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A Visit with Jerry Cornelison
05-29-08
Biography by Jerry Cornelison and Richard Parks,
photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz

richardparks roger

Richard & Roger

Gerald L. (Jerry) Cornelison is a member of the Road Runners, a car club formed in the late 1930's by the Miller Brothers, Wally Parks and other legendary racers. The Road Runners have been active right up to the present in land speed racing and original members of the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). Jerry’s father, Chester Lee Cornelison, was born in 1921 on a farm in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the family traces their heritage to Dutch origins. His mother, Geneva Ruth Jenkins Cornelison, was born on a farm in St Clair County, Missouri in 1922, and her family is composed of German and French heritage. "My father was trained as a plumber but held a variety of jobs up to his mid-40's when he passed away on my 18th birthday in 1964. He was a good mechanic and owned his own Phillip's 66 garage and filling station in Tucson, Arizona in the late 1950's. I worked at the garage when I was 12 and 13. That was my first introduction to auto mechanics," said Jerry. "My mother was a homemaker until we moved from Missouri to Arizona; then she went to work for Sears & Roebuck in their Credit Department. She retired from Sears in the mid-1980's. I was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on June 5, 1946," he added. In 1947 the family moved to Lebanon, Missouri, right on Route 66, and then relocated to Camdenton, Missouri, near the Lake of the Ozarks. In 1951 the family left Missouri and traveled the old Route 66 and other two-lane highways in a 1948 Pontiac sedan, pulling a 35' Prairie Schooner house trailer, on their way to their new home in Mesa, Arizona. A few months later in 1951, the family left Mesa for Tucson, Arizona. His parents divorced and Geneva moved once again, with Jerry and his 3 year-old brother, Douglas Cornelison, to Riverside, California in the summer of 1960.

Jerry attended several elementary schools in Tucson and graduated to Sunnyside Junior High School in Tucson. The family moved to California when he was a freshman and he entered the 9th grade at University Heights Middle School in Riverside. From there he transferred to the 10th grade at Poly High in Riverside and then was forced to transfer once again to Colton Union High School in Colton, California, when they discovered that he was living outside the high school boundaries. He was trying to get away with using his aunt and uncle's Riverside address so he could stay at Poly with his friends. “That didn't work…I was caught and deported," he joked humorously! Jerry took woodshop class in high school. “I never took auto shop but I did ‘tinker’ around with minor auto maintenance. During my senior year of high school, my neighbor Ross Helms and I ‘modified’ his '48 Chevy Coupe. Ross wanted a ‘roadster’ so we did some very rough mods on his car with hack saws and chisels. We were both poor and could not afford proper tools. The car looked kind of like crap when we finished but we sure had fun with it,” Jerry laughed!

  After his high school graduation in 1964, he went to work at a machine shop called PETCO (Production, Engineering & Tooling Company), in Ontario, California. The major products they made were after market motorcycle sprockets. Their biggest customer was Webco in the Los Angeles Area. PETCO also had contracts with American Honda and Suzuki as well as other manufacturers, and they also made clutch components for Harley-Davidson. “There were always a lot of motorcycles around the shop and some pretty neat old cars whose owners would stop by to see the boss, John Rudesill. I remember that the very first Tucker I saw was at that shop. The owner had a collection of 4 or 5 Tuckers and he kept them in a hanger at the Ontario Airport. I visited his collection one day. Really neat! 

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At the time, my daily drive was a 1962 Corvair. All I could think about was how I could stuff one of those cool 166hp, flat 6, Franklin helicopter engines that powered the Tucker into the back of my Corvair.

  “My neat little maroon Corvair with black vinyl interior gave me lots and lots of chances to learn more about and develop some mechanical abilities. I did my own routine maintenance and tune-ups, learned to rebuild the carbs, as well as other work. I really was interested in racing. I attended all the events at Riverside International Raceway that I could afford. A friend of mine was involved in a car club in Riverside and invited me to a meeting. Shortly after, I joined the ‘General Mills’ Car Club in Riverside. Our club president, Troy Box and his dad, Jess Box, raced a really nice '56 Chevy that was an IHRA national record holder. Needless to say, I began going to the drag races every week with the club. Several of the other fellows raced their street cars. My little Corvair was an automatic and a bit of a dog so I never was inspired or

confident enough to race it. I did crew for the other members though. The Club purchased an old '55 Chevy with a trashed automatic. We converted it to a 4 speed and took it racing. That was my first experience with that sort of modification. There is a funny story about the ‘General Mills.’ We were anti-street racing and kids from the ‘club in white hats’ vs the other prominent club in town, which were street racers and the ‘club in black hats.’ We prided ourselves on being community minded and ‘good guys.’ We had business cards we handed out when we helped motorists in distress, etc. One day, a fellow club member and I stopped to help an

At the time, my daily drive was a 1962 Corvair. All I could think about was how I could stuff one of those cool 166hp, flat 6, Franklin helicopter engines that powered the Tucker into the back of my Corvair. My Corvair was my first car. Prior to that, I drove my mom's '56 Plymouth Savoy around. I talked her into narrow whitewalls. I painted the rims black and installed Baby Moons and beauty rims. Actually, that old Plymouth looked pretty good. I spotted the Corvair on a used car lot in Ontario one day when I was at lunch. I think I paid $1500 for it. That was a LOT of money back then, especially for me, but I just had to have it. I really needed the transportation too because I was commuting from Bloomington to San Bernardino Valley College to Ontario to work,” Cornelison said.

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I joined the ‘General Mills’ Car Club in Riverside. Our club president, Troy Box and his dad, Jess Box, raced a really nice '56 Chevy that was an IHRA national record holder

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Troy and Jess Box ‘56 Chevy at Fontana "Drag City", 1965.

elderly lady who had a flat tire on her car. We changed her tire and gave her a ‘General Mills’ business card. Her response was, ‘Oh yes, you are those nice young men from that cereal company.’ We just wished her well and sent her on her way figuring there was not much use in trying to explain that a ‘mill’ is an engine and we had many different makes of cars and engines in the club, hence ‘General Mills’…oh well, forget it,” Jerry laughed!

  “Right when things were really fun, going racing every weekend, road runs with the Club, a nice girl friend, second year of Junior College at San Bernardino Valley College, the Viet Nam War and Uncle Sam said they demanded my services. I quickly checked my options and found that if I went in the Navy, I could finish my current semester of college. I enlisted in the Navy and in April 1966 headed off to Boot Camp in San Diego. While in Boot Camp, I volunteered for Submarine Duty. The Navy also decided that I should be a Radioman. This was contrary to what the Recruiter ‘promised’ and I realized that military recruiters and used car salesmen have a lot in common! I spent a little over 4 years in the Navy, all on Submarines. 
First boat was a WWII vintage Fleet Diesel Boat, USS Archerfish AGSS311.

Following that I went to a Nuclear Fast Attack boat, the USS Permit SSN594. I got to do some of that ‘stuff’ Tom Clancy and a few others write and make movies about. I loved being ‘on the Boats,’ but also was glad to get out and back to civilian life. When I returned to Riverside in 1970, I had a wife and new twin babies in tow. The General Mills club had disbanded because all the guys had either gone to the military, got married and had kids, or ‘all of the above.’ Fortunately, my wife Susan was also a big race fan. For our ‘coming home’ gift, my mother had given us tickets to the inaugural Ontario 500 at the old Ontario Speedway. Mom babysat her new and first grandbabies, Michael and Melinda and my wife and I went to the races. Very cool! Due to demands of family life and finances, going to the races now became somewhat of a luxury,” he said wistfully

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 I spent a little over 4 years in the Navy, all on Submarines. My first boat was a WWII vintage Fleet Diesel Boat, USS Archerfish AGSS311.

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I went to a Nuclear Fast Attack boat, the USS Permit SSN594. I got to do some of that ‘stuff’ Tom Clancy and a few others write and make movies about.

  “Several years later a group of us from the old General Mills Club got involved in dune buggies. We all could better afford this activity and our kids were a bit older. My first buggy was a Pontiac powered, slant 4 with Power Glide trans, sandrail. The automatic trans was not really well suited for the dunes at Glamis. I bought it already built so it ‘was what it was.’ Within two years I sold the rail and bought a VW powered four-seater. We spent about 5 years or so dune buggying but then demands of work and family caused me to move on to other things. Following my Navy duty, I went to work for Pacific Bell in 1970 as a Cable Splicer in Riverside. Three years later I was promoted to Splicing Foreman. I held a variety of jobs at PacBell, all in Construction, Maintenance and Engineering. I retired from PacBell, which had become Pacific Telesis, in December, 1991. I was an Engineering Manager working out of our Anaheim offices. Fortunately, I had a chance to participate in a very lucrative early retirement program. I left the company and never looked back. Retirement gave me the opportunity to explore other interests: community service, volunteer work at the March Field Air Museum and San Bernardino County Museum and other activities,” Jerry said.

  “I had purchased a 1991 Toyota MR2 prior to retirement. I now had time to go and find deserted, ‘twisty – turny’ back roads to test the car and my driving capabilities. I was really a Walter Mitty type of racer I suppose. I wanted to race, but my actual racing activities were all as a fan and spectator. Cost and opportunity were limiting factors…or at least that's what I had convinced myself of. In 1999, my son Mike and his wife, Nancy gave us our first grandchild, a beautiful little girl by the name of Natalie. Within 5 years the ‘Grandchild stable’ had grown to 5. My daughter gave us our second grandchild, a little boy, Reece Moore. Then my son and his wife presented us with identical twin girls, Jacqueline and Haley. My daughter and her husband, Phil Moore, added the fifth and last grandchild, another girl, Remy. Two of the grandkids are here in Riverside, including my grandson, who already, is a major car enthusiast. About 6 or 7 years ago, I teamed up with an old friend from my days at Pacific Bell. Pat Riley and I worked together for years but had kind of lost track of each other following retirement. We discovered that we now lived less than a mile apart. When I visited Pat's home, I discovered he was in the process of building a dry lakes racecar. Since I had time on my hands and was interested in racing, although my land speed racing knowledge was very limited, I volunteered to ‘sign on.’ That gave me the chance to finally and officially to be part of a race team and actually build and drive a race car,” he continued.

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XO/VGC - Riley/Cornelison/Blount '38 Chevy Business Coupe at Bonneville Speedweek 2007.

  “When I teamed up with Pat, he had just finished building the 321 cubic inch, Hilborn injected engine from a stock military 302ci GMC. The chassis was partially complete and still bare metal. During the next three years, we built the entire car and painted it in Pat's garage. My grandson Reece watched us build the car from the time he was about three. He has turned into a major ‘gear head’ and wants to race go-karts in a few years. He already has aspirations of becoming a professional driver. Both my children and my wife are big race fans. So far the granddaughters have not shown any interest...ahhh, but they are still young so there is still time! In 2005 we began racing the car. That year turned

out to be a season of learning about the car, how to tune it and work all the bugs out. The 2006 SCTA and Bonneville seasons brought more success and we consistently ran just under the El Mirage and Bonneville records for XO/VGC. Also in 2006, I drove the car at Bonneville and earned my competition license. We made some changes prior to the 2007 season: cam change and added a scoop and airbox. In 2007 we set two records at El Mirage and one at Bonneville. Pat is the primary driver and I am crew chief and occasional driver. After Pat set the new Vintage Gas Coupe record at Bonneville at 143.778, I drove the car on a single pass of 147.392. We ended the El Mirage season in the top 25 in points. All our goals for the season were realized and it was very satisfying! For the foreseeable future I plan to stay very involved in land speed racing,” he said.

  “When I became involved with Pat and our Vintage Gas Coupe, I joined the Road Runners, a SCTA Member Club. Since then I have volunteered to be one of our SCTA Club Reps and also volunteered to create and maintain a Road Runners website. While researching material for the website I became very interested in the rich history of the Road Runners Club, members and cars and land speed racing in general. The Club appointed me Historian last year. I archived all the old Road Runners materials available and found some really neat and historical items and information. I also have been collecting memorabilia from former Road Runners and families. That led to my being invited to join the Society of Land Speed Racing Historians, which I consider a great honor,” he concluded.

Gone Racin' is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.  

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