Jim Jeffords – Corvette Racing Legend

Jim passed on March 6, 2014, in Palm Desert, California
James Jeffords 1926-2014

The article was written by Jim Gessner and Art Evans and appeared in the June 2014 issue of Vette Vues Magazine.

First, we will print the text so it is easier to read followed by copies of the actual printed pages.

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Sports car racing as we know it today was formed by what we call “The Greatest Generation.” It was made up of those who experienced WWII and became enthusiasts for cars they drove on the streets and raced on weekends.’’

Art Evans and I knew Jim Jeffords well as a racer and a friend. Jim passed on March 6, 2014, in Palm Desert, California, his winter home. He was one of the enthusiasts and is perhaps best remembered as being one of those who helped turn Corvettes from boulevard cruisers into serious racers. Jim raced other cars with great success as well.

When the war came along, Jim was in high school. He turned 17 in 1944 and tried to enlist in the Army. But he had a problem that many people never knew existed. He had almost no sight in his left eye. He couldn’t pass the physical, but he was determined. He kept returning to the recruiting office and finally, was accepted for “limited service.” After basic training at Camp Lee, Virginia, he was assigned to the Military Police where he served stateside for the duration.

Born in 1926, Jim’s family lived in Milwaukee only a few blocks from the Milwaukee Mile, a well-known automotive race track. After discharge, he came home, got married, and had four children…all boys. Going from job to job to support his family, he ended up selling used cars. One day, an XK120 Jaguar showed up on the lot. After demonstrating it a number of times, he ended up buying it himself. Like many of us, he decided to race it and entered his first event in 1954.

It turned out that Jim was a natural behind the wheel. In 1955, he won 14 out of the 17 races he ran. In 1956, John Fitch had run the Corvette team at Sebring, showing the world they could be the ‘‘Real McCoy’’ sports cars. Jeffords wanted to get on board, so he called Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole and asked, “How can I get on the team, Mr. Cole?”

Because of his record in his Jaguar, Jim was asked to drive a factory-backed and dealer-entered, DOANE Chevrolet Corvette in June 24, 1956, SCCA June Sprints at Road America. But a week before the race, he was told that the car was not ready, so he entered his Jaguar and went out against Dr. Dick Thompson, Fred Windridge, Bark Henry, and Ed Davis.

These were the Corvette drivers of the day. Jeffords drove the wheels off that little Jag and was leading the race with one lap to go when on a downshift, the engine, popped a freeze plug and the car limped to a DNF.

The fans and Ed Cole mobbed and praised Jim when he returned to the pits for his great driving ability. And as a reward, Jim was given Dick Doane’s blue1956 Sebring modified Corvette to race in other midwest events that summer.

That beginning led to December 7, 1956, in Nassau. Chevrolet factory entry in the new 57 Fuel Injection #36 car. 9th oa, 7th in class,
Nassau, Bahamas, Windsor Field, Governors Race,
December 7, 1956
#13- Blue Ferrari 860 Monza- Alfonso Portago
#25- White D Jaguar- John Fitch
#72- White Corvette- Fred Windridge
#43- Blue Corvette- Warren Flickinger
#36- White Corvette- Jim Jeffords
#15- White Corvette- Dr. Dick Thompson
#98- Red Ferrari 410 Sport- Carroll Shelby
#117- Red Corvette SR-2- Ray Crawford
#108- Maroon Kurtis Cadillac- Lou Brero, Jr.

March 23-24, 1957 Corvette 12-hour Sebring team driver, in the new #3, factory Corvette car, now with factory 4 speed, positraction, and fuel injection and RPO 684 Brake/ suspension. The Nassau cars had only fuel injection, 3 speed, and the 56 race brake option. Drivers: Kilborn / Jeffords/ Duncan, 2nd GT, 15th oa.

November 1957 was co-driver with Fred Windridge in his 1957 Corvette in Caracas, Venezuela with the remaining factory team drivers, Dick Doane, John Kilborn, Tom Pistone, and Dr. Dick Thompson who all drove the new 1958 model Corvette.

Remember this was after the AMA ban. This story is well written in Dick Thompson’s book CORVETTE GUIDE, Sports Car Press 1958, PAGES 110-122. A wild story about racing the streets of Venezuela…..no hotel rooms…..and finally after the 6.5-hour race the cars were impounded for ‘‘fees’’ never paid. Weeks later, Pistone flew back in a WW2 Cargo plane and rescued the cars. Jim told me many stories about International racing here and later in Cuba in 1960.

Dec 1-1957- Nassau- Jim had purchased a 1957 production Corvette race car after Sebring in March 57. That #38 car scored only a 16oa, nraf (not running at finish) after an engine failure.

January 1958 Jim purchased the 1956 SR-2, VIN 56F002522, Harley Earl race Corvette owned by son Jerry Earl.

In the spring of 1958, Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago retained Jim to drive Corvettes and head up a race team. He asked for maintenance and expenses. Jim was so positive of his ability, that he promised the owners, the Stephani Brothers that “If I do not bring you the Championship, then I will pay you back all the expenses !! “Nickey agreed, and they hired Ronnie Kaplan as crew chief, who took over the maintenance and race prep of the SR-2 which Jim now owned and was already painted Purple when Jim bought it. Along with the 58 and 59 Production Corvettes, all became ‘‘ PURPLE PEOPLE EATER’’ cars and everyone went racing. The popular song “Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley in 1958 created color and marketing ideas. And how it worked.

From January 1958 thru December 59, Jim and Nickey entered 21 race weekends (42 races) with the famous 1958 and 1959 “Purple People Eater” Corvettes at tracks across the country. Results: 29 first in class. 3 DNFs due to mechanical.

In 1958 Jim won the SCCA National B/P Championship and earned 7000 points in the SCCA. 2nd place was Fred Windridge with 4000. CHIP MILLER, the co-founder of CARLISLE EVENTS, discovered the 1959 PPE 3 race Corvette at his first swap meet in 1974. He and Ken Eckhart paid $800 ($400 each) Ken was Chip’s car painter in Philadelphia. He stored the car and used it as a paint mixing table until 1987 when Chip finally discovered it was BOB SPOONER’S # 33 under the purple topcoat paint. The rest is another large story.

In 1959 the SCCA changed its point scoring system. Jim won the SCCA B/P Championship again and earned 76 points to Roy Tuerke’s 54.

TWO first place SCCA B Production National Titles for Jim and the Nickey team were earned.

During this time, the SR-2 Jerry Earl B/MP car had a broken axel in Sebring, March 1958, and a broken fan belt and broken piston ring on the B/Production Corvettes were the only three problems that Jim and the Ronnie Kaplan crew endured that caused 3 DNFs due to mechanical.

Other Highlights:

July 12-13, 1958 – lapped the field in a 20-lap race at Wilmot.

Sept 20, 1958 – Set course record by 3 mph at Watkins Glen

Oct 4-5, 1958 – Set new track record at Vaca Valley, California

Nov 29- Dec 8, 1958 – Nassau Speed Week-

Dec 4, 1958 – Nassau car #14, 1958

Production Corvette Nickey PPE #1, 1oa, in both 5 laps and 25 lap Tourist Trophy,

1958 Production Corvette Nickey Chevrolet PPE#1, Won 25 lap, 1st class, 1st OA, first American driver in an American car to ever do this. Then won 1st class, and 3rd OA in the Memorial Trophy Race longer race that week.

Over Labor Day 1958, Jim met Lance Reventlow at the hotel lobby next to the Thompson, Connecticut Raceway after a race weekend. They had dinner and that meeting changed Jim’s racing direction.

After the final season race in Riverside, California in November, Jim met Lance again, but this time at the track the following Tuesday where Lance sold NICKEY CHEVROLET the # 002 Scarab. Jim got the Stephani’s to add the car as “Nickey Nouse” to the racing stable.

The 1959 season had its ups and downs with the Scarab, and changes in sponsorship did not help. But two victories in the professional USAC events at Meadowdale (Chicago) stand out. In one of the events, Jim lapped the course four seconds faster than Chuck Daigh had done the year before in the same car. He won 1st in class and 1st overall in all three 100-mile races. His new lap record stood for some years to come.

In 1960, Lucky Casner, owner of Casner Motor Racing Division ( CAMORADI USA ) by special arrangement with Zora Duntov bought two new 1960 heavy-duty #687 HD Brake/ Suspension, 315hp fuel-injected optioned Corvettes from Don Allen Chevrolet in Miami.

The #4 car was assigned to its first race at the Grand Prix of Havana. On Feb 24, 1960. Jim drove it to a first-place finish in the GT race.

On the following Sunday’s Grand Prix, he finished first again in the GT class, and eighth overall. Jim did the victory lap with Fidel Castro’s son holding the checkered flag.

This is the only time that Cuba hosted a truly international race in the 1957-60 time where every country in the world was invited to field their cars. And it was the only time the race was won by an American and an American car. There has never been a race in Cuba since this 1960 Grand Prix.

Jim and Bill Wuesthoff raced this same car at the 12 hours of Sebring in March 1960. Once completed, they found themselves in 2nd place in class.

The car then went to LeMans in June 1960 and had a great international racing history with Fred Gable and Lee Lilley.

Jim again joined Lucky Casner and was promoted to co-drive the Birdcage Maserati at LeMans. Jim’s only European experience was not pleasant as “Lucky was not” and Casner had an off-course excursion that resulted in the sand in the gearbox and a DNF 40th position for the team and Jim’s only LeMans drive.

Later that year, Jim bought from Casner the Birdcage that Maston Gregory and Chuck Daigh had raced at LeMans and raced it to victory at Road America beating Jim Hall in the first Professional Sports Car Race ever at Road America. This was the Streamliner Birdcage and was a much faster car than the cage he drove at LeMans.

At Riverside in the fall of 1960, Jim raced the Streamliner Birdcage. Billy Krause was 1st in his Birdcage, Bob Drake was 2nd in “Old Yeller”, and Augie Pabst 3rd. Jim had a broken exhaust manifold, which dropped power way down on his Birdcage and that regulated him to 4th. If there was a consolation prize, it was that he beat Carroll Shelby who finished 5th. Shelby’s last race was a week later at Laguna Seca.

Before the 1961 season, Jim was struck by a mysterious allergy that almost killed him. He was in intensive care for nine months and that ended his racing career.

In 1968, Jim interrupted his busy advertising business, and briefly returned to the racing scene as manager of the AMC Javelin Trans-Am race cars. Ronnie Kaplan was the crew chief again and performed his magic on these new race cars and engineering AMC design. Peter Revson and George Folmer were the drivers.

Jim was on the Board of Directors for Road America Race Track at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin since 1958 and held many Board positions over the last 55 years. In the ’70s and early 80’s he also was a Porsche, Mercedes, and BMW dealer.

Godspeed my friend. Art and I and all your Corvette race friends miss you.

Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords
Tribute to Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords

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