Friday, February 18, 2011

John Oliver Gunn, Jr. (1939-2010)

(Johnny Gunn and Childhood Friend Jerry Cole)

(click on photograph for larger image)


Photographs of John Gunn's Racing Cars

For additional photographs and other materials go to the Caswell County Photograph Collection.

On July 31, 2010, a number of John Gunn's friends gathered at The Grady's Automotive Warehouse in Stuart, Florida, to celebrate John's life. Following are two reminiscences shared at that gathering.

From Annie Linger

I was and am very proud to have been Johnnie Gunn’s girlfriend for 4 years in the late 1960’s. I regret that I did not say so in front of you guests at his memorial so I am saying it now. John exemplified his birth sign, Leo, with his abundance of flaming red hair and his pride, his striving to be a leader, a lion among men. He could also be a pussycat who parried himself by purring loudly when it was time for play.

It was the best of times for me: my first try at my own new life after a divorce, career as an art director in advertising, talented friends, travel with John to races in Florida, New England, Canada, California. John was racing SCCA, prepping customers cars at RaceCo, then beginning Formula A and CanAm. He allowed me to design the JG logo, “fastest gunn in the south” and the Gunn's Goodies logo which rode on the front of his cars and on the front of pretty girls wearing those neon colored tee shirts.

I got my 15 minutes of fame as a prominent face in the oft-repeated opening sequence of weekly CBS Sports as part of the cheering crowd watching auto races. It is odd that any camera caught me in the grandstand as I was more often in the pits inappropriately overdressed and never doing anything useful like keeping time charts.

We know what a successful competitor John was able to be although his budget was somewhat less than many of the heavily sponsored teams. All his money and efforts went into building and racing cars. So at Christmas John gave me his current trophies. I have silver trays and pewter mugs as well as his cheerful small sculpture which was on display at the memorial. John said of his cars, “I make sculpture that can also go fast.”

Thanks, Johnnie, for sharing your focus on life.

I'll follow Ann's lead, with a few random thoughts I was almost willing to offer until I realized I hardly knew anyone except Ann, JD, a small memory of Bill Ward and a little more of Ray and more of Henry.

I left RaceCo to return to school in about '67 and then to begin my forty-year teaching career, so only kept up with his later exploits when I got drafted back to help with a couple of Daytona Continentals (24 hrs), with well-known victories with customers' cars both years. My other source of info came from my lifelong friend JD (Jenkins). I never knew much about the owners of the Ferrari from Peru except that I was presumed to be capable of overhauling their spoked wheels during a pit stop because I could build a wheel for my race bikes - and that John could lap faster in the dark than the owners could in the daylight. I left my family dog and Charlie the cat with the shop when I returned to college, and good old Chatah apparently continued with John for quite awhile. It started with meeting him in a UM dorm room: my new roommate, with me also starting a new existence there as a transferring junior. This was in the early sixties, and possibly only Bill Ward knew him longer as his art teacher. John had an Alfa Giulietta, and tooling around Coral Gables in his sporty little Italian wasn't bad duty.

He had a focused intensity in talking about his goals, more so when talking about road racing, and comically so when once in the car he talked his way through a couple of light cycles and then noticed it change and went ahead, through a fresh red. Somehow the Alfa got traded for a racing version, with a lot of Bondo. The Grey Ghost got a Day-Glo hood for scoring visibility, and his tradition with number 39 started. He had an artist's fondness for a simple but distinctive number, and that was his for a longer series of cars than I realized until I saw Ann's and JD"s later pictures. I was working for Henry at Import Motor Parts when John recruited me to support his new idea for a race shop, and I became a corporate member with Dimis Maratos when we learned it took three to make a corporation. I didn't know anything about being the secretary to a corporation, but it didn't seem to matter.

We worked out a format for timing and scoring, what he wanted on a pit board, how to make it visible with white shoe polish on one side of a Plexiglas sheet and flat black paint on the other - then added a Day-Glo border, of course. Our design for the lap sheets was equally ad hoc, yet I used them decades later in Nova Scotia while helping another friend with race bikes, and remembered John's values for making them simple and effective. The same value was applied to choosing the Raceco logo, colors and slogan. Dimi, John and I were finally satisfied with the brief and blunt lower-case "r," with just "Road Racing Preparation" below it, and the street address, of course. Baker Motors in Atlanta became a destination for picking up a new 2600 Roadster, awarded when John won a national championship in F Production with the Grey Ghost. In a few days, he returned with the Chev station wagon dragging the old trailer along, but a Lotus 23 was its passenger. John had talked his way into trading the posh new road car for a real race car, and we spent a lot of time preparing it. It too had lots of heavy Bondo, and we sanded it for so long that John was only satisfied when we had it so thin that every surface bent in when pushed. He spent weeks finding the dull maroon he wanted, covering a sunshine yellow tubular frame that took almost as long to select.

It used to aggravate me when he seemed to waste huge time lost in thought. Half-hours on the toilet with Competition Press saw him emerging with an enlightened look, when he discovered that some 80% of DNFs in SCCA club racing were due to electrical failures, usually ignition. Thus, we began to overhaul the entire ignition system for every race, and eliminated that 80% of failures with one swoop on the Alfa. It impressed him a lot that Dan Gurney was leading the Nurburgring in a car of his own design - ahead of his former Porsche team - but retired with a loose condenser screw. Yes, we added Loc-tite to ours.

A philosophy emerged that if we could make the car bullet proof, he could drive it harder. This concept then got tested with out first redesign to the Lotus' chassis specification. The driving half-shafts used a six-hole rubber biscuit for coupling the Hewland gearbox to the driving shafts - and he was shearing them. He called around for a few days, discovered that Dodge dump trucks were using a kind of U-joint called constant velocity, got some from a junk yard, got the machining and welding done in Miami, and another point of failure was eliminated with redesign. This philosophy then led to a billet crankshaft for the Holbay-Ford engine, and you can guess the rest.

The grind of office work usually kept me busy and more time was wasted to my irritation when he stared at the Lotus' frame for what seemed like a couple of half-days at least, lost in thought. Finally, he called me over to see if I could see what he thought he'd discovered. It had to do with where the suspension pickup points were on the frame on the 23B model, and when I finally figured it out, I asked him what the point was. He'd realized it was so that both ends would react the same to a mid-curve bump, with designed-out bump steer, "so I can go faster."

These exercises helped me to see what BMW was up to with the innovative chassis of their oil-head twins - and many people still don't get it when I try to explain it like John did to me. Our talks on the back roads of Coral Gables helped me to see lots faster lines both at Daytona and at airfield circuits like Fernandina Beach - with my race bikes. When I joined the Atlas launch team twenty-four years ago as their tech trainer and began to appreciate the tight integration of teamwork, it reminded me of the mood and feel of our pace track side. And when after one hectic and victorious Palm Beach, we'd stopped for supper somewhere and he stole the waitress' iced tea platter and awarded it to me as "best pit crew," I was embarrassed at taking it. But I still have it, right up there in my office with my bike trophies.

Godspeed, Johnnie Gunn

Dan Shoemaker
Cocoa, FL

YANCEYVILLE - Johnnie Oliver Gunn, Jr., 70, died July 7, 2010, at his home in Palm City, Florida. He is the son of the late Johnnie Oliver Gunn, Sr. and Annie Newman Gunn of Yanceyville. Services will be held at the Yanceyville United Methodist Church on July 29, at 10:30 AM. Private interment will be in the Church Cemetery. The family requests no flowers. Donations may be made to the Yanceyville United Methodist Church Cemetery Fund or the charity of your choice. Support is provided by Marley Funeral Home.

Racing back in the Sixties and Seventies was very different from today and so were the racers. A couple of years ago, pro racer Charles Espenlaub, was chastised by The Man for accepting a beer from fans after his car broke at Mosport. Back in the day, accepting a cold beer from a fan’s cooler was a given while waiting for the tow vehicle at the end of the race.

With series like the CanAm and Formula 5000, many consider it the golden age of racing. Certainly the drivers were more akin to gladiators than modern pro drivers. Monstrous horsepower, sometimes rudimentary aero and rather primitive safety equipment meant that these guys were tough as nails and beyond brave. Perhaps the toughest of all were the independents, guys who didn’t have the resources of Penske and the like. John Gunn was one of those guys.

Johnnie Gunn raced primarily in the CanAm and Formula 5000 series, but also spent time endurance racing in Alfa Romeo’s and Ferrari’s. In the Seventies, he raced the mighty Porsche 934/935 before switching to closed cockpit Phoenix cars in IMSA racing. Gunn remained involved with these cars until 1989. His best ever finish was 2nd at the 1977 Can Am at Mont Tremblant. Many fans remember John Gunn for his tenacious battles against the teams that had far deeper pockets. Having battled heart problems of late, John Gunn passed away in his sleep. Thanks for the memories!

To learn more about John Gunn’s racing history visit Racing Sports Cars and Richard Sirgany. Also, follow the memories of fellow racers and fans at Autosport.


John Gunn

I am sorry to report that John Gunn has passed away in his sleep. This is all I know at this time.
He had been suffering with some heart problems and was under care for that, and other issues.
As further information about services are announced I will post them.

Rest in peace, John Gunn

As told by his ex crew chief and long time friend Don Schnieders


John Gunn is a former NASCAR driver from Miami, FL. He competed in one Nextel Cup event in his career. That came in 1981, when Gunn raced at Riverside. Starting 30th in the thirty-six car field, Gunn completed half the laps before falling out with clutch woes. He still managed to finish 25th. Stats


Additional References

Johnnie Gunn first raced at VIR in April of 1967 in a Lotus 23 when he took top honors in G Sports Racing. A native of nearby Yanceyville, he had grown up with the track and attended the inaugural event in August of 1957 as a spectator. His racing career began while a student at the University of Miami in an Alfa Romeo that carried him to two SCCA divisional championships. He turned pro in 1968 by entering the SCCA Formula A Continental series and became a regular for the entire life of the championship. After his second season he returned to VIR at the conclusion of the 1969 pro races to enter the September SCCA Nationals. With his Lola T-142 he set the final overall lap record for the original course at 2:06.3. He later was a regular entrant in Can Am and IMSA events.


John Gunn finished fourth in the 1984 IMSA race at Laguna Seca, the best-ever result for his home-built Phoenix JG-1.

Steve Matson 18 February 2011: "I met John in the late 1960s when he was my instructor at the 1st of two "driver schools" for SCCA. A great guy and a terrific teacher. Shortly thereafter, I bought the Gray Ghost," the Alfa Guilietta that he rescued from a bog and in which he won the SCCA Regional G Production championship and a new Alfa. He owned/operated RACECO, which was his home base and from which he prepared customer cars. He sold the Gulietta dirt cheap and even let me pay half of it down the road (sold a kid a race car on credit)! We stayed in touch through the years, and I just heard of his death as I was trying to chase down a phone number to give a call. Even though we weren't in frequent contact, he was a great friend and a terrific mentor during my short-lived racing days."