Region Racers at the Indy 500 — Johnny Pawl
By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published in the Post-Tribune /Chicago Sun-Times News Group — May 24, 2007
His name on the birth certificate read John Pawlowicz.
Years later, he became recognized, respected and ultimately honored, as Johnny Pawl.
Raised in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, by an Austrian mother and Russian father who immigrated to the United States early in the century, little Johnny Pawlowicz was one of three children.
His “undoing” as he used to say, occurred the day he skipped school and went across the Delaware River to hang around downtown Trenton, New Jersey.
During the course of avoiding the attention of the local truant officer, Johnny slipped into the Bijou Theatre. While sitting inside the movie house, he found himself watching James Cagney in the 1932 Warner Brothers/Howard Hawks’ production of “The Crowd Roars.” It didn’t take long before young Pawlowicz was captivated by what he was witnessing on the silver screen. Tough guy Cagney, as race driver Joe Greer, sliding into the turns and ultimately running his car right through the dirt track fence, as the crowd roared!
So enamored with the film, he played hookey the next day too, just so he could go back and watch it again. That day, in 1932, until the day he passed away in 2002, Johnny swore was the day he decided he wanted to go auto racing.
Not long after seeing his now favorite movie, Johnny happened to pass the Empire Garage during one of his travels along the city streets and spied some race cars inside. Before too long, he gathered up the courage to go inside and hopefully get someone inside to talk racing with him. That’s when he met Jimmy Patterson, a real live race car driver. Patterson took a liking to the kid and told him to come to the races the following weekend. A few days later, Johnny rode his bicycle eight miles down the Philadelphia-Trenton Pike to a place called Langhorne. Once there, he hopped the fence and saw his first auto race. Between heat races, he snuck across the track into the infield and made it all the way to where his new friend Patterson was. There Patterson introduced Johnny to another racer, Ralph Malamud. Impressed with Johnny’s enthusiasm, Malamud hired him on the spot as a “stooge,” a racing nickname for an errand boy.
In no time, 15 year-old Johnny was part of a whole new world. He chased parts, did odd jobs, and even began to be given simple mechanical chores on the cars. He got his first big break when a West Coast driver by the name of Lloyd Vieaux needed a go-to-guy on his East Coast race swing and hired Johnny for the princely sum of $4 per week, with room and board when on the road. Johnny lugged gasoline, cleaned and waxed the car, and even got the opportunity to do mechanical work on the engine and chassis.
The following year, at the age of 16, between helping his father in the carpentry trade and working on racecars at various tracks, Johnny finished high school.
Now known as Johnny Pawl, he was starting to build a solid reputation in his new found love, auto racing. But it was during that very summer, that Johnny experienced his first racing heartbreak. Lloyd Vieaux, the driver that had given Johnny his first big break was killed racing at a track in Lakewood, Georgia. It was a hard lesson, but not uncommon in the rough and tumble race days of the 1930s. This one just happened to be a friend and mentor, and it hit Johnny hard. But he refused to abandon his new vocation.
By 1934, Johnny had moved up the racing ladder to better drivers, with better cars. It was in that season, he made the jump to Indy cars. Riding mechanics were part of the race day scene and that fit Pawl’s thirst for racing action.
His first offer for an Indianapolis 500 ride was with driver Johnny Hannon. Pawl, at the age of 18, with no money in his pockets proceeded to hitch-hike from Pennsylvania. He stopped on the way in Toledo, Ohio, to work a local race to raise enough money to eat and continue on to Indianapolis.
Just as he was entering the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time, he saw the very car he was supposed to be the riding mechanic for in the 1935 Indianapolis 500. At that instant, the car crashed and the driver Hannon was killed. Johnny stunned by what he had just experienced, stayed out the cockpit for that race, but climbed back in and competed as a riding mechanic in the next two Indy 500s, garnering a eighth place finish in the 1937 race.
During the next few years, Johnny’s reputation as a gifted mechanic spread across the American racing landscape.
Following his honorable discharge from US Coast Guard, he quickly returned to racing. It was a golden age for Johnny Pawl, as future racing Hall-of-Famers; Johnnie Parsons, Paul Russo, Teddy Duncan, Duke Nalon and Mike O’Halloran all competed for the opportunity to drive for him. His race cars captured many a track and season’s championship. One of his most successful racecars was eventually captured on film in the movie “Buck Privates Come Home” shot in 1947.
His exemplary mechanical skills were always in demand at the most important auto race in world, the Indianapolis 500. From the late 1940s to early 1960s, Johnny Pawl could be found in the garages in Gasoline Alley or the pits at IMS during the entire month of May. Skilled mechanic and mentor, Johnny Pawl was the complete package.
In the late 1940s, Johnny Pawl and his wife Pebble, selected Crown Point, Indiana as their home and Johnny opened a racing-based business on the southeast corner of US 30 and Indiana 55. His first customer was another “Region Racer” by the name of Murrell Belanger. Their business relationship, based on mutual respect, grew by leaps and bounds and in the mid 1950s, Pawl purchased the entire midget racing operation of Kurtis-Kraft, then based in Southern California. That acquisition made Johnny Pawl Racing Equipment the sole supplier of the superbly designed, custom-built midget race cars. Pawl also forged a business alliance with Meyer & Drake, the producers of the dominant engine of its day, the Offenhauser. In addition, Johnny built a long-term business relationship (and ultimately a life-long friendship) with Ray Nichels and Nichels Engineering.
Johnny Pawl Racing Equipment became the supplier of choice for racers across America. Not only did car owners and mechanics get the best parts and “Offy” engines available, they also got the best advice. Pawl’s cars raced on tracks from the East Coast to the West Coast, on local tracks such as Illiana Motor Speedway or the track with the America’s longest racing lineage, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These places all had one thing in common. When Johnny Pawl’s cars raced there, they always ran with the leaders.
Johnny Pawl retired from racing in 1998 and soon after was inducted into the Midget Racing Hall of Fame. He passed away in January of 2002.
For those who understand the history of American racing, Johnny Pawl can easily be described as one of our greatest “Region Racers.”