Sad to report that John “Otto” Williamson of Otto’s in Venice passed on last Thursday, February 7th. Williamson was 68 years old, it is believed that he had a heart attack while at home. A memorial run will be held at Willow Springs Raceway, the date has not yet been set (will update this when it is announced).
The endearingly gruff but loveable Williamson was a master mechanic and successful race car driver, well known for his mastery of all things Porsche. Williamson’s pride and joy was his 914-6 (SCCA GT-2) nicknamed “Rudy”, in which he set numerous class records, beat most “high dollar” 911s that were campaigned against him and was a constant research and development mule for Williamson and his shop.
Most Porsche Club events at Willow Springs that Williamson attended ended with his receiving “Top Time of the Day” accolades, followed up by drinks at the “Space Bar”. In the 60′s-70′s, Williamson campaigned numerous vehicles, including a Lola T70 in which he beat such well known drivers as Mario Andretti.
While Williamson was known for charging top dollar for his work on cars, he was equally well known for helping those that did not have a lot of money with free advice and / or free labor to help fix their vehicles. Williamson was an old school man of honor, his handshake sealing all deals.
Williamson was also well known and respected as a Porsche Club instructor, introducing many hobbyists and racers to the limits of their vehicles while passing along a lifetime of experience and skills to those that were willing to listen. Venetian John Cherniack, who Williamson considered one of his best students, recalls that after going off the track in turn 8 at Willow Springs at 130mph, Williamson told him “you ran out of talent” rather than “you ran out of road”. As mentioned before, “Otto” was endearingly gruff.
Reprinted below is an article by Sandy Isaac that ran in the Porsche Owners Club “Velocity” magazine in June of 2010 that is a great read. RIP Otto, you were one of the good ones, and you will be missed.
From Sandy Isaac:
The Man. The Myth. The Secrets.
John Williamson. The man we know simply as Otto. We’ve seen him raise a detached rearview mirror in the Short Track Series drivers meeting and ask the assembled if they have one attached to their car. And do they plan on using it? We’ve spent a Saturday night with him in one of Lancaster’s fine dining establishments. The first round of cocktails begins with his traditional toast, “Porsche’s the best. F*** the rest.” We’ve taken our Porsches to his Venice shop for general service and an injection of black magic to lower the lap times.
But do we know his secrets?
Secret #1 – John possessed a Q-level Top Secret Government clearance while working at Lockheed. But as a young engineer, he found wrenching Porsches in his driveway more gratifying and profitable.
His relationship with Porsche sports cars started in 1950, in Germany, where his father was a Colonel in the Army Air Corps. During a family drive on the Austrian Autobahn, their MG was passed by a fast, silver car. His father followed that car to Gmund and ordered one. Three months later, the family’s first 356 was sitting in the driveway.
John served in the Marine Corps from ‘64-‘68, taking him from San Diego to Japan to Viet Nam and finally to North Carolina.
Before he opened his own shop, Otto worked as a Porsche mechanic in Denver, Albuquerque, El Paso, Tucson and Culver City. Why’d he move around so much? Secret #2 – He hates the snow.
But John worked to race. He raced in POC events. He raced PCA events. He raced professionally in the Scirocco/Bilstein Series. He raced Rabbits and Golfs, Porsches and Lolas. He took to the track against Denny Hulme, Bruce McLaren, John Surtees, Mario Andretti, Jo Siffert, Dan Gurney, and Peter Revson. And that was just one race. He once drove a Scirroco from L.A. to Nelson Ledges race track, won the race, and then drove back home to L.A.
John joined the POC some time in the ‘70’s. In those days, the club competed at Willow Springs, Holtville, Lemon Grove, Riverside, Ontario Motor Speedway, Palm Springs. He raced at Firebird and Phoenix, the “old track” at Las Vegas, and Vacaville. Secret #3 – John’s budget to win the first POC Tribute to Le Mans was $800.
Since 1972, Otto’s track weapon has been his 914-6, “Rudy,” powered by a 2.9 liter, 275 HP flat-six. Otto and Rudy have been awarded more POC Fast Time of Days than any other car/driver combo in the history of the POC.
Why is the car called Rudy? Secret #4 – Rushing to paint the car silver/grey before a track week- end, they ran out of paint. They finished the front in red, leaving the car looking a lot like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
John and Rudy’s most memorable POC race was the first ever POC race in the ‘70’s at Willow Springs. Otto dueled lap after lap against Martin Snow in his Turbo 911. Martin would follow right behind Otto through Turn 9, and then on the front straight, that turbo would spool up and he’d blast away. Otto would spend the next 8 turns reeling him back in and passing him. Then the Turbo would pass him again on the front straight. But what Martin didn’t know was that Otto was setting him up for their last nose-to-tail trip through Turn 9. On the final lap, John went into Turn 9 two car lengths late, which caused Martin to drive too wide and off the track. Otto took that first POC checkered flag.
How did John become Otto? Secret #5 – After spending nearly twenty years racing every track in the U.S. and Canada, John had more than a few trophies and a huge amount of knowledge. He knew where to find the best meals near the tracks. He knew the best gear ratios on the tracks. People knew he knew so they started calling. And calling. And calling. But there was only so much time in a day. About that time, John decided it was time to name his shop with something other than the word “Porsche,” which always lead to a phone call from the Porsche lawyers for trademark violation.
John was a big Jay Ward fan – the creator of GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE, SUPER CHICKEN, and TOM SLICK. Now, we all know, Tom Slick drove the infamous Thunderbolt Grease-Slapper. Tom’s nemesis was… Baron Otto Maddic. And so, Otto Maddic’s Motors was born. After he opened the shop, Otto informed inquisitive callers that John Williamson had died in a tragic motorcycle accident in Mexico. And that was the end of the free information source for desperate Porsche racers from all over the U.S.
John has been to 40 Porsche Parades. His first was 1969 in Orange County. In 1972, Otto drove his 914/6 to the Lake Geneva Playboy Club for the Porsche Parade. That year, he got Fast Time of Day in the Porsche Speed Event. Later, in the golf tournament, he made a lifelong friend in Peter Porsche. In those days, there was a Porsche Parade Overall Award for the driver who accumulated the most points at the Concours D’elegance, Time, Speed and Distance Rally, Speed Event, and the Tech Quiz.
In 1972, Otto finished tenth. In 1973, he improved to sixth. In 1974, he was third. In 1975 and 1977, he finished First overall. In 1976 and 1978, he was second overall. Secret #6 – In 1977, after winning the overall award at the Porsche Parade, Dr. Porsche rewarded John with a rare set of Porsche gold coins. Value? Priceless.
After racing in approximately 1,600 competitive events, John now enjoys instructing POC students, watching them improve and their lap times drop. Many of us have had Otto as an instructor. Secrets #7 – 13, for the first-time track driver on his/her first day:
PREP YOUR CAR BEFORE YOU GET ON THE GRID. What are your tire pressures? Are your lugs torqued? Is everything out of the car? Have you checked everything down to removing your key fob from your ignition key, which could distract you?
SLOW DOWN TO GO FAST. Be Smooth. Don’t overdrive your car.
SOME TIMES YOU DON’T NEED TO TURN IN A TURN. You can ease in and throttle steer through it. Think before you get to the corner.
LEARN THE RACE LINE. DRIVE THE RACE LINE. The faster you go, the more critical your placement on the track.
NEVER GO FASTER THAN YOUR GUARDIAN ANGEL CAN FLY. Leave your comfort zone when you’re ready.
STAY CALM. Keep your wits about you.
AND FOR DAY 2… REMEMBER THAT SUNDAY MORNING IS NOT SATURDAY AFTERNOON. You need to warm into each day of driving. Don’t assume your car or the track will perform as it did when you left it the previous day.
Final Otto Secret, #14, The Big One – The one he doesn’t want ANYONE to know. Ready? Under that race-hardened exterior, behind that big bark of his, he’s actually a really nice guy. But don’t tell him I said so. Plus, it would kill his tough guy image he’s sold for forty years. So, that’ll be our secret. Okay?
Click here to read the Pelican Parts (the popular website that started at Otto’s garage) forum for more memories of Williamson.
707 Hampton Dr
Venice, CA 90291