Wisconsin's Hudson HornetDec 09, 2014 03:00PM ● By Julie Henning
Writing the column was stressful in that I had to actively listen while taking notes, transforming the moment into a story that paid tribute to the person I was meeting for the first time. The experience was powerful and now I travel with an audio recorder “just in case". And I’m glad I had it with me when I visited my grandpa in his residential care center earlier this summer.
While my grandpa has Parkinson’s and Dementia that has advanced beyond the point where his life story can be self recalled, I have enjoyed getting to know the people who share three squares at the same dining table. More elderly gentlemen than I have ever seen at one time, the table is a polite bunch who (no lie) all wear Packer hats and agree fresh-caught bluegill is the best meal on Earth.
So when my grandma casually mentioned Bob Johnson, sitting at the other end of the table, used to be the Hudson Hornet, I found myself asking for an interview. “Bob never talks about himself,” one of the nurses felt compelled to tell me. I guess he has a soft spot for redheads.
Now, let’s backup. If you have kids and haven’t been living in a cave for the past decade, chances are you’ve seen the Disney PIXAR movie Cars. You know, the one where Lightning McQueen is “living life in the fast lane” and then finds himself detoured in the forgotten town of Radiator Springs where he makes a bunch of new friends and has some important self-actualization moments.
Bob Johnson has never seen Cars, but other people have made the Hudson Hornet connection and mentioned it to him. Bob claims he’s the only Hudson Hornet he knows about in Wisconsin, and with nearly nine decades under his belt that’s a lot of time to keep an eye out.
Bob built a career racing Hudson Hornet racecars, an automobile model manufactured throughout the 1950s, originally by Hudson Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan and then by American Motors Corporation in Kenosha, Wisconsin (and marketed as the Hudson brand). Hudson Hornets, as you would expect, look exactly like Doc Hudson from the movie.
Moving into Bob’s room after lunch, the first thing to catch my eye was a windowsill full of trophies shaped like Hudson Hornets. Bob said he has more at home that are either too large to fit on the ledge or that he didn’t want to accidentally break.
There’s also a framed black-and-white photo taken on May 16, 1954 during the exact moment Bob’s 25-year-old body was ejected from his vehicle. The windshield is coming out of the car and belts are suspended in mid air. He can still talk about the crash like it was yesterday. “See that guy that hit me? Number two in the front. He hooked me on the inside of the corner, which you shouldn’t do because in a wide track like that they should have gone around. It was a brother and a brother-in-law that were both following each other and he did it to another guy and they kicked him out of racing after that.”
Bob was out cold from noon to 10PM and the doctors told him he would never walk again. Looking proud, Bob says he “fooled ‘em anyhow.” He spent three months in the hospital before he wiggled his toes and then learned how to use his legs again.
Sadly, the crash in 1954 wasn’t the first time Bob Johnson experienced adversity. He was orphaned as a baby and went into a foster home between the ages of 8 and 16. Attending a country school with only one teacher, Bob recalls it was hard to study because the “teacher couldn’t teach everyone.” Recognizing the problem, Bob filled in the gaps at home. “I was smart and listened to the TV and learned more that way than I did in school.”
At age sixteen, he left home to work for a farmer who offered him room and board. As times were tough for everyone, Bob found himself moving with the farmer to Farmington, Minnesota where he (the farmer) went to help his brothers.
Bob’s life was about to literally switch tracks. “I heard there was a race in Minneapolis, so I took my road car and I thought, ‘Gee, I’ll try.’ The first time I didn’t make a dime but I thought, ‘I’ll try one more time.’”
Bob went back the next week and took second in the feature race. He said, “That was the start of it. This was around 1948-49, because I ran about four times a week sometimes. I was always going, but I had fun and I made money. I made more than I did on the farm, so I quit. I was 22 then and I drove for a guy at the Amery Chrysler Dealer. He had a modified late model, so I’d switch off. Sometimes we’d take both cars. We’d get the fair grounds and then go south of The Cities and run at night.”
Bob’s trophies are from the year 1949 on up. Racing throughout Wisconsin and Minneapolis, a career highlight was taking the mid-season championship at Rice Lake. “You had to pass all the cars to get it, and I did. But at that time I didn’t think anything of it,” he recalled.
In fact, Bob won so much, people tried to drive him out of town. “The people were getting mad because I was taking first all the time. The owner said, ‘Johnson, you can stay away now.’ But I belonged to an association from Rice Lake and I’m glad I did. The drivers said, ‘Bob goes, we go.’”
Despite his notoriety, Bob claims he wasn’t a ladies man. “I never did have a girlfriend until I met my wife at the New Richmond ice cream shop. I went with her and we got married in 1959. We have one son and now two grandsons.”
Family means something to Bob. His son visits and calls him every day and he's clearly proud of his grandsons. An eight by ten photo of each boy is pinned to the cork board closest to Bob's bedside table. . “My grandsons are 23 and 21 and are both good kids. They’re sharp and smart and all they do is study, you can’t even budge them. They always say, ‘I’ve got to study.’ It paid off.”
To help fund their educations, Bob collects aluminum cans. He has a plastic collection bag in his closet and says he averages about 300 a week. He says aluminum is up to 50 cents a pound, twice the value from just a year ago. “My son takes them home and smashes them. When he has four bags, he takes them in and puts the money in a college fund for my grandkids.”
This kind gesture has my eyes tearing and makes me think Bob’s story is like so many of his generation. “I had a tough life I’ll tell you that. Until I raced and made money and I could take care of myself. I never had parents or relatives of any kind and was stuck in that orphanage.”
Describing himself as an antique, I inaccurately guess Bob’s age younger than his nearly-86. “The doctor said I could last until 100,” he said.