Don Johnson — “The Beachcomber”
Don Johnson followed a dual path in his life, achieving an MBA in business administration from Pepperdine University, while following a racing career. Even as he charged down the quarter mile, he was obtaining an education that would serve him later in life, as a marketing, media promotion, and public relations professional.
Don "the Beachcomber" Johnson became a legend in AA Fuel Dragster history, winning first place in the Baja 1000, and becoming a life member of the Bonneville Flats 200 Club. He was an original member of the California Road Kings, with Don Purdohmme and Tommy Ivo.
In 1968, he ran a top fuel dragster, built by Roy Fjastad, powered by a 392 Hemi, with direct drive, achieving a 6.795 mile quarter mile at 223.9 mph. The same car appears to have been run in 1969 and 1970.
A 1970 Chrysler press release described some of his early racing years:
Don Johnson does not advise driving 135 MPH on city streets.
But he did once and as a result subsequently became one of the nation's better drag racers.
"It was in 1956, and when the police finally caught me they took away my driving license for a year. If they hadn't my Dad probably would have grounded me anyway.”
What does a youngster whose very life is his car do for a year without wheels? Johnson moved into the family garage, pushed his Dad's Cadillac out on the street and started building a flathead-powered roadster.
He had the roadster finished and ready for the strip when his year of penance was over. "I ran it at the old strip in Saugus and the one at Santa Ana", he remembers. He also ran it into his father's Cadillac but somehow avoided another lengthy grounding. Johnson and the roadster remained pals until 1961. Then the desire to again go 135 MPH or faster made the faithful little machine passé.
Johnson's next mount was an unblown 300 cid Mopar fueler which he built in partnership with Roy Fjastad. “The engine was his,” Don pointed out, "but this was not particularly the reason for the partnership. Roy and I have the same association today.” The pair ran the machine during the year winning their share of races.
The next year they set a blower atop the engine, mounted it in an airplane wing tank body, and went after the "B Lakester" speed record at Bonneville Salt Flats. They got it with a speed of 272 MPH.
The pair returned to the Salt Flats the next year. "We made one record run, but we were rained out before we could get the back-up run in,” Johnson said. On the trip back to Los Angeles, the pair decided to sell the Lakester and get back into drag racing.
In 1965 they set a new AA/F on the strip and raced it two years with moderate success, winning among other races, the UDRA National Championships at Las Vegas, Nevada in 1966.
The following year Johnson was at the controls of a new Dodge powered AA/Fueler. With this machine he won the Mickey Thompson 200 MPH meet in Long Beach, California, set the '67 world's ET record and racked up top speed and low ET at the NHRA meet in Bristol, Tennessee. He spent the remainder of the racing season on eastern strips where he was marked as the machine to beat.
Because of personal involvement, Johnson sent the AA/F dragster back to the eastern strips in 1968 with a friend, Norm Weekly, driving. Before the season was too far along Weekly was involved in an accident and the machine was totaled. Johnson and Fjastad went to work building another, finishing it in about a week; Norm raced it the remainder of the season.
At the beginning of 1969 Johnson hurriedly re-built the dragster but did not get it shaken down in time and failed to qualify at the NHRA Winternationals. However he finished the season ranked fourth in the points standings.
Johnson was born in Los Angeles and was graduated from Harvard Military Academy in 1958. He spent the next year on a diving scholarship at Wyoming University. "I didn't like it there, and just didn't try to get good grades.”
Returning to Los Angeles he attended University of Southern California night classes, working during the day. He graduated from USC with a degree in Public Administration in 1963.
Johnson was a partner in Constructors Unlimited, a heavy equipment rental business in North Hollywood, and one of Southern California's most successful dragracers. He said three people have been influential in his career. One of these was his long time friend and chief wrench, Roy Fjastad. The second was Tommy Ivo, the screen actor turned dragracer. The third person Johnson singled out is Mike Kinne, the behind-the-scene-guy. "Without him, I don't think I'd race. He does everything, he makes the decisions, he's a top mechanic ... everything.”
Johnson might have been forgetting a fourth person---the policeman who stopped him at 135 MPH.
The biography doesn't mention it, but Don Johnson had owned other dragsters, with other drivers. In 1966, for example, his 1966 Beachcomber top fuel dragster, raced by Bob Muravez, won the Las Vegas Invitational and the Mickey Thompson 200 MPH Championship at Lions dragstrip, beat 75 Top Fuel dragsters.
The Hemi powered 1970 dragsters
In 1970, Johnson ran two Hemi-powered dragsters. Both used a Speed Products Engineering 200 inch wheelbase chassis, front axle, and laced wire front wheels, with Halibrand Mags in back; the steering geometry was fashioned by P&S Machine of Los Angeles. Six gallon Hanna Fuel tanks were mounted forward of the engine.
Ed Pink worked over the 426 Hemis; Bowers blowers with Cragar drives running 24% over crankshaft speed were stacked up top and fed a mixture of nitro through Enderle injectors and Cragar intakes. Hilborn fuel pumps were used with Milodon drives.
A balanced Moldex Crankshaft with precision fitted Federal Mogul bearings pushed ForgeTrue pistons in the big bores via MIT-Pink connecting rods. Torque to the stock Dodge 3:91 rear gear was sent directly. The flywheel and pressure plate in this popular arrangement were by Schiefer.
The camshafts, ground by Racer Brown, worked matching Racer Brown pushrods, lifters and springs. The intake valves were stock Dodge 2.25 inch while the same size Donovans handled the exhaust. The rocker arms remained standard issue. The ignition system for both Beachcombers was by Cerillo of Costa Mesa.
In the West, Johnson himself ran the first car. The second Beachcomber was raced in the East by 22 year old John Travis of Westchester, California.
In his racing career, Don Johnson developed and managed promotional project vehicles for many different manufacturers; after retiring from racing, he started a business, DJ&F, where he can help manufacturers to obtain appropriate aftermarket parts to enhance their vehicles’ performance and design, and help with product image, distribution, editorial and networking.