Love of cars keeps Hot Springs Village resident racing at 83

By Wayne Bryan Published June 8, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

John Hollansworth has been fascinated with automobiles since he was a child. That fascination has translated into a life that has included a stint as a part-time race-car driver and two sons who’ve carried on that racing tradition.

As a child, John Hollansworth always had a thing for cars. “I’ve just always liked cars,” he said. “As a kid, I could tell you what kind of car and engine it was just by the sounds the car made at the exhaust.”

The Kansas City, Missouri, native, who now lives in Hot Springs Village, said that long before it was legal t0 drive, he was driving a milk truck.

“One of the milkmen let me drive his rounds, collect his bills and handle the money for him,” Hollansworth said.

He included that driver as one of the 10 people who had the greatest influence in his life.

With the driving came an enjoyment of speed. By the time he was 17, Hollansworth asked the chief of police in his hometown if the force would sponsor a place where he and his friends could drag-race.

“We had been racing on abandoned roadways and on the streets,” Hollansworth said. “I thought they would be interested.”

While he had a long and successful business career, Hollansworth doesn’t talk about it much. As a young boy, he was a messenger, delivering telegrams for Western Union. After high school, he went to work as a teletype operator and branch manager for the company. He handled assignments all over the nation and retired as a vice president of the company in 1982. He then managed several businesses, becoming a vice president of what he called a “mini-conglomerate.” He retired again in 1986 and moved to Hot Springs Village.

But long before he came to the Tri-Lakes region, he was also a part-time race-car driver who got very close to the top of the profession before deciding to step back and concentrate on the corporate world for a while.

“I started racing in the B-class circuit around KC,” Hollansworth said. “I completed just one year of that before going into the Army in 1953.”

Even the military didn’t keep him from racing.

“I was sent to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and since I had some control over my schedule, I was running old-type stock cars three nights a week in Colorado Springs, Denver and Pueblo,” Hollansworth said.

He purchased his first car, a 1937 Ford, for the local races and won enough money the first night to pay for the vehicle. As an owner-driver or as a driver for hire, Hollansworth moved up the ranks of racing. As Western Union moved him around the nation, he had more cars and racing assignments in better cars.

By the mid-1960s, he was winning races and earned a championship driver’s license, which is the ticket to drive Indy-class cars.

By 1967, he was signed as a driver in the Indianapolis 500, the peak of the American driving profession.

“If Ronnie Duman got the first car in, I would run in the backup car,” Hollansworth explained. “He used up the engine in his car and then the engine in the backup car as well. I got to practice on the track of the Indianapolis Speedway but blew the motor.”

He did another year of midget racing, but with a move to New York City and a promotion with Western Union, the time he had for racing was limited.

“At the Indy-car level, you were either a professional or you were out,” Hollansworth said. “So, after moving to New York, I hung up my goggles.”

But the family was far from out of motor sports. His son Jeff was involved in motorcycles, as well as racing in Sports Car Club of America events. He now is in real estate in Hot Springs Village.

Hollansworth’s other son, John Jr., was even more involved in racing.

“He drove in the Indianapolis 500 in 1999 as the fastest rookie qualifier,” Hollansworth said. “I think it was 222 miles an hour.”

However, Hollansworth said John Jr.’s car was sponsored by one of the dot.com companies, and when that bubble burst, the sponsorship ended and his son’s racing career was cut short.

John Jr. now works for Mecum Auctions, whose auto sales are often televised as the company sells some of the rarest cars in the world.

Hollansworth said he purchased a property in Hot Springs Village in 1985 and moved in three years later, but it was not his first encounter with Arkansas.

“My grandparents had a farm in Missouri, but when an uncle had health problems, they traded the farm for a restaurant in Hot Springs,” he said. “The doctors said the baths would help, and he did get better.”

His parents even moved to Hot Springs for a few years to help with the restaurant but returned to Kansas City.

“I was invited down to Hot Springs Village, and I fell in love with the place,” Hollansworth said. “It is the world’s best-kept secret.”

Hollansworth has been active in the community as a member of the Hot Springs Village Property Owners’ Association, working on the Village’s Government Affairs Committee, as well as with the Boys & Girls Club of Garland County and Teen Challenge.

But that still leaves time for cars and even racing.

“I became involved with old cars because of the Great Race,” Hollansworth said. “It’s a race of old cars going cross-country.”

The race requires an older car, like his 1940 big red Cadillac.

“It is a really crude form of rally. You have a speedometer and a clock,” he said. “The cars start one minute apart, and you get up to speed. You calibrate the speedometer, and you seldom go faster than 50 miles an hour.”

This will be the 18th Great Race for Hollansworth. He said contestants used to run for 10 days to two full weeks, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Once the event took racers from Montreal to Mexico City. He finished 13th in that race.

“I have won some daily heats, but I have never won the race,” he said. “One little mistake will blow away your day of racing, and you can be out of the lead. That’s just the Great Race.”

This year he will take the Caddy from Ogunquit, Maine, starting on June 21, to The Villages, Florida, on June 29. There will be 100 cars taking part. At 74 years old, Hollansworth’s car will be one of the younger models. Some entries are more than 100 years old.

The 83-year-old Hollansworth will be the driver, and he has a new navigator this year.

“When you have a new person with you in the car, there has to be a chemistry test,” he said. “You are going to be in the car together for a week. You have to get along.”

Hollansworth said there have to be rules of communication as well.

“There are about 30 pages of instructions for the driver each day, and those instruction have to be communicated the same way every time so they are understood by the driver,” he said. “This is a lot of heavy concentration. The driver’s eyes are on the needle of the speedometer, and being a half mile an hour off during a turn will mess you up.”

Finally, Hollansworth said, there is no chatting on the drive, just navigation instructions to the driver.

Along with taking part in the Great Race, Hollansworth got into collecting cars with a group of friends. His shop in Hot Springs Village offers a collection of handmade cars and replicas of famous race cars that are the pride and joy of not just Hollansworth, but a cadre of friends. Members of the group gather at the shop almost every day. Most are retired and have the time.

“This shop and the cars have helped me save a lot of marriages,” Hollansworth said. “The wives vowed to take their husbands for better or for worse, not for lunch. The guys can come hang out with us, and we all go to lunch together.”

The collection includes John Jr.’s Indy-car, other racers of all types, a firetruck and a wrecker, along with a British Lanchester, a very rare automobile.

“When we found it,” Hollansworth said, the owners came to him asking what the car was, since the name was so rare.”

But the old cars are not just for their egos.

In 2003, Hollansworth helped start the Collector’s Foundation to support the car-restoration program at McPherson College in Kansas.

“This is the only liberal arts college in the country with a four-year degree in auto restoration,” he said. “Jay Leno is also a board member and supporter.”

The shop is a relaxing place in the Village, where the boys tinker with their grown-up toys most of the time; but things are picking up right now. John Hollansworth has a race coming up.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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