Archdeacon: John Higgins beats the odds with one more rousing ride

MORAINE – When you walk into the Killarney Park Garage – his wife calls it his “toy box”-- before you get to the collection of Porsches, Ferraris, Lexus and so many other high performance machines; before you focus in on the photos of him in a driving suit next to racing pals like Bobby Rahal, fellow Daytonian Chip Mead and British champ Brian Redman, you see the sign displayed front and center on a pillar.

It trumpets a quote from Hunter S. Thompson:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and proudly exclaiming:

“‘Holy (crap). What a ride.’”

Although Thompson never hung out with John Higgins, the Gonzo writer has summed him up perfectly.

“That probably is my favorite saying.” admitted Higgins, the popular former owner of Lexus of Dayton and the Foreign Exchange, who went on a rousing ride again last month.

But rather than slide broadside through the smoke, he ran faster than ever, and cleanly, as defied the odds and won the Classic 24 Hours of Daytona in a Fabcar Porsche he’d driven to victory many times before in the past 36 years.

Although a few weeks shy of 76 and having battled through three forms of cancer in the past two decades, Higgins turned in faster laps at Daytona than when he led his division for most of the 24 Hours of Daytona back in 1987. A broken rear axle late in the race kept him from victory, but he’d been far enough in the lead that his crew changed axles and he still finished second.

While there have been scores of victories in his career — including the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Miami Grand Prix, West Palm Beach, Daytona Rolex Enduro and Mid-Ohio — this may be his final triumph.

Before the race, he’d sold the fabled Fabcar to White-Allen. The long-established auto dealership was his sponsor decades ago and their new Porsche dealership will prominently display the car.

Higgins is not sure what’s next. He and his wife Chris spend part of the year at Sea Island, Georgia, where he still golfs regularly, but walking away from the sport he loves is not easy. He said there is nothing like the feeling he has in his car in the five or 10 minutes before a race:

“It’s the most relaxing feeling in the world. The belts are on. You’re hooked up to your water supply. Your radio’s hooked up. And you’re by yourself, all alone, just sitting there.

“For me, it’s almost like the feeling you get when you first slip into a real warm bathtub.”

Maybe it’s memories of that. Maybe he just was looking to swap out cars and have a different ride — the BMW M-6, the Toyota Supra Twin Turbo, a Corvette, one of several Porsches to drive around town for the two days he was back here at Thanksgiving — that he headed over to the garage he named after his favorite town in Ireland.

But as he walked among the four dozen or so cars he had displayed there — with the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit” playing softly in the background — it wasn’t like some trip through a museum. It was more like going to a family reunion, where you have well-worn tales on Uncle Charlie and Cousin Betty.

Each car Higgins passed came with a story.

He stopped at a silver 718 Porsche built in 1959.

“They only made six of these so they could run a Formula Two race on Saturday and then they’d switch the seat to the left side and run a sports car race on Sunday,” he said. “I drove that car in more than 50 races. People would gather around it to see it.”

He spoke lovingly of semi-rare Lava Orange Porsche Carrara, bought from the son of his late friend, Bob Snodgrass,of Brumos Porsche in Jacksonville .

And then he stopped in front of a beautiful burgundy metallic Jaguar XKE.

“This is the mistake I have to look at every day, just to remind myself I’m not that smart,” he cracked. “I spent so much money on this car I can’t afford to get rid of it.

“I sent a guy to look at it for me and he told me it was really good When it got here, it needed a paint job that was $17,000, Then I found out the guy who sold it had lied about everything. He said he’d bought it from an old guy out of state, but it really had had like 120 owners. We took it completely apart and had to fix everything.

“I drive it every now and then, just to (expletive) tick myself off!”

Car enthusiast, from an early age

His first flirtation with racing came when he was growing up in Xenia and used to steal his mom ‘61 Chevy Impala — black with a red interior and white convertible top — and take it to Kilkare Speedway.

His father had died when he was 10 and his mother, Ruby, was a second-grade teacher who was unsuspecting of her son’s hijinks.

“I took it to Langs (where he worked washing cars) and we welded an old piece of pipe into the front of the exhaust system,” he laughed. “When we got to Kilkare, we’d screw off the bottom plug and I’d take the hubcaps off and I’d drag race. Then I’d put everything back together and bring it home and my mother never knew until she got her car serviced and they asked about the welded piece.”

He said his older brother, Tom, “ratted on me.”

The homemade fab job was removed. But nothing could take away Higgins’ love for cars and racing. It’s lasted a lifetime.

“I don’t know a lot about lots of things, but I do know a lot about cars,” he said then laughed. “Truth be told, I knew a lot more about cars than I did my two daughters’ first boyfriends.”

After graduating from Xenia High School, he went to Wright State, transferred to Central State and got his degree there while moving up the ranks at Langs.

That’s where he met Dick Lang, who was a national champion in the Trans Am series which was sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America.

Lang took Higgins along as glorified gopher, and they ran races across the country.

Higgins became friends with the late Chip Mead and in the 1970s joined him and future stars like Danny Sullivan, Danny Ongais, Howdy Holmes, Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Rahal and others as they raced Formula Atlantic cars — dubbed Little Indy Cars — all across Canada.

Higgins teamed up with Mead to race at Daytona in an old Mustang in the late 1970s and eventually the endurances races there became a staple of his racing seasons.

Back here he opened the Foreign Exchange, which sold and repaired imported cars.

He started it by borrowing $10,00 from a Trotwood bank and moving into a warehouse on Byers Road.

“I’d fly to New York on Sunday and go down to Jerome Avenue, which was in a rough area under the railroad,” he said. “But that’s where you found the biggest wholesale car market in the country.

“I’d buy one car, like a Mercedes Benz, and drive it back to Dayton. We’d fix it up and I’d sell it through the paper and then I’d go back and get another. Pretty soon I could get two or three cars.”

He struck up a partnership with Rick Grant, who eventually bought him out and remained his lifelong friend until he died last year.

In the late ‘80s Higgins’ racing got more serious and in 1987, he won his class in three of the four Florida sports car races — Miami, West Palm Beach, and Sebring. That broken axle at Daytona kept him from the Florida sweep.

During that time, as he was partying on Rahal’s plane during a return trip from Florida, he got an unexpected business proposition:

“Bobby said, ‘Let’s get in the Lexus business,’ but I said, ‘What is it?’ I’d never heard of it.

“He said, ‘It’s a new car from Toyota and it’s going to be good.’

“He convinced me to go to Chicago to talk to the Lexus people. There were 45 applicants for the Lexus store in Dayton, but the company wanted big names like Danny Sullivan and Roger Penske in ownership.”

Rahal had won the Indianapolis 500 in 1986 and the CART driving championship two years in row and his name got it for them.

Lexus of Dayton opened in 1990 and eventually Higgins became its successful — and much-beloved — leader.

And that goes back to his days at Langs, as well.

“Fred Lang (Dick’s father) epitomized the way you treat people,” he said. “He was a gentleman’s gentleman. Every day when he came to work, he came in the back door and greeted each mechanic, every service writer, the parts guy, everybody.

“I tried to do the same. Everyone took pride in our company, and they did their work, but they also laughed and joked and knew what was important. If your kid was in the school play or was playing a football game, you could take time off to go watch.

“It gave me great satisfaction to see our people mature and buy their first home and put their kids in college.”

Higgins ran his new and used car stores that way until he sold the business to a South Carolina group in 2018.

‘There were tears in my eyes’

In 2004, Higgins noticed as tiny bump on his neck while he was shaving, mentioned it to his doctor and soon was diagnosed with a cancerous growth in the laryngeal cavity.

“When you first hear that word — cancer — you’re giving away you (expletive) golf clubs and thinking ‘Now what?’” he said.

An old racing friend, Duncan Dayton — whose ancestors founded Dayton — suggested he talk to specialists at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he lived at the time and where his mother had connections.

The surgical efforts of Dr. Kerry Olson, an ENT-otolaryngologist at Mayo, saved Higgins’ life.

Several years later when Higgins was found to have pancreatic cancer, he underwent an extensive Whipple surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Then, a year ago, five spots were found on his liver. He began an experimental treatment with Lynparza and said three spots have disappeared and two are dormant.

“I can’t say enough about my wife Chris,” he said. “She’s been amazing through this. She’s kept me alive and kept me fighting. She makes sure I get up and do stuff.”

That said, she wasn’t that keen when he told her he was going to race at Daytona again.

Now, he admits he was apprehensive about it as first, as well:

“I was concerned about the chemo pills I take — how my hand-eye coordination would be — so I quit taking them for five days.”

Then, he said, he started to worry that he wouldn’t be the same driver he was and feared crashing the car he’d just sold to White Allen.

“I called Timmy and said, ‘I’d feel better if I could buy the car back from you and, if I don’t wreck it, I’ll sell it right back.’ He told me he wasn’t worried.”

And sure enough, when Higgins finally settled into the Fabcar, it was like being embraced by an old friend.

“I’ve probably driven 3,000 miles around Daytona in that car over the years,” he said. “And I’ve raced all over America in it.”

He drove race segments in both the daylight hours and at night, a time that is magical to him.

“There’s nothing like Daytona at night,” he said. “There’re only the lights on your dash coming up at you. You’re in there and you know what all the bumps mean. As the tires wear and the fuel burns down, the characteristics of the car change and you make all the decisions by feel.

“Right then, the whole world is gone. All the stuff you’ve been worrying about, you don’t think about in there. You’re concentrating on the moment.”

He ended up turning his fastest laps ever at Daytona.

As he came to the end of the vintage race, he said sentiment did creep in:

“I had a hard time coming around. There were tears in my eyes. I knew this was probably the last time I’d drive this car, the last time I’d be in this situation.”

“Afterward I sat in the truck by myself and felt a little sadness, some emptiness. I thought about all the places racing has taken me — to Monte Carlo and Japan and across Canada and America. I thought about the adventures, all the people I’d met.”

Now that the car is back at White Allen and he’s back under Chris’ watchful eye, he’s thought about another challenge.

With that same twinkle in his eye he likely showed as he was planning to heist his mom’s Impala back in those days of teen drag racing, he admitted he’d talked to White about campaigning a Porsche 911 GT3 they would sponsor.

“I love cars and racing is about the most intimate thing you can do with one,” he said. “It’s hard to let all that go.”

To quote Hunter Thompson once again:

“This is the fast lane, folks…and some of us like it here.”

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