HALLOWELL — It’s well after an October midnight nearly six years ago when Johnny Clark returns to his home with his family intact, his newborn daughter finally released from the neonatal intensive care unit at Portland’s Maine Medical Center.

His phone rings, but he doesn’t answer it, although something compels him to listen to the voicemail left a few minutes later.

“It had been a crazy 10, 11 days. She was put in the NICU because she was too big, not too small. She was 10 pounds and stuck, and she had a broken arm and a ruptured umbilical cord,” Clark recalled this week at his race shop on the site of Clark’s Scrap Metal, the family business. “It was a crazy, emotional time. We’d just brought her home. I couldn’t believe what I was listening to.”

Clark, his voice raising, continued.

“We haven’t slept, it’s been just an awful two weeks for my daughter, and there’s this guy telling me how bad I sucked and to give it up,” he said. “I’m like, I’ve accomplished more in racing than most of the people you’ve ever even thought about hanging out with. But because you’ve got an ’18 Kyle Busch sticker in the back window of your pickup truck, you’ve got all the answers in racing.”

The insults struck a nerve with one of Maine’s most accomplished race car drivers. It came following his first winless season in 12 years, after considering all of the possibilities of what could have gone wrong for his baby girl, and after seeing so many people willing to step up and help prepare his race cars start falling by the wayside.

For a driver who dominates virtually every conceivable statistic when it comes to Maine’s auto racing landscape, hard times on the race track can be particularly painful. Where success once came so easily it felt effortless, it starts to feel like every effort made to climb back to the top has a bizarre reverse effect.

But for Clark, who will turn 40 this year and will try for his first Oxford 250 victory Sunday, a family and a career have added important perspective. His more than 40 career victories and record six Pro All Stars Series championships tell the story of the racer, but they hardly paint the picture of the man.

There’s no simple answer to the question, “What’s up with Johnny Clark?”

 

RACING AND WINNING… A LOT

The Pro All Stars Series (PASS) is the northeastern United States’ premier Super Late Model touring series. With between 14-18 races per year at tracks ranging from Maine to Connecticut, and north to Canada, drivers and teams are routinely tested against the best the motorsports’ form has to offer.

Clark’s career was a lightning bolt headed well beyond New England’s reach.

Johnny Clark gives the thumbs up to fans prior to the 2014 Oxford 250. Clark is one of the more well known drivers in Maine, and he is taking another crack at the 250 this weekend. Portland Press Herald file photo by Derek Davis

The Farmingdale native has 35 career PASS wins, having won nearly 15% of all the races he’s entered. He won his first race in 2003, his second full year with the series. He went on to win at least two races in eight of the nine seasons that followed.

In his 19 years with PASS, he’s made 236 career starts and finished in the top five 122 times.

Clark was at his best from 2008-2011, becoming the only driver in PASS history to win four consecutive series championships. In the final year of that run, he won exactly half of the races on the schedule — an improbable 7 out of 14 starts.

“Those were years where it looked like I should have chosen this as a profession,” Clark said.

He has participated in every season in PASS history. Founded in 2001 by current Oxford Plains Speedway owner Tom Mayberry of Naples, Clark ran 5 of the 10 races in the inaugural 2001 season then didn’t miss a race until 2015.

Dating back to the start of the 2018 season, Clark has competed in just 18 of the 28 PASS races on the schedule. As family and work commitments have piled up alongside recent struggles with performance, he’s taken a different tact.

“It’s quality not quantity for me at this point,” Clark said. “I want to run better. If I can run good at, say, six races a year, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Even without him on the tour every week now, Clark still represents an important piece of the PASS puzzle.

“Guys like Johnny and (Ben Rowe) are still the backbone behind this,” Mayberry said. “You have the young people come along like Derek (Griffith) and Garrett (Hall), but those people put a lot of time and effort in and you could never do it without them. Somebody might say, ‘Well, Johnny doesn’t run all the races anymore.’ But him still being part of it is just as important to us as it was before.”

When the 46th annual Oxford 250 takes the green flag this Sunday, Clark is hoping to be as important a part of PASS history as he’s ever been.

 

FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME

Clark’s sixth PASS championship came in 2011, the same summer his first daughter, Alivia, was born. He won two of the first four races to begin the next season. It felt like a seventh championship run was kicking off.

Instead, Clark didn’t win again that year. The victory drought continued throughout 2013, when his second daughter, Miranda, was born that October.

Johnny Clark poses with his daughters Alivia, 8, left, and Miranda, 5, at the family’s Hallowell garage on Thursday. Clark is preparing to race the Oxford 250 on Sunday. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

It’s been three full years since Clark’s last win — at White Mountain Motorsports Park in North Woodstock, New Hampshire, in 2016.

Some members of his longtime pit crew simply aged out of the sport. His brother Bobby had two boys of his own involved in sports on the weekends. He was slow to adapt to changing technology within motorsports.

For a driver who won seemingly at will in the first half of the current decade, it was a noticeable decline.

“You keep thinking you’ve got the answer and you go to the race track, but you clearly don’t,” Clark said. “Then it’s time to change, or do something different and pick up golf. I’m not doing that or going fishing. This is all I’ve ever done. I don’t play golf or go fishing. I don’t snowmobile. I don’t do anything else. My wife (Niki) has been patient to know that this is my true passion outside of my family.”

In 2005, Clark was 10 laps away from winning the Oxford 250 — a crowning achievement for the driver who has five 250-lap wins at other tracks in Maine and Canada, as well as multiple 300-lap wins at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough.

The morning after narrowly missing that Oxford 250 victory 14 years ago, Clark flew to North Carolina for a tryout with a team in the NASCAR Truck Series — NASCAR’s version of Double-A baseball — owned by Jack Roush. He returned having not made the cut, but instead of being disappointed by the experience he was excited about his short-track racing prospects.

Famously, the then 25-year-old Clark said he would be happy to be “the next Mike Rowe of Maine racing.” Rowe has three Oxford 250 wins and more than 150 career victories at Oxford Plains.

Having just turned 69 this week, Rowe is still turning competitive laps in race cars. He’s entered in Sunday’s Oxford 250 trying to become the first four-time winner of the prestigious event.

“That’s a compliment,” Rowe said this week of Clark comparing his career aspirations to the Maine Motorsports Hall of Famer. “It would be good to see him up front and running good again. Just hopefully, I’ll be up there with him, too.”

Family is a big part of Clark’s commitment these days. No longer in his early 20s, he’s looking at 40 with a wife, two children and a bustling business to run. In June, he skipped a race at Speedway 95 in Hermon because it was held on Father’s Day.

Clark’s Scrap Metals has grown, too. There are now four locations statewide, including ones in Chelsea and Jay, which Clark spent countless hours getting off the ground.

“It’s part of the loss of time,” Clark said. “I’ve got other things that are more important to do with my time. It’s not the same (as when I was 25). I used to live in the shop. I don’t do that now, and it shows.

“But that’s not a bad thing.”

Ben Rowe, Mike’s son, like Clark is now 39 years old. A four-time PASS champion in his own right with a series-best 40 career wins, the younger Rowe has just two victories since the beginning of the 2017 season.

“He’s taken time back, family-wise, and believe me I get all that,” Ben Rowe said. “When we were growing up, me and Johnny, we were racing every single weekend. We didn’t care, like these young guys now.. Now, there’s other stuff going on for us. We have a weekend off and we’re busy as heck doing something else.

“We were just stagnant for a long time because we were ahead of the ball. Everybody caught up to us, and it’s taken us this long to get back on top. I think you’re seeing that with Johnny.”

 

NO SLOWING DOWN

Johnny Clark has no intentions of stepping away from the sport he’s been involved in since watching his father race at Wiscasset Speedway in the 1980s.

He made his first Oxford 250 start in 1997, when he was 17 years old, qualifying seventh after never having driven around Oxford Plains Speedway before. The next race he goes to, he said, he plans on winning.

“I’m trying to get back on top, and I know I can still do it,” Clark said. “I know I’ve got the equipment to do it. All you can do is try to surround yourself with the right people to make that happen. I still believe I’m going to win the next race. I don’t go to Speedway 95 thinking I can’t win. I still think I’m going to win every race I enter.”

Clark once joked he’d retire if he ever won the Oxford 250. Niki, doesn’t believe it for a second, he said.

This week, he was candid in revealing he never had any intentions of doing so, even if it could serve as a storybook ending to a stellar driving career.

“My wife asks the same question all the time,” Clark said. “An Oxford 250 win is everything if you’ve grown up in racing around New England. But she knows, and I know, that if I’m in victory lane Sunday night, the first thought is going to be working towards winning number 2.”

Clark has long driven a car from Port City Racecars, a chassis builder in North Carolina. Proof that he’s as serious as ever about returning to top form, he hired the company’s Shane Tesch to serve as crew chief all week for his familiar black, red and yellow No. 54.

“He’s one of the good guys in this series that got it up and got it rolling,” Ben Rowe said. “I’d like to see Johnny win this. That would be pretty cool.”

Clark, though, is not fueled by the people who want to see him succeed — though he does admit that his daughters want to see a new trophy added to his race shop’s wall.

“My youngest really wants a green one,” he said.

Instead, he’s driven by that voicemail from 2013.

“It’s hard to shut that stuff off,” Clark said. “I’m not kidding you, I think about that guy three times a year when I’m racing. I don’t know why. But I can’t wait to win something like the Oxford 250 and call him up and just have a really ‘civil’ conversation with him.”


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