Gone Racin' - Jim Clark Bio

Gone Racin' - Jim Clark Bio
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Gone Racin' ... James Clark Jr. Biography by Jim Clark, with editing by Richard Parks. Photographs by Jim Clark, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz, 9 February 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was born on a Wednesday, August 25, 1943 as James Frederick Clark Jr in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was a strange pedigree of Irish-German on my father’s side with Union Civil War history. My mother was 100% Armenian and a recent immigrant from the genocide in Turkey of the Christian Armenians at the hands of the Turkish Muslims. A fact I will never forget because of the pain and suffering it brought my mother later in life. My father was by this time fourth generation, and my mother was the oldest of of six Armenian daughters (Margaret) having been born in Athens, Greece while escaping from the Turks and coming to America through Ellis Island in 1923. My grandfather lost one wife and two children in the genocide earlier. My mothers siblings were born in America and pure Armenian. My father, the Irishman, James Frederick Clark Sr. was a machinist making aircraft parts for the war effort. His two brothers were in uniform and his sister a teenager. 

We all lived in Milwaukee surrounded by Brewery’s and old housing. I remember lots of rats and coal chutes.  As I grew up for the first six years of life in Milwaukee, it was obvious my interests were strictly mechanical and anything with wheels. My uncle once told me on repeated trips to the Milwaukee Road Railroad yard to watch the steam locomotives roll by, that I seem to like the 12” to the foot scale size of things since I never cared much for the smaller toys.  When my sister Suzanne was born January 26, 1946 my mother was diagnosed as having a developing case of Tuberculosis. This, the lingering effects of being surrounded by sickness while escaping the old country as it was put to me. My mother was placed in a hospital and my sister and I lived between our two grandparent’s homes and my oldest aunt for three years. The doctors suggested moving out of the Wisconsin climate and taking up residence in either Arizona or California. 

Our Armenian family (the Matosians) decided to pull up stakes and move to Los Angeles, California in 1949. Although still living with grandparents as my father and grandfather worked at Hughes Aircraft in Culver City after the move, we were able to visit my mom once a month at Olive View Sanitarium and later City of Hope. I was now approaching 7 years old and remember my dad buying a brand new green 1949 Ford sedan in June 1949 to travel to California and a new brown 1951 Ford convertible two years later. 

I was fast falling in love with the Southern California climate and the west. My father said he quit counting after 30 times taking me to Knott’s Berry Farm to see the cowboy stars and ride the train (admission to enter was free then). Seeing my western heroes on TV and then meeting them in person at the Tournament of Roses Parade or local events made me feel like I was in heaven. I attended the first three grades in Los Angeles at Sierra Vista Grammar school a short walk from my grandparents’ home at 4441 Alpha Street in Los Angeles (postal code 32 before zip codes were invented). This was the area that was El Sereno, Alhambra, So. Pasadena and Los Angeles.    My father in 1952 saved enough to move my sister and I out to a new community in the San Gabriel Valley called West Covina and purchased a new home for $9,300. 

From 1952 until 1972 I lived and grew up in this 1000 square foot home and also started my own family (a wife and four kids). My mother never did return home to us and eventually died in 1960. We visited her once every month until she passed during all those years. In the time 1952-1961 I attended Sunset Grammar School, Del Norte Grammar School, West Covina and Edgewood High School where I graduated in 1961. Later eighteen months at Mt, San Antonio Jr College in Walnut, California near Pomona. 

Being alone most of the time in the house, I grew a passion for reading a continuous series of magazines that consisted of Hot Rod, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and railroad periodicals. I also had a small interest in things electronic since my father would not buy much of anything that I requested, but would purchase the electronic Eico or Heath kits to build it from scratch. He always made me build it! Before owning a car of my own I had everything from souped up lawnmowers to the fastest bike in school. I promoted drag races after school to make sure I was still the quickest.   

By making the sock hop tapes for high school dances, learning how to repair television sets, a paper route, mowing lawns, and working at a gas station I raised enough money to maintain a car. I hung around with guys that were able to build things mechanical including their own cars and learned from them. They were everywhere.  Lots of cool rod’s in those days. Besides the guys in my age bracket I hung around a place called Performance Associates on San Bernardino Road in West Covina. The owner was a man I really admired and had a lot of respect for even though he favored Fords as my tastes were leaning towards Chrysler powered cars. His name was Les Ritchey and his helper Wally. I loved listening to the cars on the chassis dyno and listening to them talk to the engines.

One day Les and Wally were blowing cigar smoke into a Ford 406 block letting it know how much power they wanted out of it. Later, a service writer named Joe Oliphant worked for them too and we became good friends. A short time later Joe moved on to Cragar the wheel manufacturer. Les Ritchey was killed on May 1,1966 in a freak accident at Fontana Raceway. He crashed near the top end of the race track and was as I remember de-capitated. He was match racing another popular racer at the time Hayden Profitt. Les was driving a 1965 Ford A/FX Mustang and it was the second race. I was there running my own car and was horribly upset and left the track.

A few years before in the year 1963 and just three blocks from my home in West Covina, another racer I knew named Taylor Speers fired up the Brander & Speers dragster on the city street, lost control, and crashed into the fence along the service road to the San Bernardino Freeway killing himself. By then nearly every street in So. Ca. in the 1960’s had a garage based race car project of some kind going on, and the cars were going faster and faster. I realized now racing had its dangerous side. My friend Joe Oliphant wound up marrying Taylor Speers widow Jonny, since all neighborhoods knew each other and we were definitely young.

By late 1961 I had already started a full time garage out of my home on Pacific Ave. in West Covina after graduation, and it was going full bore tuning cars and building engines of all types. I called my little home garage “Engine Dynamics” and stayed there until the city shut me down in 1966. I then moved to 4152 N. Puente Ave in Baldwin Park, Ca. The shop is still there to this day in 2016 with some of the same employees that I hired in the mid to late 60’s. I sold them the shop in 1977 to pursue my other love of trains and family time (more later).  In addition at this time, my next door neighbors on Pacific Ave were three sons around my same age and they also loved race cars. Later they became a racing team called the Conroy Brothers and raced everything from pickup trucks to alcohol dragsters. Their father Ed Conroy,could make anything, and they even had a pit in the backyard for working on cars. They saved my butt many times and one of the brothers lives there to this day.  

As my second family, we would travel in the late 1950’s to a Drag Strip on a nearly weekly basis called San Gabriel Raceway on Rivergrade Road in Irwindale. The strip was owned by the Tice Bros. who also owned a meat market in Baldwin Park where our families shopped regularly for years.  We always looked for a Top Fuel dragster to run called the Glass Slipper or TV Tommy Ivo and we loved the Willy’s and Anglia gasser cars too. I was hooked on Drag Racing! 

By 1960 my father decided to turn over our 1957 Plymouth Belvedere 4-door sedan to me and now I knew with the money I had saved I could turn it into a drag strip car. He wasn’t real happy with me but there was no stopping me now.   I raced between San Gabriel Raceway in Irwindale, Pomona Drags at the Fairgrounds in Pomona, and Fontana and Colton drag strips almost every weekend in 1961 and finally won J/SA in September 1961 at San Gabriel Raceway. Hanging out at Performance Associates when I should have been in school my senior year allowed me to pit with the aforementioned Performance Associates team when they would go out and race with the 390, 406, 427 Fords and Edsels. 

When Chrysler came out with the 413 Stage I Ramcharger in 1962 I was bound and determined to own one soon. At the time I was about the only Mopar guy of all of my high school buddies who were still stuck on Chevy’s and Ford’s. Many friends from about 1958 on I still have contact with especially since we have now all retired and re-aquainted. In fact one of my schoolmates in Jr College was Charlie Allen, the All American Boy as he was known in those days at the track. Charlie was one of the first Funny Car drivers in a Dodge Dart.  Have since lost track of him though.  Before elaborating on the following evolution of being a mechanic, owning my own shop, and striking up friendships with the new and emerging local Dodge and Plymouth racers likeDave Kempton, Blairs Speed Shop, Dick Landy and more I spent time with some of the local gear heads in the Covina, West Covina, Baldwin Park area learning the technical side of racing motor assembly.  Sid Hoover at Auto Dynamic Balancing, Smith Bros Push Rods and Machine, Blair’s Speed Shop in Pasadena, and also Iskenderian Cams in Inglewood, Ca. 

The years of reading all the Hot Rod magazine’s etc. gave me a foundation to learn by doing now. I also needed to get off the streets since I was street racing my 1957 Plymouth almost every night out of the IN & OUT Burger restaurant on San Bernardino Road in West Covina, or Bob’s Big Boy in Pasadena. No one had ever seen a 57 Plymouth with a polyspherical head 301-318 CI motor run that fast. After winning my first trophy I built the small V-8 single 4bbl 57 Plymouth into a dual quad 389 CI monster with first an Engle #95 Cam and then an Isky experimental hydraulic camshaft that they gave me to test. I ran at that time in a Modified Production class and at nearly 4000 lbs. this Plymouth tank ran high 13’s low 14’s. People thought it had to be one of those new B wedge motors but it was not. The distributor was in the back not the front like a “B” engine and always embarrassing the cars that I beat. Especially on the street. 

I also learned my immediate high school friends for the most part became lawyers, engineers, policemen, fireman, or if they were into cars they worked for manufacturers or suppliers. There were no other racers out of my graduating class. I felt I was alone to carry the Mopar banner and it later paid off.   

With the Vietnam war raging in the mid to late sixties, I continued to get questionnaires from the military as to my marital and dependent status. Having married in 1963 to my high school sweetheart and having our four children in rapid succession, I wound up a 3A classification. Knowing so many young men that went into the service that were my customers in those years, I actually accumulated their race cars to hold and compete with as they served in the military. The first of which was that prized 1962 Plymouth 413 wedge Stage 1 Ramcharger Savoy I always wanted. The soldiers name was Butch Skalla. Also a 1964 Aluminum front end Stage III Savoy owned by soldier Don Crouse who later became a “Speed Shops” owner and distributor. At the same time I purchased a 1963 Stage II aluminum front end car dubbed “The Animal Tamer”.

I took the Animal Tamer to the Winter Nationals as a participant in 1966 the same year that I moved into the new shop now fully named Jim Clark’s Engine Dynamics. My first entry into the Winternationals ever at Pomona proved to be a success in at least the fact that I qualified for the new Super Stock eliminator. Eventually getting beat early on by one of the new Street Hemi race cars. I was also introduced into the awareness of factory presence in the Super Stock and A/FX classes. Fortunately the factory team made notice that I was a local Mopar drag racer with a shop nearby to Pomona. A fact that later paid off well in my future.

I sold the 63 car because it continually had mysterious fuel supply problems. I even took it to another shop called Bourgeois and Wade in Irwindale Ca. to have it dynoed and they gave up on it too finding out they owned the car at one time too. Earl Wade one of the owners later became another good friend at the track whose company I always enjoyed as I did the late Les Ritchey. I believe he later wound up working for A/FX and Pro/Stock racer Don Nicholson. Earl was a good wrench.

My 1962 Plymouth was well known for its unconventional hood scoops I designed that looked more like mail chutes rising out of the hood. The car competed in AHRA racing and local drag events and was a very consistent winner. Having won AHRA National events and record setting on the west coast at Irwindale and Lion’s Drag Strip in Wilmington. The stick shift cars I remember were upset because I ran quicker than them and they had to give me a head start. I would relent and race them heads up to make it more fun and still win. Sig Erson was then grinding my camshafts and I made great horsepower at the top end.

At that time the head starts were done with physical car lengths and a flag starter. Locally in Baldwin Park, one of my old high school teachers and his son owned a trophy shop, and I would duplicate the trophies won for my benefactors serving in the Armed Forces overseas. They would also receive any jackets my shop might create at the time and we would mail them too. The now famous Irwindale Raceway opened in 1963 and it was definitely my home track. I believe San Gabriel Raceway closed by then and the deluxe Orange Co. Raceway opened in 1967.

The 1964 Plymouth was now named “Determination” and quickly it became my new favorite since it had the more powerful Stage III heads and a different and better set of ram carburetors. This car ran solidly in the 11’s and was a veritable missile for its day. The 1962 car picked up a sponsor named South Western Auto Supply and we became good friends and a parts supplier to my shop. I had the same success with the 64 car as with the 62 and set more AHRA records and won more local eliminators alternating between the cars.

By this time my shop was so busy tuning every style of muscle car and family sled that I took a little breather and started sponsoring some other Mopar names like Bob Small, Dave Kempton and later De Frank and Cohen. Of another note, as the shop became more famous the Highway Patrol would surround us with smog stations on the street around my shop. Everyone knew I use to modify the carburetors from the factory and improve performance along with mileage too. The dealers even sent us cars. We really understood carburetor science and they never caught us on anything. Business got so good the local Baldwin Park Police Dept. contracted with us to service the police cruisers.

Around 1970 the purchasing agent for the police department bought Checker cars to replace the Dodge 440’s. Fortunately they kept some of the Dodge’s because the Checkers became a laughing stock on pursuits. Speeders would slow down, let the Checker catch up and then roar off again. In 1967 I was fortunate to have my race car parts sponsor South Western Auto Supply purchase me a 1965 A990 Hemi Coronet from a dealer that still had one. I painted the car from black to blue and dubbed it “The Hemi Express” with a train mural on the door since still having a fetish for trains. This later became my logo for all of my Hemi race cars. I actually street drove the car to Irwindale on its first outing and ran low 11’s right off the street. I was now a Hemi guy. I don’t believe I entered this car into the Winternationals until 1969 since my sponsored cars and shop and wedge cars kept me very busy.

At the 1969 Winternationals I won class with the 65 Coronet and made a good showing in S/S eliminator. I also had the new Hurst 1968 Hemi Darts and Cudas coming into my shop to be set up too. Just before the start of the year I received a call from the Chrysler Factory team asking if I would like a sponsorship for parts from Chrysler Racing Division. Of course I said yes. My first ever sponsor was Pennzoil , and now it was Doug’s Headers, Racer Brown Cams, Holley Carbs, Baldwin Oil Filters, Champion Spark Plugs. Firestone and later M&H Tires and many more. Now Chrysler. I was always loyal to those that helped me early on. Valvoline asked me no less than 5 times over the years to switch, and they would give me the best appearing car award. I never switched and never won the award either. But I believe in loyalty to those that helped in the beginning.

One of my original employees Dale Reed left for Vietnam in 69 and returned in 71 with an injury from the result of a criminal act in Saigon. My other original employee John Avery (still there in 2016) was never drafted as was myself and continued to be a valuable employee even though he was a big Grumpy Jenkins fan. We teased him mercilessly. I of course had to hire more help too. By 1970 we had a roaring shop and a reputation as a great Mopar stable, although we worked on everything. On one race day in 1970 we counted 33 cars at Irwindale Raceway with either the shop name or my name on the car or both. The word spread to Hot Rod Magazine and they came out and did a shop story. It was killed with no explanation and never ran. We were very disappointed.

1970 saw us winning at Pomona again and going all the way to runner – up in Super Stock eliminator. Wide World Of Sports played my finish line video three times saying it looked like I had won. Second in Division 7 points standing and runner – up again at Ontario for the World Finals. I bought the 65 Coronet from my sponsor and continued to win class against every 65 Hemi in the country so it seemed until I quit racing the car after 1973. I won five years in a row at Pomona. Set records and won at points meets too. At times it would be owned by another friend but I would still drive it as my favorite and best car ever. Chrysler had become a great sponsor and they would use my shop as headquarters for racing and testing when in So. Ca. My shop shared a parking lot with a bottomless topless dance bar. The visiting racers loved our shop. Around 1970 and beyond we as a Chrysler team felt NHRA was doing all it could to squeeze the Mopar’s out of the winners circle. I raced the big Riverside drag event in 1970 and got down to the last four cars. Three Cobra Jet Mustangs and myself. We were all told to go to the scales. I watched them weigh the Cobra Jets first and they were all three light. When I started to pull my 65 car up on the scales they announced no race and no winner. I was furious and went to the San Gabriel Valley Daily Tribune newspaper the next day. They did a story and it made NHRA mad as hell. Chrysler backed my play since they were feeling the heat in Pro/ Stock too. Bernie Partridge Division 7 Director called me and said he wanted to see me asap.

We met at Orange Co. Raceway the next weekend and he told me how hard he could make it on me if I didn’t let up and probably never race NHRA again. I called Chrysler and they suggested to let this one pass since I ran a shop and called the paper to do no more follow ups. They had already interviewed people and had more for a bigger investigative story. It actually seemed after that my National Dragster coverage at points meets, records etc. seemed to improve. I didn’t actually fare much better with AHRA though either that year. I won a very big race at Lions and both of us in the final broke out (too fast). After announcing that I had won they changed their minds and said even though I broke out by less I got there first and so broke out first. Probably one of the dumbest statements in racing I have ever heard. When I found out Jack Tice was friends with the favorite boy of his from Texas that I raced against, I put Jack up against the wall and explained why his organization was Bush League.

The following week I came out with the 64 Plymouth and broke the class record by four tenths to bury some of their favorite boys from Texas. I was protested and passed with flying colors. Mr. CJ Hart Lions’ promoter and super manager gave me a big trophy for hangin in there. CJ would let you bring in a pile of smaller trophies from past events and trade them in on one larger one. He was a great guy. I believe the race I had the altercation with AHRA Director Jim Tice was the same night Don Garlits lost the end of his foot. I was standing behind the dragster when it exploded on the line……..

By this time in my stable I personally had two 68 Hemi Cuda’s. This in addition to recently selling a Hemi Dart I had for a short time which was originally The Dragon Lady Shirley Shahan’s car that I bought from racer Harry Holton. The Cuda’s were from factory racers Dave Wren and Judy Lilly. Both Cuda’s I built the motors for and astoundingly they ran within one hundredths of each other side by side repeatedly. The one from Dave Wren I sold to my friend and fellow racer Harry Holton. The reason for this sale was Chrysler was going to supply the parts to let me build a 1971 Demon Pro/ Stocker and I wanted famous car builder Ron Butler to build the car. It would be the first A body Chrysler sponsored car built by the famous builder Ron Butler.

We finished the car in 1971 and it was one of only two ever built with a Clutch –Flite transmission. The other being The Motown Missile Challenger. No torque converter, only a clutch and pressure plate in front of an automatic transmission. This was because I was not a four speed driver and it was something to experiment with and Chrysler approved the idea. The car actually did OK at points meets but I red lighted against Dick Landy in a big final race at Irwindale and he blew a motor still taking the win. I needed to much luck to survive with a Clutch –Flite but appreciated the opportunity. The car had great MPH but could not ET well enough in the first eighth mile. My longtime friend Butch Leal “The California Flash” said Clark, if you could drive a 4-speed you would be dangerous because I was running as fast or faster than most Pro/Stockers at the time. I eventually sold the car to Billy The Kid Stepp from Chicago minus engine and trans.

I went back to old reliable the 65 Coronet, 64 Plymouth and just plain working on the myriad of customer cars……..One year Bill Bagshaw of Red Light Bandit fame and I flew back to Royal Oak Michigan for the Chrysler racing seminar and learned plenty. The guys that didn’t go regularly had a lot of problems getting parts. When the team came to So. Ca. they would drop ship a truck load of parts to my shop and leave what was left over. In addition, one year they left a 1967 Street Hemi Plymouth. I sold it to a customer and used the funds to help build the Demon. On another time I was called by my #1 connection from Chrysler Dave Koffel and he told me he was asked by Vice President Bob Cahill if I would go to a dealer shop in Pomona and prep the cars for the Mobil Economy run. Of course I said yes. We won every category and they were very pleased.  

My Chrysler deal continued into 1974 when Executive Dick Maxwell called me and said they had a renewal for me but that I would have to purchase one of the car haulers they were building and start traveling around the country more than I had been. I told Mr. Maxwell that my shop was so busy and it definitely suffers when I am gone. Plus my children are growing up and I think that I would like to coach Little League and spend more time with family. He said that I made the smartest decision of my life since drag racing had become so competitive and that they were boycotting NHRA even more than previous because of the squeeze always on Chrysler. Which meant more distance traveling to approved races and tracks that meant more time on the road.

By late 1976 I had an opportunity to pursue my passion for trains and moved to Carson City, Nevada. I sold the shop to my help in 1977 and they are still there to this day. The sign of a well-built business. Later my oldest son Brian Clark became an R&D magneto expert for Mallory Ignitions and was credited with building the magneto that put Eddie Hill first in the fours. He had a write up in Car Craft about this. His son Brandon has the same aptitude for cars too and out of Brian Clark’s Engine Dynamics shop in Newhall Ca, we are re-creating some of the old Hemi Express race cars just for nostalgias sake………….

The railroad business turned into owning three railroads over time, and starting a movie rental company for trains to Hollywood with over 250 credits. The story is best described at  jamesclarkandcompany.com. In 2014 I attended Mopars At the Strip in Las Vegas to participate in the 50th anniversary of the 426 Hemi. The highlight was knowing Tom Hoover, Tom Codington and a number of other Chrysler engineers would be in attendance too. I participated in the seminars and spent time reminiscing with Tom Hoover about our years racing in the 60’s and 70’s and never realizing how wonderful those times were. He was complimentary of my efforts on the Chrysler team and my shop. We even discussed the Clutch_Flite in my car and also in the Motown Missile and the results. After Las Vegas I received a call from Mopar Collector Magazine to participate and sign autographs at the Carlisle Pa. Mopar gathering that summer. I accepted and got to re- acquaint with old team members and Dodge Plymouth racers like Shirley Shahan, Butch Leal, Don Grotheer, The Golden Commandos, The Ramchargers, and a very special guy named Bob Riggle from Hemi Under Glass Fame. The nostalgia race cars my son and grandson and I have re-created keep us busy at local drag strips and I get to meet old customers or their children that came in with their parents in those golden years or saw us race. I also give lectures on Movies and Trains throughout the country. I re-married in 2011 and have 8 children and 12 grandchildren and have retired after a stint in Arizona then to Virginia City, Nevada.  I look at life the way my father taught me with these words above his desk……..

THAT PERSON IS A SUCCESS WHO HAS LIVED WELL LAUGHED OFTEN AND LOVED MUCH… WHO HAS EARNED THE RESPECT OF INTELLIGENT MEN AND WOMEN…. AND THE LOVE OF CHILDREN…. WHO HAS FOUND HIS NICHE AND ACCOMPLISHED MANY TASKS WHILE LEAVING THIS WORLD A BETTER PLACE THAN HE FOUND IT.

Jim Clark March 2016