RPW Column: Memories Of Jumpin’ Jack; We Were All Lucky To Witness A True Legend

Column By: TOBY LAGRANGE / RPW – GLOVERSVILLE, NY – The events of Thursday April 1st have showed me that things that should not be hard often are the hardest.

As an award-winning motorsports journalist, putting words to paper should not be that hard. After all, it is not every day that the person mostly responsible for your four-decade addiction to the sport that has on many occasions saved you, passes away.

Since Jumpin’ Jack Johnson’s long battle with ALS came to an end on Thursday, I have wanted to put my thoughts into words for Race Pro Weekly. Whenever I sat down to do this, I couldn’t. I could not formulate what I wanted to say.

Then came Easter Sunday.

My wife is originally from Duanesburg and this year we happened to be heading to her Aunt and Uncle’s house in the very town that Jack made famous. With dinner completed and everyone gathered around the table solving the world’s problems, I looked out the window and just began to think, stare and reflect.

I thought about all of those nights watching the iconic orange 12a twist around the Track of Champions, the nights in the pit area listening to Jack talk to fan after fan and those interviews I and others had done with him.

Then it hit me. The best way to honor the man that meant so much to me and an untold number of others is to simply tell my story of the man that is and was, Jumpin’ Jack.

The year was 1983, four years after Johnson became the first New York State resident to win Super DIRT Week and a year before he would win everything the Moody Mile had to offer. I had been to the Fonda Speedway before but now, at the ripe old age of four, I could (and do) actually remember going.

I sat in those stands wearing my orange, Jumpin’ Jack Jacket and watched some of the best to ever strap into a Dirt Modified perform in front of us. At the time, I had no idea who Jack Johnson was, nor did I know who C.D. Coville, Dave Lape, Lou Lazzaro, Mike Romano or any of the other throttle jockeys were.

What I did know was, my mom and Aunt Anna were big fans of Johnson, so when he rolled out onto the track, I naturally did what any kid getting ready to enter Kindergarten would do…I booed him. For no other reason than because my mom cheered him.

When the racing was done and victory lane interviews were completed, the metal gate opened and like a herd of Bison, everyone swarmed across the tacky front stretch clay, made the leap of faith over the very tall (for a four-year-old) inside berm and climbed our way into the pit area. A journey and routine that many would make week after week and season after season.

Once inside it was eutopia for someone of that age. There were cars and those moving billboards for racing (open trailers) every place you looked. We always started at the pit exit in between turns one and two and worked our way down one side of the pits and then back up the other (rarely ever up on Street Stock hill as my mom always said it was too dark up there).

I was shy at that age (and for many years after that), so getting autographs was a rarity. Up until the FONDA! Book came out about a decade and a half later; I had a grand total of three autographs. The first was former New York Mets Manager Bobby Valentine (signed baseball) and the second was about to come very soon.

We made our way past Dave Lape’s team and then Tim Dwyer’s and kept moving until we reached the pit entrance in the short chute (turns three and four). We made the turn and there was the famous number 12A.

At this point we stopped. My mom, who was in her mid-20’s at the time and nowhere near as shy as I was urged me to walk over to the car and talk to this guy in a suit sitting on a tire. I had no idea why, no idea who he was and pushed back only as a stubborn kid could do.

She leaned into my ear and told me I should take this picture that she got that night and ask the man in the suit to sign it. At the time I was a young boy from the mountains of Bleecker and going up to talk to a strange man was beyond intimidating.

I wouldn’t go and began to have a tantrum right there in front of what had to be at least hundreds of people. It was at that moment that I heard a very calming voice over my shoulder. I turned around and kneeling in front of me was the man in the suit.

In that calming voice he asked me if this was my first time at the races. I didn’t answer. Then he asked me what my name was and put his hand on my shoulder. I remember telling him, “Toby” and I asked him who he was.

He said, my name is “Jumpin’ Jack”. Now to a kid that age, when you say your name is “Jumpin’ Jack” and not just “Jack” it has an effect. I remember telling him that my dad raced and he named me after Toby Tobias. I remember Jack saying that he knew him and that he was a nice guy (I had no idea at that time that Tobias was killed the year before I was born).

By the time we left his pit area I was in awe and didn’t want to leave…I wanted to go back, so another tantrum ensued. He signed my picture, shook my hand and told me to come and see him any time I wanted. We got back in my moms’ car, dropped my cousin off at his house and made our way back up Bleecker Mountain.

I remember waking up the next morning totally in awe still, starring at that autographed picture of the number 12a. It was during that trip into the pit area that I became a fan of not only Jumpin’ Jack…but of Jack Johnson.

Unfortunately, that autograph did not survive my trip into adulthood. The Valentine signed baseball did as did my third autograph…an autograph of Brett Hearn’s Pepsi number 20.

As time went on, I had other favorites too…Tommy Wilson, Randy Glenski, Jeff Trombley, Mitch Gibbs and others all had their pictures on my wall as a kid. None of them though would come close to Johnson in my eyes. I met them all as a kid and even years later, when I became an announcer, was able to call races that Trombley and Gibbs were in. I never though, was able to call a race that Jack Johnson was in.

I did though, get the honor of being in the booth with Jim King to call the first Jumpin’ Jack Tribute event. That was an experience that I hold close to my heart.

I wasn’t always a great fan of Jack. When he left for the Lebanon Valley Speedway around 1988 or so, I was very hurt. I simply did not understand that nature of racing at that time. When he came back, I was back wearing the orange, that is for sure.

When I first became a writer, I made a lot of mistakes in the way I handled myself – both in print, on message boards and via my opinions. One of the things I deeply regret was being less than fair to Jack for first declining his invite into the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame.

About a decade ago now, and a few years after Jack declining the invitation, I had what I feel is a huge honor. I asked and received an interview with Jack. At this time Jack had already been diagnosed with ALS and his racing days were done. My sit down with him for the Super DIRT Week issue of the Area Auto Racing News quite simply was the best three hours of my life.

I was a nervous wreck heading to Duanesburg but that did not last long. I walked into the garage and there was Jack…standing there waiting for me while the crew worked on Ronnie’s Modifieds. I was hoping that I would see Ronnie first but he was working on one of the cars.

I remember this day like it was yesterday and not a decade ago. We walked through the garage and out the door to a picnic table that sat outside. Before I even asked my first question, Jack did what Jack was great at. He calmed my nerves without me even knowing he was doing that. We had a chat before the interview about racing, my father (who he remembered) and about his health.

When the interview was over and the tape recorder was turned off, he told me that he knew who I was and liked reading my articles in the AARN and even in the Recorder. He brought up the afore mentioned articles that I wrote regarding declining the Hall of Fame invitation.

He understood my view and said that I had grown up a lot since then. He gave me a lot of advice that day, advice that I hold dear and will not share with anyone other than my son.

I wish I had told him the story of when I first met him nearly 20 years prior.

Jack Johnson was not just a great racer but he was a great man. He was always approachable and nice, polite and amazing with kids. I firmly believe that if it were not for Jack Johnson, I would have gone down a different, not so good, path in life.

On that early summer day in 1983 he lit the fire in this stubborn, Italian/German kid from Bleecker Mountain that continues to burn today. That fire consumed my teenage years which gave me no time to roam the streets, experiment with drugs or make other very bad choices that many of my classmates made.

The Town of Duanesburg needs to honor the man that put them on the map and the fact that they have not done so yet is an epic tragedy. With all due respect to some student athletes that currently are honored, the man known as Jumpin’ Jack should be honored above all else.

Rest in Peace Jack Johnson, you are and will be missed.

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