Van Johnson was born in Greeley, Colorado. He raced midgets and Champ cars out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after a spell in California.
In 1957 at the Indy car event at Williams Grove Speedway Van Johnson charged from sixth to second on the first lap before brushing the fence and getting black flagged.
He had just won his first 100-mile Champ car race at Langhorne a month before he was killed at Williams Grove Speedway driving the "Vargo Special". The car had been just been repaired after an accident that had taken Dick Linder's life on April 19, 1959. In the race Joe Barzda's throttle stuck open and he lost control, hitting Johnson's car and causing both cars to roll. Barzda, a resident of New Brunswick, New Jersey, survived but Johnson was dead on arrival at a local hospital.
His wife, the daughter of famous Offy-killing Hal owner, Charlie Sacks, then married Jackie McLaughlin who was also killed. He died in a crash at Nazareth Speedway in August 1964. She then married a third driver, Walt Donald, but she persuaded him to hang up his helmet.