Harold Johansen Jr began racing on the dry lakes of Southern California in 1946 and has never stopped. He is one of those journeyman racers who strive for excellence in a sport that is rarely in the news. His dedication to land speed racing is as true and committed today as it was sixty-one years ago when he made his first run down the course, blew a head gasket and limped across the starting line. Since that first attempt at setting a class record, Johansen has gone on to set records numerous times and is still trying to set more at 78. His grandfather was Rudolf Johansen, who was born in Oslo, Norway and immigrated to the United States in the mid-1880’s, settling in Southern California. Rudolf was a farmer and grew wheat in the San Fernando Valley, from Sherman Oaks and Chatsworth. Harold Johansen Sr was born in Lincoln Heights, near the old Legion Ascot race track, in 1894 and took up farming. Harold Sr met Viola Jensen from San Jose, California, when she came to Southern California on a vacation and they married in 1917. They had three children, Darrell was born in 1918, Harold Jr was next on June 2, 1927 and Barbara was the last in 1929. Harold Jr was born in Van Nuys, California and attended Van Nuys Elementary, Van Nuys Jr and Sr High Schools. He took drafting and vocational agricultural classes. “They didn’t have any auto shop classes at the time, but the Ag class had a repair shop for tractors and the students would bring their cars to work on,” he told me. “My father didn’t know the first thing about cars, but I loved working on them,” said Harold Jr.
Johansen was too young to be drafted into the war, but not too young to work in a war defense plant at the age of 15. "They were desperate for labor and hired anyone that was willing to work, during the war years,” he told me. The company was called Aircraft Components, in Van Nuys, and he was a metal finisher. He built his first car, a ’29 Ford with a flathead engine, while in high school and admits to street racing. “There was just one SCTA (Southern California Timing Association) dry lakes meet in 1945 and I drove my street hot rod up to the lakes to see how it would do. No one told me there was an age requirement at the time and I just paid my entrant’s fee, a couple of dollars, and they let me run. I can still remember the face of the starter as he waved me off. I was really doing well, but just before the traps the head gasket blew and the car slowed down. I got a time of 69 mph,” Johansen said. He graduated in 1946 and went to work for Bill English’s Blacksmith Shop in Northridge, California as a welder. He tried being a mailman for two years until he found the job that he really liked; a fireman for the County of Los Angeles and was stationed around the Hollywood area. He would remain with the fire department until his retirement in 1978, but continued as a consultant in the movie industry. “I was a fire marshal on the movie sets whenever they had to have a fire or explosion. My job was to oversee the safety and certify that the stunts wouldn’t lead to injuries,” he said. He retired from the movie industry in 2005.
He joined the Bungholer’s car club just after graduating from Van Nuys High School in 1946 and has been in the SCTA ever since. He is one of only a handful of men and women who started land speed racing in the 1940’s who is still actively racing. “I joined the Bungholer’s because of Eugene Bonarx. He had a Riley V-8 overhead cam engine and I had just recently got one. I had raced my street car at the dry lakes in 1945, but it wasn’t a racer. It was my transportation car to and from work, so I began to build a car just for the lakes. Bonarx helped me and without his help it would have been difficult. It was a ’27 Model T that I got from the junkyard and it wasn’t ready until the October ’46 race. It went 108 mph at El Mirage,” Johansen said. He remembers that Bob Baldwin and Gus Summerfield were active members of the Bungholer’s at the time. “I wasn’t in the Bungholer’s very long. In October of 1946 I switched to the Outriders car club. A member in the Outriders had a Riley V-8 overhead cam in his car and I wanted to learn all I could about this engine from him. The Outriders were a very active dry lakes racing club. I remember the Tipton brothers, Archie and Wayne. There were over 60 members in the Outriders at the time and I stayed in the club until 1949,” said Harold.
His dry lakes car ran creditable times, but the Riley V-8 seemed to always run just under the record, so he traded the engine to Don Clark for a Ford flathead engine. Don Clark and Clem Tebow owned C&T Automotive in North Hollywood. Johansen put the flathead in the ’27 and increased his speed by five miles per hour to 123 at the lakes. A good speed for the times, but still under the record that he sought to break. In 1949, Johansen, Don Clark, Clem Tebow, Ben Harper, Jimmy Khougaz formed the Road Masters car club and affiliated themselves with the SCTA. They adopted the Buick emblem and put it on their club car plaques. Later members of the club included Walt Brown, Bill Robert, Paul Grosso and Don’s brother, Stan Clark. The Road Masters disbanded in the late 1960’s and Johansen joined the Sidewinders, one of the larger clubs in the SCTA. Johansen built a new dry lakes/Bonneville car. It was a ’29 Ford Model A on a ’32 frame, powered by a 300 cubic inch Chevy engine. He would run the car in the C and D Roadster class and set records with this new car. The speeds increases and he set a record in the roadster at 174mph in the D class, and then upped the record to 194mph. His record wasn’t broken for 20 years. He also set a record in the C class roadster division. He married in 1957 and had a daughter, Donna Johansen. It ended in divorce and Harold won custody of his daughter, but his wife took their child and disappeared. Years later he saw his daughter in Australia and learned that he had a grandson and two granddaughters. He never remarried.
Johansen rejoined the Sidewinders in the late 1960’s. He remembers Barry Kaplan, Don Carr, Julian Doty and Keith Young from that early Sidewinders group. Johansen was also active at the Bonneville Salt Flats, getting into the Bonneville 200 MPH Club in 1974 in a C/Gas roadster with a Chevy V-8. He later set records in gas and fuel modified roadster in both D and C classes. He just returned from a grueling Bonneville trip this year in August, 2007 at Speed Week. In 1978 he helped to form a second club, the Super 4’s. “I wasn’t really crazy about the name, but one of our more vocal members wanted it. I had wanted to form a club dedicated to just the 4-cylinder engines and race in that category. There weren’t a lot of 4-cylinder engines running at that time. Some of the original members of the Super 4’s were Doug Boyd, Kong Jackson, Wes Cooper and myself. I left the Super 4’s in 2002 when there were only 2 4-cylinder cars left in the club and rejoined the Sidewinders,” Harold said. He plans on racing at Bonneville and the dry lakes. He reminisced about Big Bill Edwards who would always leave Bonneville and head for the whorehouses in Wells, Nevada. “They used to call him the Mayor of Wells,” said Johansen. “I went to Black Rock Desert in Nevada, in 1997 to see Craig Breedlove and the Spirit of America race against the Brits and The Thrust SSC. I met Chuck Abbott there. He passed away this year,” he said. We hope Harold Johansen Jr keeps racing for a long time to come.