The spring races in Pennsylvania were a welcome relief to the NYS weather and the long winter. Our late winter became full blown spring as we migrated south. I had found a home at Port Royal and after a few seasons there, I already had a routine. Whip and I would arrive early from the weekly 5 hour tow and find the same pit spot in the infield near the pit exit on the front straight.
It's odd how habits form but there is some comfort in that sameness. The familiarity of surroundings was one less thing to tangle my mind and let me focus on the car and the racing.
In those early years we were an outsider and certainly not a threat but it didn't seem to matter to the teams around us... they were always friendly and helpful. Not by plan, but by the habits of the herd, each week on our right and left were the same teams. Each week the 77 car would pull in on the right. We would talk racing with the crew chief and driver each week as we worked side by side on our cars. We didn't realize the significance of who they were.
We didn't know the history of Al Hamilton as a car owner, his brother Joe as crew chief and Mitch Smith as driver. We knew that Joe drove the pickup truck with the car in tow and Al would arrive to the specially fenced circle in the infield in his piloted Bell Ranger helicopter. We had seen Mitch rail the fast cushion and float the dry slick in weekly winning style. Everyone else was chasing this rabbit.
A handful of teams were positioned to challenge. In the pits on our left we often found the Nace Bus Service number 44 entry. The primary sponsorship was provided by "Bussy" Nace and the car was driven by his nephew Jim Nace. Bussy was always smiling and friendly. He would always take time to talk with me and my crew each week and offer help, advice or encouragement.
Jim was tall and thin. To me, Jim had a serious look and the strength, perfect for driving one of these machines. His manner in the pits was very calm and quiet as he would slowly wander around the car while his crew worked. He would watch the action on the track as it would change the texture of the clay. He never seemed in a hurry in the pits, an ironic contrast to his attack on the track. Jim was a contender in training. His equipment was sufficient but not dominating. He could carry a car that was short of the task and sometimes push too hard.
One night I had dropped out of the feature early and watched the rest of the race from the pits. There was a solid low cushion that had built itself about two thirds of the way up the banking. Jim was fast that night and had a strong top five going early in the race.
Lap after lap he would drive into three, pitched hard against the cushion as he entered the corner and pedal down all around. The car would dance on the rough cushion edge with the right rear sometimes hopping over into the loose stuff. The left rear tire would hook the cushion for bite. Jim never lifted. In the days before bead locks, the low air pressure in the left rear made it vulnerable and after a few laps of ridge ramming, the left rear peeled off the wheel.
Port Royal allowed two laps to change a flat after the car was towed to the pits. The crew was ready with another tire and Jim was back on the track at the end of the line. The restart put Jim on the offense as he streamed by the back markers, still hammering the cushion. With a third of the race over, it happened again and Jim was back to the pits for another left rear.
Charging back through the field he was headed for the front with only a handful of laps left when he hooked the left rear on the cushion for a third time and went to the pits with a flat. Finally the race came to an end and Jim had a decent finish thanks to all the cars he had lapped and four left rear tires, all while trying to defeat the cushion. That was Jim, always charging forward, never give up.
Jim was a front runner and a clean racer as long as I knew him. Once at Port, my car was a handful and as I was headed down the front straight next to the tall concrete wall on the outside, I was startled as Jim passed between me and the wall. I went to Jim after the race and we laughed as I told him how I thought I was already too close to the wall and didn't know how he found room to get through. Funny how you remember stuff, Jim mentioned that when we crossed paths at a restaurant 20 years later.
One night Jim and Doug Wolfgang were battling for the lead at Port. I was running about tenth but soon to be lapped . The cushion was a car width off the wall and Jim and Doug were hard at it. I was entering the corner a few car widths off the cushion but sliding up to the cushion between the turns to get a bite coming off. As they closed on me going into one, I drifted up to the cushion. They battled each other entering one on the cushion and were closing fast behind me. I was now in the way and Doug was leading, with Jim pitched in just beside him. Doug had to lift and Jim had no where to go and slammed sideways into Doug's left rear, breaking Jim's right side nerf bar, sending the end of it through the cockpit and into Jim's foot.
Jim ended up in the hospital that night and on crutches for weeks after. At Port, all cars came to the pits on a red flag and I was pitted near the third turn. My crew was adding fuel and checking tire pressures during the red.
I had no idea what had happened behind me. A couple of crew members from Wolfgang's team came to my pits to yell at me for causing the accident and my crew told me what had gone on up in the corners at the other end of the track. I felt bad about it and called Jim during the week to apologize. It's the only time I've done that or had to do it.
At the track, I had always thought of Jim as just another racer but as I've looked back I see that the Nace family has been the the center of a number of major events in my life.
One night at Port Royal, Bussy came over to me and said "I'd like you to meet someone" and took me to the pit fence at the front of the tow vehicles. "This is Teresa. She is our next door neighbor". His daughter went to school with Teresa and the families went to the same church.
The next week Teresa brought cookies and passed them over the fence. The next week she bought a pit pass and sat on the trailer and we've been together for the 30+ years since.
One time, Bussy and I were talking motors. I had a 355 engine and wanted to build something better for the next season. Now as racers talk they are always swapping information on parts and pieces and this was not a big thing, but for some reason what Bussy said, stuck with me.
At that time the 355 was common and easy to build. Nace was using a "9/16" which was a 3 9/16" stroke crank shaft in a 350 Chevy block. It came out to 366 cubic inches. That was an inexpensive approach because the engine builders were taking the 3 1/2" standard Chevy steel truck crank that was cheap and durable, and offset grinding it to 3 9/16" stroke using small journal rods.
As we talked Bussy said "We've got a 9/16 motor but you really need a 3/4 to win here". The three quarter meant a 3 3/4" stroke crank which worked out to 383 cubic inches but had better low end torque off the corners and more overall horsepower. When I went to see Ron Hutter to discuss my first good new motor, that comment was on my mind. Ron built that three quarter for me and it made us very competitive for the next few seasons.
Undoubtedly the biggest racing event for me was winning the Labor Day Classic during fair week at Port Royal and Jim Nace was a pivotal factor. I started 5th that day and in the opening laps, I passed Randy Wolfe, Doug Wolfgang, Keith Kauffman and the best that Pennsylvania sprint car racing had to offer, putting me in second with Jim Nace leading. I remember seeing Jim in the bright September sun, nearly a straightaway ahead. The track was not dusty but hard and dry with a loose cushion. The track had a strange open look to it with the bright mid day sun flooding the track, after running there under the lights all year.
Jim was running the top finding what moisture was left under the thin dirty cushion that was being brushed closer and closer to the wall. I was on the bottom, soft peddling the corners to the edge of the tire's grip. Over the middle laps of the race, I found bite and reeled in Jim's car and then... exiting turn two I hooked up on a wet spot that had been a puddle during hot laps, and launched ahead to take the lead. I could hear Jim's motor winding out around the top as I coasted in on the bottom of three. It was a great feeling to drive away and take the win in front of a full house of fans and cars but I had to pass Jim to do it.
When I moved back to NYS to help with the family business at the end of the '80s, Jim came into his own and won Five Track Championships at Selinsgrove, two at Williams Grove, one at Susquehanna and the overall Pa Sprint Championship one year... that along with the 70+ race wins that it takes to get there. I would still get to Pa a few times a year, after I stopped racing, when we would visit Teresa's family in Pa on the Holidays. Occasionally we'd run into Bussy and on one occasion I met Jim coming out of a restaurant as we entered. That's when he told me about remembering that I thought I was already too close to the wall when he passed.
I would always hear the gossip from "down home" from Teresa after a call from her mom. That's how we heard that Jim had cancer.... that's how we heard when Bussy recently died... too young.
Over the past several years I would see Jim at the races, when we were visiting family in Pa. I'd always stop and talk to him and have to congratulate him on the latest amazing accomplishment that he had achieved with his 410 car, that he was fielding with select drivers. He was only hitting the big shows but winning or finishing at the front each time. Only a few months ago in this 2009 season, he went to Knoxville and his car made the A main.
A few years ago, I saw Jim at Selinsgrove, a year or so after he had been diagnosed and first treated. He was feeling good and working on a 358 sprint he was fielding with a cousin doing the driving. It was after the feature and he talked about the problems with his rookie driver and racing and just things..., we talked for quite a while. We didn't discuss the illness, but it was the elephant in the room. As the conversation wound down, Jim leaned back against the frame of the trailer door with a distant stare. There was a long pause.... and then Jim said.....
"If there's one thing I've learned in life ... "
I was ready for the insight on what was important in life from someone who was wrestling with his own mortality... someone who has thought about the end of life and knows that there may not be much time left to enjoy it... something about family or friends or character... something really important.... I was ready for down home wisdom. I was ready for something profound....
"If there's one thing I've learned in life...", he said, "if you don't keep your foot to the floor, these cars don't work."
Jim was all racer to the end.
March 1954 to November 2009
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