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Straight talk with Tony Johnson: The Guru

27 August 2019



Paul Knight. The Guru. One of the cleverest blokes around cars I’ve ever known, and as decent and dependable a guy as I’ve ever met. It’s been my very good fortune to have had him as a close friend for the past 20 years.

I got to know Paul in 2000. It was getting towards the end of the build of my old ’56 Chevy drag car, and my partner Linda had just started out in circuit racing in a 1980s-era AE86 Toyota Sprinter. At the same time, a bloke I knew, Philip Wilton, was circuit racing an immaculate and lightning-fast Mazda 323. Philip and Linda were both running at the same Clubmans Race Meetings at Pukekohe, and so we would always pit next to each other. Philip always had his mate Paul Knight with him. Paul was quiet, sensible, and built like a brick shithouse. If there was a heavy toolbox on the back of a ute to lift off at the track, two of us normal blokes could grab an end each and struggle with it — or, much easier, we could just get Paul to do it. I soon learnt two things about Phil’s very quick Mazda: one — it was fast more because of clever engineering rather than a big budget; and, two — the brains behind the operation was that same big strong bastard who could lift more than his own weight. Paul was a diesel mechanic by trade, but he was one of those brilliant guys who could do damn near anything: assemble an engine, fabricate a bracket, plumb in a turbo, wire in an aftermarket engine control unit (ECU). Whatever might be needed on a race car, Paul could do it, and he’d do it with patience, finesse, and the end result would be functionally and visually perfect. Which is why I called him ‘The Guru’. Among his many race car building talents, Paul was an untrained but super-talented auto-electrician, and, back in 2000, my Chevy drag car was at a point where it needed wiring.

One thing led to another, and Paul and Philip were soon spending Sundays at our place out at Waiau Pa (a quiet farming community south-west of Auckland) wiring up the Chevy. After a few Sundays, they’d both got pretty keen on the old girl and were helping me with all sorts of other aspects of the final stages of the build. They were both single guys at the time, and, as well as enjoying working on the Chev, they liked hanging out at our place. And, truth be told, Linda’s lunches and dinners might have been the biggest attraction of all. The two guys became my main crew members; the Chevy never raced without them; and, after it was going, Paul and Phil just stayed with the habit and kept coming back out on Sundays to help me with maintenance and the never-ending improvements that go hand-in-hand with racing a car. So ‘Sundays out at the Pa’ never really changed over the next six or seven years. In fact, if you look at the bottom of the front side windows of the Chev, it still says ‘Johnson, Wilton, Knight’ in recognition of Philip and Paul’s massive input.

In time, Paul came to love drag racing and the great social scene connected with it, but, in the early days, his background as a circuit racer (where, with practice and qualifying included, you’d typically get around 90 minutes of seat-time at a race meeting) sometimes caused him to doubt the logic of it. “Well, Mr Johnson,” he’d say during a beer at the end of a meeting, “how did you enjoy all of your 48 seconds of racing today?!”

Sundays out at the Pa grew by one in 2004 when Paul started dating a delightful young lass by the name of Jo Taylor, and Jo quickly became part of the family and the race team. We all thought she was a great girl and told Paul that Jo Taylor should become Jo Knight. He finally attended to that in 2012. When our racing finished in 2010, Paul and Jo, and Linda and I — even after Linda and I shifted to the South Island’s Mackenzie country — all remained the best of mates. We all went to Supercar races on the Gold Coast and Bathurst more years than not, and, every June, they’d come down from Auckland and stay with us for Queen’s Birthday weekend. This Queen’s Birthday weekend just gone – five weeks ago as I write this — was Paul’s last one.

It was a great weekend. Jo had ordered snow for our place, and it arrived on cue, 200mm deep, on Friday night. With my workmate Justin Hansen from Wellington staying with us as well, we all had a great weekend. Justin, Jo, and I were on the Irishman’s Rally for Saturday and Sunday, with Paul preferring a quiet weekend spent hanging out at home with Linda and catching up on reading. On Monday morning, Justin headed back to Wellington, leaving Paul and Jo to have two more days with us before their scheduled flight home to Auckland on Tuesday night. Monday night couldn’t have been more normal. Paul — 54 years young — was in good health. We had a great dinner and sat in front of the fire talking about cars and racing and watching music on YouTube. I lived up to my wild reputation of being ‘Two Beer Tony’ (that’s a big night nowadays), and Paul — neither a drinker nor a smoker — had one whisky. We all headed off to bed at around 11pm. The next thing that Linda and I became aware of was being suddenly and frighteningly jolted from our sleep by the desperate sound of Jo screaming for help at 5am, as she discovered Paul’s lifeless and cold body on the floor beside their bed. That horrific moment triggered a week that neither Linda nor I will ever forget. It went from dealing with the dead body of one of our best mates, to trying to console Paul’s utterly inconsolable wife, to working with the police as they went through their investigative processes, to helping Jo for the next week throughout the preparation of the funeral and being involved in the funeral proceedings in order to give Paul the decent send-off he deserved. The coroner found that Paul had a totally unknown heart condition, which had caused, at that very moment, a coronary attack so sudden and so massive that he probably wouldn’t have even had time know that there was a problem.

The horrific event has left me with a nagging thought, which has, thus far, stuck in my mind every day and every night. I think we should ask ourselves two questions at the start of every morning. First, ‘Did I wake up today?’ and secondly, ‘Did those I care most about wake up today?’ And if the answer to those two questions is ‘Yes’, then we should commit to enjoying the newly dawned day as much as we possibly can and pay far less regard than we all do to those inconsequential problems, issues, and gripes that we all tend to become far too focused on during the course of our normal daily life.

For me, Paul’s sudden and shocking death is a daily reminder of how fantastic life is; how tragically short it can be if we draw a short straw like Paul did; and why, therefore, we really need to embrace every single day.