almost a quarter of the 63-car field had sustained damage of some sort.

The crinkle in the roof of the white Alfa (left) illustrates that French was very, very lucky… Pic: an1images.com / Terry Russell

Of greatest concern to Johnson was the growing pool of red fluid coming from his mate’s Alfa.

“All I could see was this red stuff running out of his car – I thought he’s got to be hurt or something,” Johnson recalled.

“So I leapt over the fence to drag him out of the car, then realised it was only coolant from the radiator of the Alfa that was running out of the car.

“Fortunately Frenchy was fine, but you can imagine what his wife was feeling like while she was standing there watching all of this transpire!”

Incredibly, none of the drivers involved were injured, while the trackside marshals did a miraculous job to clear the track enough to allow the leaders – unaware of the mess awaiting them over Skyline on Lap 2 – to pick a path through the carnage.

Johnson and French, plus wives Jill and Marie, celebrated victory on the Mount Panorama podium 12 years after the 1969 lap-1 crash. Pic: Supplied

That wasn’t the last time Johnson witnessed a spectacular crash from his perch at Skyline, either.

The 1970 race featured two fearsome incidents involving past ‘Great Race’ winners that unfolded in front of him, once again with both drivers emerging largely unscathed.

The first involved 1960 co-winner John Roxburgh, whose Datsun 1200 collided with Gary Cooke’s Toyota Corolla at McPhillamy Park.

“He ended up rolling down over to the inside and down into the winery all the way down that hill, I reckon he must’ve rolled about 50 times,” Johnson recalled.

“And then Tony Roberts (1969 co-winner, driving a Ford Falcon GTHO) came over Skyline and ran out of brakes, over the fence and into the trees … you think I’ve been into the trees, a few guys have been in the trees at Bathurst, I can tell you!”

In a twist of fate, it was a crash at the top of the Mountain – at McPhillamy Park, to be exact – that blocked the track and brought about an early end to the 1981 Bathurst classic, securing victory for Johnson and French.

Listen to the full episode in the player below!

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