John E. “Johnny” Rostek (Ft. Collins, CO) When you ask someone what drivers from Colorado drove in NASCAR Daytona 500 qualifying races in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the most common response would be: “Fritz Wilson, and…<long-pause>…there’s someone else?” I will get back to that later in this article.
Johnny Rostek (1925-1969) owned and operated Rostek Construction and the Lamplighter Motels, Inc. based out of Ft. Collins, CO. His wife, Shirley L. Rostek (1925-2008), was the bookkeeper for these two booming enterprises. Later, Rostek owned the Charco Broiler steakhouse in Fort Collins. They were also the proud parents of two lovely daughters: Sharon and Cathy. Sharon has an extensive collection of her father’s racing mementos, and in the past, she shared many of them with us at the “old memories” site.
In the beginning (circa 1950s), “Johnny” drove race cars and won a lot at Speedway Park (Ft. Collins, CO), Intermountain Speedway (Cheyenne, WY), Pikes Peak Speedway (Colo. Springs, CO), Lakeside Speedway (Denver. CO), and Englewood Speedway (Englewood, CO).
In October of 1958 at Meadowdale International Raceway (about 40 miles northwest of Chicago, IL), “Johnny” drove his #19 ‘57 Ford in a 222-mile USAC stock car race on the 3.27 mile long track that provided him with a variety of turns and elevation changes. The track’s signature feature was the Monza Wall, a 180 degree steeply banked turn that led onto the 4,000-foot main straight. Race winner, Fred Lorenzen, pocketed over $3,500 in this 70-lap USAC stock car race driving his County Line Pizza-sponsored 1958 Ford. Lorenzen averaged 89-87 MPH as he defeated ’58 Indy 500 winner Jimmy Bryan in a ’57 Mercury and Chuck Daigh in a Holman-Moody ’58 Ford. Behind these top three finishers were: Les Snow (57 Chevy), Marshal Teague (57 Chevy), Whitey Gerken (57 Pontiac), Norm Nelson (57 Mercury), Bill Lutz (57 Chevy), John Rostek (57 Ford) and Red Duvall (57 Ford).
Johnny also competed in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb several times, winning the Sports Car Class in 1959 with a Mercedes 300SL gull wing. His other assaults on “the hill” were most likely in a Ford Galaxy 500, as that was most often his car of choice at local tracks like CDR (Castle Rock, CO).
In February of 1960, Johnny made his NASCAR debut by driving in one of the Daytona 500 qualifying races. After starting 10th in his #19 Ford, he crashed on lap-5, finishing 39th, thus eliminating himself from the actual Daytona 500 race that Junior Johnson won. Therefore, both Johnny and Fritz Wilson competed in Daytona 500 qualifying races during the late 1950s or early 1960s. Nevertheless, Fritz is truly the only Colorado driver to actually participate in “a” Daytona 500 race during the late 1950s or early 1960s.
In early 1951, Bill France announced that the NASCAR Grand National division would stage races in Phoenix at the Arizona State Fairgrounds (ASF), a one-mile dirt-track. Between 1951 and 1960, four sanctioned NASCAR events were held at the ASF track. Marshall Teague won the first 150-mile race in his 1951 Hudson while taking home $1275. The other three winners at ASF were Tim Flock (1955), Buck Baker (1956) and John Rostek (1960).
Yes! In April of 1960 and in only his second NASCAR race, Johnny led 58-laps and won the NASCAR 100-lap Copper Cup Championship at ASF while setting a race-record of 71.899 MPH in his #19 ‘58 Ford. According to the Phoenix Gazette, he received just $500 for the only NASCAR win of his career.
As of January 2008 and according to Bill Marx of the Sporting News, “Of car numbers with at least 1,000 starts in NASCAR's top series, no car number has had less success than the No. 19. In 1,176 starts, the No. 19 has been to victory lane three times -- John Rostek at Phoenix in 1960 (his only win in six races) and Jeremy Mayfield in 2004 (Richmond) and 2005 (Michigan).” While on the other hand and according to Jayski, the “Quickest wins by a driver: …McMurray won in his 2nd start at Lowe's today which is the new Modern Era record and ties the all time record, set by John Rostek, who won in his 2nd career start in April 1960 at Arizona State Fairgrounds.”
In June of 1960 at the NASCAR California 250 (a paved 1.4-mile oval at Marchbanks Speedway in Hanford, CA) driving his #19 ‘60 Ford, Johnny started 2nd, finished 3rd ($750), just ahead of Fritz Wilson who started 5th and finished 4th ($500). Note that only three NASCAR races where run at dirt farmer B. L. Marchbanks’ track. Danny Weinberg won the first race in 1951 on the original dirt-track In 1960 and just ahead of 2nd place Johnny Rostek; Marvin Porter won this NASCAR race on the new high-banked 1.4-mile paved course. In addition and in the final 1961 race, Fireball Roberts set the NASCAR race record at this track when he led all 178 laps of a 250-mile race, finishing two whole laps ahead of the second place driver.
In July of 1960 at the NASCAR Empire 200 (a paved 2-mile track at Montgomery AFB, NY) driving his #19 ‘60 Ford, Johnny won the pole-position with a speed of 91.65 MPH, led laps 7-13 of this 100-lap race, and finished 7th ($425) behind these NASCAR greats: Rex White-race winner, Richard Petty-2nd, Lee Petty-3rd , Ned Jarrett-4th, Buck Baker-5th, and Lennie Page-6th.
In January of 1963 at the Riverside 500 (a 2.7-mile road course at Riverside International Raceway in southern California) driving his #19 ‘62 Ford, Johnny started a respectable 27th in an impressive field of 44 cars, only to crash late in the race, finishing 13-laps down in 16th place ($500). This race marked the end of Johnny’s short, but very exciting, NASCAR career.
On December 29th of 1969, Johnny was killed piloting his own plane that crashed upon takeoff from the airport in Vermillion, S.D. He was only 44 years young.
I had to write my tribute to Johnny Rostek for several reasons: (1) Johnny was an even greater person than he was a legendary racecar builder, owner, or driver; (2) Between 1964 and his death in 1969, Johnny would visit my Dad (Lou Wendzel) occasionally on Sunday afternoons at our home in Cheyenne to talk about the good-old-days that the two of them shared together at Speedway Park; (3) Johnny would always tolerate and answer all of my “young-kid-questions” concerning his various racing adventures; and (4) Everyone that reads this article will now remember Johnny Rostek as easily as they do Colorado’s other favorite son, the great Fritz Wilson. ~VB
1958 Ford from the
1960 Grand National
campaign. Won in first
NASCAR race and also had a