SuperStories: Johnny Ardis-Alabama’s Renowned Open Wheel Owner


We are pleased to bring the first of what will become a regular feature articles by our good friend Tony Martin. Tony brings a wealth of Ohio and southern supermodified knowledge to the division.  He has published a book about his adventures as a supermodified fan and historian entitled “Echoes of Thunder in the Hills.” It is a treasure trove of photos documenting the birth of the supermodified division as well as many other historically significant race cars.  We’d love to hear your thoughts on this and future articles by Tony. Leave us a comment below and share the story with friends using the buttons below the post. Enjoy!

By Tony Martin

In the prime of southern supermodified racing, the 1960s, both Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby as well as fellow Alabama Gang member, Red

Farmer, drove for long-time owner/builder, Johnny Ardis of Mobile. Generally recognized as premier stock car stars, this threesome is among a group of over fifty drivers to sit behind the wheel of Ardis’ racing machines.

Bobby_Allison_in Johnny_Ardis_Special
Bobby Allison after a supermodified victory at Pensacola in the Ardis Special, a CAE sprinter owned by Johnny Ardis. Both Allisons drove the car on the Speedway Inc. circuit in the ‘60s along with fellow Alabama G ang member, Red Farmer. Flagman Eddie Niedermayer
presents the bounty to Allison. (Tony Martin Collection)

In 1966, Donnie Allison was leading the Speedway Inc. association points until an accident temporarily put him out of action. The group raced four or five nights a week in the south and more than one declined NASCAR rides to stay closer to home and make more money on the supermodified circuit. The tradition of having Birmingham’s best behind the wheel, was continued just last year when Dave Mader III wheeled the Ardis Special in Gulf Coast TBARA competition.

During the supermodified days, Ardis fielded a CAE sprinter while his current sprint car is a J&J. CAE was a mainstay of supermodified equipment on the Speedway Inc. circuit. Johnny is in the process of restoring the famed car for its display at the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. In eight attempts at the Little 500, Johnny’s son Michael had the best finish in comparison to the more experienced chauffeurs his dad had behind the wheel. Michael had some late-model experience in the only fender car that his dad campaigned. This was in 1991.

Ardis Racing began in 1947 when Johnny’s dad fielded his first race car. Johnny and brother Jimmy bought a coupe that was formerly owned by their dad a couple of years later and Johnny has been in the open wheel racing business until the present time. The man goes against the grain in stock car country. His list of over fifty drivers is composed of champion drivers from a diverse genre of racing, including those who have become nationally famous on two wheels.

James McElreath and Jerry Mann battle in supermodified competition at Five Flags Speedway.
James McElreath and Jerry Mann, (Ardis #30), battle in supermodified competition at Five Flags Speedway. (Tony Martin Collection)

The supermodified fields in the south at the time were incredibly strong with many drivers achieving national recognition with their on-track skills Standing room only crowds were the norm and attracted such rising stars as James McElreath.  McElreath was the talented son of Indianapolis 500 veteran Jim McElreath from Texas and was well on his way to fame in USAC. McElreath looked at the Pensacola event as a stroll in the park, but the stout competition proved to make it anything but. Unfortunately McElreath would lose his life in a sprint car race at Winchester Speedway in 1977 just as he was preparing to attempt to join his father at Indianapolis.

Another southern standout, Peachstater, Jimmy Kite, who has raced at Indy and beyond, recently voiced his thanks to Ardis, who he credits with jump-starting his career. Jimmy sought out Ardis at the March Must See sprint car races in Pensacola and Mobile for advice on setting up his car.

For over sixty years, Johnny Ardis has been a stalwart in Gulf Coast racing and he continues to this day. He operates with a much tighter budget than the majority of his competition and his ability in building the cars (including engines) and setting them up for different tracks makes him a much sought out owner in deep south competition. He plans to return to the Little 500 among other things. He’s seen the sport evolve over the years and we have a lot to look forward to.

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