One of the truly great men left us. His name was Jim Deist and his influence on all of us was vast and his loss to us is sorely felt. Jim Deist was born on October 13, 1928 and passed away on March 9, 2009. He grew up in the Glendale, California area where his father built a gas station a few years before World War II broke out. Jim worked and learned about cars in this family business and could take apart and reassemble engines. His interest was also in racing and he went with his friends to the Dry Lakes at Muroc and later at El Mirage. Jim tried his hand at car fabrication, and then went into the construction business, but none of these jobs really excited him. It was while working for Irving Air Chute in the late 1940's that Jim found his true calling. He met a young drag racer in the mid-1950's, by the name of Abe Carson, who had a problem with stopping his car on the short dragstrips of the time. There didn't seem to be much of a market at the time, but Deist was a tinkerer and he loved to help people, so he set about trying to develop a drag chute that would help Carson out. The chute that Jim made for Abe didn't seem to have much of an impact on other drag racers until Mickey Thompson saw it and understood the impact that this would have on the sport of drag racing. Jim put drag chutes on Ed Pink's car, then Art Chrisman and soon it was a hot commodity. With business booming, Jim left Irving and started his own business in 1958, calling it Deist Safety. His wife, Marion and his children, Don and Darlene, helped him in the business. Jim built the chutes for Thompson's Challenger at Bonneville. It was constant trial and error, until he got the product right.
A parachute for an aviator who has to jump from an airplane had been developed long before, but to stop a car there had to be changes and adaptations. Jim knew that safety for race drivers was going to be an important segment of a new industry and he worked on creating new and safer seat belts. Besides these two features of his business, there were also other safety concerns, which only became apparent after a fatality, injury or accident. He developed a fire suit, face mask, gloves and boots that were fire resistant. When Tom Dyer survived an accident and fire, the other drivers were convinced. Jim was one of the original founders of SEMA, or the Safety Equipment Manufacturers Association (changed to the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association) in the mid-1960's, along with Louis Senter, Roy Richter, Vic Edelbrock Senior and many other early manufacturers. He was so successful in saving lives and developing profitable lines of safety equipment that many who worked for him went into business for themselves. Even his daughter Darlene founded her own line of safety equipment with her husband, Joe Hansen, called DJ Safety. Deist never seemed to get upset about his competition. He found it satisfying to know that so many people copied his business plan and products, which he invented. One of the things that people admired about Jim was his desire to help others. He would get in his van, messy as it was and drive to the races, dry lakes or Bonneville Salt Flats and simply offer his services. Racers always find parts that break and things that they've left at home. Jim would drive by and notice their concerned looks and ask them what was wrong. He always seemed to have a part, advice or a way of doing things that would help solve the racer's problem. Just knowing that he was around would be enough to calm nerves and give people a sense that they could solve that particular problem besetting them.
Jim Deist was honored by the SCTA, Bonneville 200 MPH Club, California Hot Rod Reunion Honoree in 1997, the Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame in 1995, SEMA and many other prestigious organizations. He was always an honored man in whatever group of hot rodders he was with, so great was he loved by all. Jim was a stubborn man, as his family and friends will tell you. It was a pleasant stubbornness, because he was never offensive. He would listen to advice and then make up his mind, but when his mind was set, you couldn't change it. An electrical fire destroyed his home and all the wonderful artifacts some years back. Jim set about to rebuild his home in just the perfect way that he envisioned it. Obstacles got in his way and most other men would simply have changed their ideas and plans, but not Jim. His friends teased him unmercifully about it, but he had his goals in mind and he wasn't going to change. That was one of the things that we loved about him. He set his standards high and he wouldn't desert them, just as he wouldn't desert his friends in need. He was famous for those old denim overalls and suspenders that he wore everywhere, even to more formal events. He always had a cigar in his hand, though I don't remember that it was ever lit. I'll remember that squinty smile that crossed his face when he saw you and this sincere look in his eyes for all of us. He knew the rich and famous, but he was equally as happy in the presence of his workers or customers just off the street. He was a hot rodders "hot rodder," and he will be missed.
The family held a Celebration of Life in honor of the memory of their father and husband on April 8, 2009 and the merit of the man can be seen in those who showed up to say goodbye. It was a simple, but dignified celebration, the way Jim lived his life and would expect his life to be honored by his family and friends. There were somewhere in the vicinity of 300 to 400 people who came to say their goodbyes. It’s always hard to count the crowd, because they move in and out of the area, but there were 250 chairs set up and every one was taken, with a large number standing at the back of the hall and overflowing out into the rest of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum. But it isn’t always numbers that matter, but the hearts of the people who come to say goodbye. Marion Deist and her children and grandchildren were present to host this celebration for their family’s leader. Marion is the business leader who overseas so much of the business, while Jim created and developed his ideas into life-saving equipment. Marion is a no-nonsense leader with a heart of gold and loving concern. Darlene is married to Joe Hansen, an ex-marine, former manager of Deist Safety and now co-owner with Darlene in DJ Safety Equipment. Their children are Jason, Sandy and Doug Hansen. Jason has two daughters, Abigail and Adelaide. Doug has a daughter Patricia and three lovely stepchildren; Christa, Aaron and Dustin. Sandy has three sons; Jade, Deacon and Mason Andries. Don Deist and his wife Judy are the parents of Cheryl and Donna Deist.
As the guests were moving to their seats, I met Jim Miller, Pete Chapouris, Bob Morton, Bob and Judy Sights, Glen Barrett, Dan Hart, Dan Warner, Bob and Lois Oppermann, Don Ferguson II and his son Don Ferguson III and Calvin Smith. Miller is the President of the Society of Land Speed Racing Historians, a member of the Dry Lakes Hall of Fame and wears the red hat of the prestigious Bonneville 200 MPH Club. Chapouris is Alex Xydias partner in the So-Cal Speed Shops and a well-known car builder and restorer. The Sights, Barrett and Hart are Gear Grinders, one of the largest and most active of the clubs in the Southern California Timing Association (SCTA). Also present were members of the SCTA representing the Rod Riders, Sidewinders, High Desert Racers, Road Runners and other car clubs. Before the master of ceremonies brought the celebration of life to order, I spoke briefly to Al Sanderson, Jim Travis, Ron Main, Jim Dunn, Louie Senter, Jim Murphy, Bud Kuehl, Earl Wooden, Dave McClelland, Stan Goldstein, Don Sproull, George Vose, and Bob Chilson. Travis did the restoration on my father’s 1957 Plymouth, nicknamed Suddenly, which set the stock car land speed record. Jim Murphy raced motorcycles and was involved in just about all the various motor racing sports. Stan Goldstein was Craig Breedlove’s manager back in the late 1990’s as he attempted to break the record held by Richard Noble. Dave McClelland, with the deep and hypnotic voice, was our Master of Ceremonies. Dave is a professional announcer and emcee who has a wide range of TV and radio show credits behind him. He was doing a radio contest in Shreveport, Louisiana when his future wife, Louise, came by to watch the show. He felt his strong southern accent would keep him from getting into national sports announcing, but my father and Jack Hart thought he would do well. He is a legendary announcer today.
I scanned the audience and there was Linda Vaughn, Bob and Sharon Muravez, Bob Leggio, Rich Brown, Lee Kennedy, Kay Kimes, Bert Middleton, Gale Banks, Dorothy Mooneyham, John Ewald, Bobbie Colgrove, Ed Iskenderian, Alex Xydias, Bill Summers, Maggie Summers Peace and Al Teague. This was an all star cast of racing people in all forms of motorsports racing. Linda is as beautiful as ever. Since the days when she was cast as the model spokesperson for George Hurst, she has been forever known as Miss Hurst Shifter and teenage boys have grown old just wishing for a smile from the Georgia lady. Muravez was known in his racing days as Floyd Lippincott Junior, because his parents had forbade him from drag racing. He was a fierce and successful drag racer. Leggio is one of those guys you can always count on for help and he has a strong friendship with Jim Deist and Louie Senter. Bob has stories that can go on for days about the old timers he has driven up to Bonneville and back. Kimes looks too young to have been a pioneer, but he was there when it all began and has documented it in his book, which can be seen on-line at www.hotrodhotline.com. Gale Banks is a successful businessmen in the speed equipment industry, but one of the most gracious and generous sponsors around. That is if you consider that he was sitting not far away from Ed Iskenderian, who invented innovative sponsorship formats. Xydias was my father’s closest friend and the founder of the original So-Cal Speed Shop. Bobbie is a pioneer in women’s journalism, having been a photographer who broke the glass ceiling for women in motorsports. Al Teague set a record that stood for 17 years, over 409mph in his streamliner at Bonneville. John Ewald was always a fearsome drag racer, who has simply moved on to nostalgia drag racing without losing any of his fire. You can see his site at www.wdifl.com. The Summers Brothers set a wheel driven record at Bonneville in the 1960’s that lasted nearly four decades.
Dave McClelland’s melodious voice began the celebration for Jim Deist. “Jim was married for over fifty years to Marion,” he told the crowd, “And they have two children, five grandchildren, and 11 grandchildren to show for it.” The museum staff then played a short video that awed and thrilled the crowd, showing vignettes of Jim’s life from the time he was a tot to his adult life. It was accompanied by bagpipe music playing the hymn Amazing Grace. Earl Wooden was quoted in the film about his horrific crash at Bonneville and that he would have died had it not been for the Deist Safety equipment on his car and person. After the movie was finished, McClelland told us how Jim, “had learned all he could about the ribbon parachute, and then put them on drag cars in the early 1950’s. He helped Mickey Thompson, who then encouraged Deist to start his own business. He was a founding member of SEMA, a SEMA Hall of Fame member, the California Hot Rod Reunion Hall of Fame, the Dry Lakes Racing Hall of Fame and numerous other awards. Jim was at the cutting age of safety development in motorsports. Many owe their life to his safety gear,” concluded McClelland. The Reverend Ken Benazee told the audience how Jim was committed to his faith in God. “He was a very faithful man,” said the minister. McClelland read testimonials from those who could not be there in person, including; Bret Kepner, Ky Michaelson, Bill Pitts and others. Ken Walkey took the microphone and said, “There are many survivors in racing due to Jim Deist.” Louie Senter rose and spoke. “We had a close friendship. He was a wonderful guy, and stubborn and funny. I remember him at Saugus,” said Senter. Earl Wooden then spoke and said, “He saved my life several times. His chute held at 350 mph. Jim had a personal involvement with the racers. Ron Benham introduced me to Jim. Deist would go to a guy’s shop and help explain the equipment to the racers,” said Wooden.
Walt Diederich spoke next. “I knew Jim since he was fifteen. Jim had the first colored chutes. He could cook a mean pot of chili and his cookouts were always great. He was a bullheaded guy,” Walt ended. Julian Foti recalled humorously that, “When I served in the police department, Jim would tell me that no matter how fast I was going with the police drag car that he could always stop me,” said Foti. Gale Banks took the microphone and told the audience that when he was with the Geisler/Vail Studebaker, they always had problems with the car spinning out. “It must have spun out 200 times and we had badges made up to honor the drivers who spun out in the car. There must have been nine guys who earned that badge. Jim straightened out that car. We always had confidence in his equipment,” Banks ended. John Ewald then spoke to us. “I first met Jim at Lion’s Dragstrip in the 1960’s. He wanted a photograph that I had taken so that he could analyze it. If anything happened to the car or driver he wanted to improve on his safety products. He was one of those personalities that made drag racing what it is today. Jim had a love of motorsports, not the money that one could make from it,” Ewald concluded. Jim Travis rose to his feet and said, “The SCTA appreciates all that Jim did for us. Jim would spend hours doing things for the racers. He had time for everyone.
Bob Leggio said that he first met Jim in 1969. “He spent time showing us when and how to mount the chutes on the cars. He really loved Bonneville and land speed racing. People would come up to him and thank him for his support. Jim, Louie Senter and I had many memorable trips to Bonneville. You really get to know someone after spending 12 hours in a car with somebody. Jim was a history book of facts about racing. Lou and Jim were real characters. Jim was always late to an event, because he was helping others. We used to say that there were the normal four time zones in the country and one more – Deist Time,” said Leggio. Bob then told some interesting stories about the trips the three of them took. Burke LeSage told us that Deist was the connecting link between racers and businessmen involved in motorsports racing. Bob Muravez said that he first met Jim in 1956 at San Fernando dragstrip. “This was in the days of trial and error, long before the computer. Jim bought a Maytag washing machine from me,” Bob said. Al Teague was the next to take the microphone and tell us how much he admired and respected Jim Deist. “Jim told me that you can’t use cotton thread on your chute. Seems like a lot of guys tried to cut corners and save some money. He was always concerned with safety. Once I told him that I didn’t have the money to get all the safety gear and he lent it to me. Right after that I had an accident and the suit saved my life. He wasn’t concerned about making money, he was concerned about safety. That was his life. He even went to Australia in the 1990’s while we raced at Lake Gairdner,” Teague concluded.
Dr Leroy Hales also met Deist in the 1960’s. “I was driving a funny car at the time. In 1970 I was in my senior year of medical school and still racing. There was an accident and the car turned into a huge fireball. Jim had made the firesuit and everything but the gloves and my hands were burned. Jim asked me how we could make the safety gloves better and I told him that the gloves had fingers which were so bulky they were useless. I told him that a mitten would be better and he developed the mitten, which is used to this very day. I was a medical director for the NHRA. People would come to me and inquire if Jim would be willing to sell his company to them. I would tell them that the business is Jim Deist and without him there is no business,” Hales said. McClelland checked the clock and brought the celebration of life to a close, with the words, “Thank God for Jim Deist.” The memorial officially ended, but the Deist family had brought refreshments and drinks and those in attendance remained to talk about Jim’s life, to comfort Marion and the family and to look at the displays in the museum. Jeep and Ronnie Hampshire said hello. Now there is a family rich in drag racing history and I hope they will write their memoirs. Others who were talking together included George Callaway, Terry Kilbourne, Carl Olson, Russ Deane, Studebaker Joe Gialich, Dick Guldstrand, Dave Austin, Tim Swing, Bruce Kelly, Jennifer Ledon, “Kiwi” Steve Davies, Joe Douglas, George Bolthoff, Turbo Al Lombardo, Jim Dunn, Duane McKinney, and Tom Bruner.
Callaway is the caretaker of El Mirage and a man who has done it all in land speed and endurance racing. Olson was a long-time official in the NHRA and a close friend of the Parks family. Deane was a lawyer for the NHRA and another family friend. Guldstrand has been on Jay Leno’s Garage and is well-known in the road course racing fraternity. Swing is with the San Diego Police Association Museum. Davies is a member of the LSR club and the chief inspector for the SCTA. Douglas was a member of Russetta Timing Association. Bolthoff was a well-known racer from the golden age of drag racing. Jim Dunn ran the Salt Toy at Bonneville and Duane McKinney raced the Sundowner at the Salt Flats. I spoke to Robby and Linda Robinson who catered the food and drinks for the memorial and for other hot rodding events at the museum. They did an excellent job and if anyone needs their assistance, you can reach them at 626-446-3431. Marion asked me to talk to Frank Acosta and learn a little more about the Deist employees, who are very important in making the safety equipment that bears the Deist label. The employees were there in full force to honor their founder. Besides Frank, there was; Irma Gonzales who is a seamstress on the firesuits, Acosta is in the designing department, Armando Gonzales who works on the gloves, Carlos Hernandez who does the embroidery, Liberio Garcia who works on the vests, Martha Rivas who works on suit designing. Coneho Ruiz is the belt maker, Lidia Vallegas and Maria Baltazar sew the chutes and packs. Jorge Earron does the fire bottles. Isabel Ruiz is a seamstress. In the sales department are Bob Beddoes, Russ Greenwell, and Ben Williamson. Ken Benazee is the bookkeeper. Bob Nielsen is in the video/media department and Marion does the paperwork and bills and oversees the business.