Known as “The Flying Scot,” Johnny Thomson (April 9, 1922 – September 24, 1960) of Lowell, Massachusetts, was an outstanding open-wheel racer and one of the most likeable drivers that ever slipped into a racing car. And this reputation was echoed by his great friend and fellow EMPA Hall of Fame member Tommy Hinnershitz who said that Thomson was “the finest gentleman that I knew in racing and there was no one else like him.”
Humble about his considerable abilities, Thomson was just 16 when he began racing Midgets – against his parents’ wishes, no less – in a V-8-powered car that he built to use at the race track which was just across the street from his home. Then, when America entered World War II, the graduate of the New England Aircraft School in Boston became a crew chief on a North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber that saw considerable service in Italy and he came home with five battle stars and the Distinguished Air Force Medal for bravery beyond the call of duty.
With the war over, Thomson picked up where he left off by winning 32 races in 1948 in the McLeod Offy and he was the United Car Owners Association’s New England Midget Champion in 1948 & 1949. After that, he raced successfully with the American Racing Drivers Club and became the American Automobile Association’s Eastern Midget Champion in 1952.
In 1953, Thomson began driving Sam Traylor’s highly regarded jet-black Offy-powered Sprint Car and he and his pal Hinnershitz became the stars of the AAA Eastern Division. He also raced in some AAA Championship events and made his first start that year in the Indianapolis 500. But it was on the dirt tracks where the “diminutive rim-rider” was peerless.
The 1954 AAA and 1958 United States Auto Club Eastern Sprint Car Champion had five 100-mile USAC National Championship victories on the venerable dirt-miles – in 1957 at Langhorne, Pennsylvania; then in 1958 at Springfield and DuQuion, Illinois; Syracuse, New York; and Sacramento, California. His June 2, 1957, victory at Langhorne from the pole (107.496 mph) was the first time that a 100-mile race had been run on a dirt track in less than one hour as he averaged 100.174 mph in his winning yellow No. 44 D-A Lubricants Dirt Offy.
In eight (1953-1960) Indianapolis 500s, Thomson was third (1959), fourth (1955) and fifth (1960). Plus, he won the pole in 1959 with a 145.908 mph run in his unique left-hand-drive, pink-black-and-white No. 3 Racing Associates Luigi Lesvosky-built Offy Roadster.
All told then – with asphalt wins at Milwaukee in 1955 (AAA) & 1959 (USAC) included – Thomson had seven National Championship victories, 43 Top-10s and nine poles in 69 starts.
Thomson also raced his yellow No. 7 D-A/Racing Associates Offy Roadster at Monza, Italy, in 1958 where USAC’s best challenged Europe’s top drivers on the high-banked layout. But he cut his Sprint Car racing in 1959 to concentrate on the National Driving Championship.
However, on September 13, 1959, while driving Ken Hickey’s yellow No. 1 Offy Sprint Car at Williams Grove (Pa.) Speedway, the Boyertown, Pennsylvania, resident’s car hit the guard rail during the second heat and his seat belt broke, throwing him out onto the track.
A broken knee, ankle and finger sidelined Thomson for the rest of 1959. But although he only ran in eight National Championship races in his No. 3, he was third to Champion Rodger Ward and runner-up Tony Bettenhausen who ran in 12 and 13 races, respectively.
In 1960, Johnny Thomson again focused on the National title. But on a late September Saturday on the rutty, dry and dusty Allentown (Pa.) Fairgrounds track his No. 6 Stearly Motor Freight Special Offy Sprint Car was in a violent first-lap backstretch accident that saw it rip through 30 feet of inside fencing and then flip into the infield. Thus the life of a great driver and great ambassador for auto racing was tragically ended at the age of 38.