–by Justin St. Louis (@Justin_StLouis)
John O. Casey was maybe the most important person in northeastern stock car racing that you’ve probably never heard of.
The American-Canadian Tour would not have existed as it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s without John, nor would many of the bullet points on the winning résumés of countless drivers.
“Johnny O” was a warm, friendly, fun-loving presence in the pit areas at race tracks all over the East Coast. I didn’t know him for very long, I suppose, but he became a great friend. We were first introduced in the ACT office in the winter of 2004-05, when I was working in the media department for Tom Curley as a naïve, immature, 21 year-old greenhorn.
I remember the encounter very clearly, but he appeared mostly the same the entire time that I knew him as he had that day: White-haired, rather round, a snappy dresser, and wearing an infectious, prankster-like smile. He was quick with a handshake, very friendly, and already knew about me, what I had written, and even a little bit about my time as an entry-level driver.
He always had a joke, whether it was rehearsed or it was a witty, on-the-spot one-liner. He was a very thoughtful man and remembered details about people’s personal lives, taking the time to ask about how things were going.
I really got to know John in 2009, when he approached me about writing a history of Thunder Road to commemorate the 50th season. One night, he assembled Dave Moody, the late Cho Lee, me, and himself at a steak house in Barre. Dave and I were the writers, Cho was to provide the illustrations, and John would be the publisher – the money man. We quite literally scribbled our ideas on cocktail napkins and laid out a plan.
Less than two months later, we had a finished product on the printing press. Dave and Cho were prepared; Dave had most of his stories pre-written and had been sitting on them for a while, needing only to add tweaks here and there. Cho had thousands of photographs in his collection – most of them memorized– and needed only to choose which ones he wanted to use.
For me, although it was very rewarding, it was a tiring, agonizing, often sleepless process. All of my material had to be researched, collected, and written from scratch. I had a daily full-time job, a part-time job, and family commitments. I called in some favors to get my work hours changed and made morning trips to Montpelier two or three times a week to visit the state library. I stopped at Cho’s house a few times to see the pictures he had chosen, then re-wrote parts of my stories based on the scenes in the images. I called and emailed Dave at all hours, even during his radio show.
Through it all, I spoke with John at least once a day, updating him on the progress. I would often stop at his house, too. It was a neat little place in Shelburne, a first-floor condo nestled in what he called an “old fogies’ community,” where there was no noise and – to John’s chagrin, I think – not much activity. Inside, the walls and shelves were decorated with art, books, and racing memorabilia. John loved history of all types, but he reveled in the racing. He had what seemed like a thousand die-cast racecars and models in his collection, but the one that I noticed first was a 1960s drag car with the words “Lil’ Shaker” on the sides. I recognized the car from old pictures and had heard the name, but I couldn’t place it.
It was John’s.
He would tell me all kinds of great stories about racing at the long-gone Milton dragstrip, hanging with Jack DuBrul, Bobby Dragon, Frankie Woodward, John Keefer, Shirley Muldowney, and everyone else from that early scene. John and the ‘Shaker’ were plenty formidable at Milton and elsewhere, and it seems as though he was quite the driver.
And then, of course, those stories led to Catamount, Thunder Road, and eventually his days working for Tom Curley and ACT. They were wild times, even in the late 1980s, and it was amazing to hear him recall the years of traveling to Dover or Buffalo or the Maritimes or across the 401 to Toronto. Everything was so live-for-the-moment.
At its height in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were few short track organizations in the world better than ACT. They had the stars – Junior Hanley, Robbie Crouch, Dave Dion, Russ Urlin, Beaver Dragon, Kevin Lepage, Ricky Craven, and so many others – and a massive fan following on both sides of the border.
John’s primary job was to sell the sponsorships and keep the marketing people happy. He did his job very well. John had been a very successful car salesman, and he was a natural sweet talker anyway. He and Curley met with executives of billion-dollar companies and fit right in with them. Coors, General Motors, Budweiser, Ford – they got to know the top brass on a personal level.
John embraced that live-for-the-moment life, too. He loved the big-city markets that ACT visited in that era, both professionally and personally. I can’t tell the stories from a first-person perspective because I wasn’t there, and I won’t tell the stories John told me because, well, they’re probably not fit for print. Believe me: The guy lived a fun life.
John inked the deal between ACT and GM Canada that created a national television presence and vaulted ACT into the upper echelon of all touring series. I won’t say how much money the sponsorship was worth, but it was on the high end of six figures. ACT was so good, and so well-publicized, and had so much money coming in – thanks to John – that Urlin and Hanley each had seasons of winning more than $200,000. In fact, Hanley did it three times.
They were the glory days, and “Johnny O” was hugely responsible for them.
Things eventually changed, and John left ACT. His son Danny had raced a Mini Stock at Catamount many years earlier, and he started racing again in the late 1990s in a Late Model. John was a part of it, and he later built the team that brought Robbie Crouch out of retirement and back into the winner’s circle at Thunder Road in 2008.
In 2009, right in the middle of our book project, Bobby Allison visited Thunder Road. John was asked to be his handler and driver for the day, and John gladly pulled his prized green Jaguar out of the garage to cater to the leader of the Alabama Gang. In fact, part of the reward for my effort with the book – which John knew was causing me major stress – he got Bobby to call me to encourage me to keep pushing along and get the project done. And like I said, I spoke with John daily, and there was never anything but encouragement, praise, and genuine appreciation.
As John’s health started to make things tougher on him over the last few years, I made it a point to call him and find out how things were going. I last spoke with him about six weeks ago and he still sounded good then, but obviously things changed. Our mutual friend, Dan Kearney, called me earlier this week with the news of John’s passing, and while we were both sad, we spent a half hour reminiscing about John’s escapades.
What a life he had.
I feel nothing but gratitude for the man. I’m grateful for what he did for me personally, but I also look back to the years long before I knew him, when I was a kid growing up in the grandstands at ACT races. Tom Curley created the show, but it was John’s work that raised the stakes and made them truly can’t-miss events.
How cool of a legacy is that?
(Photo courtesy Burlington Free Press)