Say Goodby to Jack McAfee
1922 - 2007
Story by Richard Parks, consultants Rex McAfee and Roger Rohrdanz
Jack McAfee passed away recently and a Celebration of Life was held for him at the Petersen Automotive Museum on May 3, 2007. Jack was a big man with a big heart and those that had the chance to know him, whether on the dry lakes of Southern California or road racing, loved him dearly. Rex and My Van McAfee organized the party at the Petersen, replete with delicious food and a movie covering the 1950 Carrera Panamericana road race. This was as much about the love of a father and son as it was about the passing of a great man in motorsports. Jack and Rex were a team and it is always hard to say goodbye to your teammate and friend. But it is always easier when you have your friends and your father’s friends to remember a life well spent. Some of the many people who were in the audience included; Doug Stokes, Thatcher Darwin, Ron Henderson, Bruce Meyer, Ed Justice Jr, John and Ginny Dixon, Dean Case, Alice Hanks, Anne Bothwell, Carl Thompson, Dick Messer and approximately 125 other road racers and family. The Petersen has a rooftop patio with an enclosed building that accommodates 300 people comfortably and space on the surrounding deck patio for another 300. The day was sunny and clear with a slight breeze.
After the luncheon, Tim Considine took the microphone and announced the short and informal program. He introduced Art Evans who tirelessly works to keep the West Coast road course racers together in an informal group with nostalgic reunions and events. “Jack was very safety minded in those days,” said Art. “He would encourage the use of roll-bars for the cars, safety harness seat belts, and changing the course layout to provide a safer race track,” Evans continued. “Once he made us take our clothes off and soak them in this vat of liquid, which we later found out was boric acid, a very early way to provide fire retardation.” Evans slowed his speech, looked out over the audience and said, “he saved a lot of lives because of those suggestions.” McAfee went on to win championships in 1952, 1956, 1958 and 1961. His last championship was in Harry Jones’ Lotus Formula Junior car. He also had a lot of success racing for John Edgar and Tony Parravano. “He loved to go Ballroom dancing, bicycling and play poker,” said Evans. Considine took to the podium and pointed to the crowd and said, “there’s Phil Hill, Bill Pollack, Davey Jordan, Tony Adamowicz and McAfee Motors employees Dave and Carol Whitney.” He then read a story sent in by Al Moss who couldn’t attend. Considine told of an experience where a driver was injured and the corner worker needed help. Jack McAfee saw him and stopped his car to give assistance. He was leading the race at the time, but stopping to help another driver was much more important to him. “McAfee had a wicked sense of humor,” said Considine, and once wrote this on a photo for Pete Vanlaw, “To Pete, I hate you, Jack.” Considine said that McAfee was a big man with a big heart, who measured his words carefully.
Considine called Pete Vanlaw up to the stand. “Jack drove in the 1950, ’51, ’52 and ’54 Carrera Panamericana road races. Anyone could drive in the 1950 road race and few knew the area,” said Vanlaw. He then introduced a movie filmed by McAfee’s partner, Ford Robinson, with an introduction by Dr David Scully. As the movie ran, Jack McAfee’s voice began the narration and the crowd hushed as they heard the voice of their old friend one last time. Jack McAfee, on tape from a bygone era, explained how the first Carrera Panamericana road race had been an exciting thing, promoted by the Mexican government to show off their new road system. There were race drivers from all over the United States, Europe and Mexico. The Mexican President ordered one young military lieutenant to drive the National Car of Mexico and though he rolled the car over three times during the race and struggled to finish the course, won a huge trophy “for what we still don’t quite understand,” said Jack. The crowd hooted at the humor and wit at the expense of the poor Mexican lieutenant. McAfee explained how Tony Parravano came into the shop one day and motioned excitedly that they were going to Mexico. Parravano always faced the world with excitement and Jack provided logic, reason and stability. They made a great pair, the Italian/American car owner and the Scottish/American driver. Hershel McGriff and Johnny Mantz were two of the better drivers in a race where many amateurs made the road course even more hazardous. The race teams started in Northern Mexico and left at one-minute intervals, reaching a checkpoint where they would rest for the day, work on their cars or party with the locals, then the next day they would set off again.
The local Mexican people, cattle, dogs, horses and every imaginable object lined the road course south to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the end of the race. The roads were narrow and the speeds increased on the straight-aways. As the racecars reached the mountains or drove through the villages and towns they had to slow down. People would crowd so close to the road that it was hard to fit a car through. For the first three days McAfee and Robinson paced themselves, getting used to the road and the conditions. Then they let it out and sped by everyone except Mantz and McGriff. The roads were so narrow that repairs were nearly impossible and often done in a ditch or on a mountainside. They got very little sleep as their host countrymen and the foreign drivers would participate in parties all night long with mariachi bands and fiestas. The cars finally reached Tuxtla Gutierrez, the destination point after traveling over 1500 miles in all types of terrain and road conditions. Herschel McGriff, who would go on to a distinguished career in stock car racing, would be the overall winner. Where the unlucky Mexican lieutenant ended up is not known but his trophy was huge and Mexican pride was protected. Ford Robinson would lose his life in the 1954 Carrera Panamericana road race and soon thereafter the dangerous and deadly road race would come to an end. Vanlaw retold the times he worked as a young man in McAfee’s dealership and how he would always climb in the racecars and dream. Jack would roll his eyes and feign displeasure but the big man with the big heart would simply tease Pete.
Considine introduced Bill Edgar, filmmaker and writer and the son of legendary John Edgar. “Both McAfee and Robinson were members of the Hollywood Throttler’s Car Club and good friends. When McAfee rolled the car in Mexico in the 1954 race, the newspapers reported that both the driver and passenger were killed,” said Edgar and the crowd let out a soft moan as they remembered that time. “Later the newspapers ran a correction and said McAfee now Undead,” said Edgar. “Jack had a great relationship with my father,” said Edgar. McAfee told Edgar that there is a time when you have to go and do something else. “The important part is the relationships and not the wins,” Jack told Bill Edgar. The next speaker to be introduced by Considine was Bill Pollack. “I was a big car driver and we never talked to small car drivers, isn’t that right Phil,” joked Pollack to Phil Hill. “Seriously, Jack was a talented race car driver and I never heard him raise his voice. He was very calm and that made him a wonderful driver,” said Pollack. Finally, Considine called upon Rex McAfee, who came to the podium and took the microphone. Rex, like his father is a calm, polite, gracious and friendly man. He organized this event to pay homage and honor to his father.
“We were living in Morro Bay when I was ten years old and my father bought an old beat-up Model A, just like the car he had when he was a kid,” said Rex. “He wanted to show me how a car works and we took it apart. He had the engine refinished and my job was to clean the parts. When it was time to assemble the car he brought some paint to coat the engine parts. I impatiently told him that it would be much easier to assemble the engine first then paint it,” said the son. “Whatever you do in life, do it right,” the father told the son and that advice has stayed with Rex all his life. “My father loved to go to Gilmore Stadium and watch the oval track cars race. He found success in life because he found joy in whatever he did,” Rex added. “Tony Parravano called my dad one night and excitedly told him that he had watched the races in Europe and the two of them could beat those guys,” said Rex. McAfee was of Scottish ancestry and prudently told Parravano, a fiery American of Italian heritage with a passion for fast cars, that if a ticket for his passage was left at the airport he would fly to Italy to pick up the Ferrari racecar. He arrived in Milan and went to the Ferrari factory but Tony was not there. A gentleman asked who he was and gave him a tour of the factory, then introduced himself as Enzo Ferrari. Parravano arrived and talked to Ferrari but argued over the terms. Tony had paid for the car but Ferrari would not release the car until after the race for fear of losing points for the factory team championship.
Parravano and McAfee left for the Maserati racing factory and purchased a racecar, which they took to Nuremburg for the Nurburgring race. Again McAfee showed up, but Parravano had been stopped at the border and his whole car torn apart as the guards thought that he was a drug smuggler. The Maserati racecar had been shipped to another German town with a name similar to the great road racing facility that they were going to race at. They retrieved the car in time for the race, but with little to no time to practice, McAfee had to master the brake and throttle layout, which was reversed from the American style. Parravano had also argued with the factory team and turned down the great Alberto Ascari as co-driver, who now raced against them in a Ferrari. During the race a mechanic used a wrench from his tool kit to make repairs and the officials black-flagged McAfee off the course for an infraction of the rules. Still, Jack treasured the official racer’s pin given out to all the drivers at the event as his most treasured possession from his racing days. Rex spoke of the time when his father was active at the Southern California dry lakes and the many timing tags he earned there. Rex thanked Charles Rollins, Ron Cummings, My Van McAfee, Rory Rinebold and everyone who came to say goodbye to his father. “My father’s still with us,” said Rex, “he’s here with us in spirit and probably admiring the Doane Spencer roadster on the second floor, which was always his favorite car.”