Some stories just flow. They write themselves, we are inclined to say. Other stories come from the very marrow of a writer's bones. What follows is not going to write itself. I know that, because I have been wafting several days and no story has appeared.
On Sunday, April 24, 1988, Jon Woodner took his little "toy plane", a Formula One Shoestring, out for a flight. He was an experienced pilot, but had only flown this racing plane a few times. When the airport attendant went to close the hanger, he noticed that the plane wasn't back and Jon's car was still there. By dark, they knew he was missing and started a ground search. At first light on Monday, an aerial search located the wreckage two miles from the Montgomery County (Maryland) Airpark in suburban Washington, DC. Cause of the accident has yet to be determined, but the police said the tiny plane went straight down with heavy impact.
You may have known Jon Woodner personally. If you were involved in rallying, you certainly knew of him. He went very few places without being noticed. It seems to me it must have always been that way.
He started his racing career running Go Karts in New York City when he was still too young to drive a car. He kept the thing in a parking garage and hid his tools in his bedroom because "Big Woodner" (as he always called his father) did not approve. On race days, he would hail a cab and load his Kart in the trunk to get to the races.
He went off to California to attend college (Berkeley) and go racing. He hooked up with Joe Huffaker at Sears Point and drove for the British Leyland team, winning several Pacific Championships and a National Championship. He moved up to big sports cars (winning and crashing at Daytona - in different years) and Atlantic cars before the family real estate business called him home to run the Washington offices. There he got involved in building development and management, but racing was still his first love.
He decided to go racing again in the late 70's and picked PRO rallying. He ran a TR-8, a Datsun 510 (with a BDA) and a series of Peugeots including his current 205 T16. In Europe he ran a Talbot Lotus and a Lancia 037 in several events. He also got back into road racing, running the SCCA and IMSA showroom stock series (which he hated) and IMSA GTU and Camel Light (which he loved). He had been running a BMW M-3 in Europe the past year. For 1988 he had a GTU program (in one of Huffaker's Fieros) as well as some European rallies and Group A races with the M-3.
John Buffum said, "He was a sportsman in the truest sense. He raced for the pure joy of doing it. He always added to the sport. We are going to miss him."
At a memorial service to Jon in Washington, hundreds of friends from business, racing and his personal life took turns paying tribute. It was a moving service to a good friend and to a man who added to motorsport.
"It's a tragedy," said Rod Millen. "I always looked forward to seeing Jon at events and competing against him. He always added something special to the sport. It's hard to imagine losing a friend like Jon."
I'm not here to deify Jon Woodner. He drove me crazy at times. Getting a decision out of him could sometimes be impossible, and he often tried to do too much. But he always came through, and his insight was a wonder to behold. He understood cars and he understood people, an all-too-rare combination of talents.
What you need to do is keep telling those Jon Woodner stories. If you have been around rallying at all in the US, you certainly have one Jon Woodner story. I'd love to hear from you by phone or mail. Tell us your favorite.
He made our lives better for having known him and we are diminished by his passing. Our sympathies go out to Alison Zaremba and the girls, Kristen and Katy, as well as to his parents and the rest of the family.
Life will go on. It will be different, but it will go on.
Meanwhile, Jon, may your stage times be quick, your cars powerful and your pace notes true.
We will remember.