Q & A: Jimmy Oskie

(Oskie archive)

(Oskie archive)

The five-time CRA sprint car champ and Hall of Famer on finding parallels between racing and living

Interview: Saroyan Humphrey

Feature | Jimmy Oskie sits down for breakfast at a cafe in downtown Calistoga. It’s the Sunday morning before the second night of the Louis Vermeil Classic at the historic speedway just a few blocks away. Oskie, 73, is a retired non-wing sprint car racer. He still goes to many of the races on the USAC-CRA circuit and remembers what it was like to compete in a sprint car during the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. With a slight grin, the laid-back, five-time CRA (California Racing Association) champ says, “I like watching the drivers. I like feeling the emotion of what the drivers are going through. Like if they pass somebody on the last lap, if they win, if they crash, if they exceed their expectations, or whatever, I know almost exactly what emotion they’re feeling. I can relate to what they’re going through.”

The CRA sprint car series was started in ’53 and was based at Ascot Park in Gardena. The premier circuit traveled to a host of dirt and paved short tracks in Southern California, including El Centro, Cajon, Mesa Marin, Irwindale, Manzanita, Santa Maria and Calistoga. It featured some of the biggest names in open-wheel racing during its heyday but was disbanded in 1994.

Oskie is one of many sprint car aces to have risen through the CRA ranks. He was inducted to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Iowa, in 2000.

Oskie driving the new Henry-built sprint car at Ascot Park in 1968. (Jim Chini photo/Oskie archive)

Oskie driving the new Henry-built sprint car at Ascot Park in 1968. (Jim Chini photo/Oskie archive)

Oskie was well known for his smooth-as-silk driving style on dirt and paved ovals. Today, he likes giving back, in his own way, to the racing community. It’s part of what makes his presence unique in the pit area. Visiting and chatting with the young drivers, he draws from his own experience and helps racers stay focused and grounded in the moment. “I think they relax when I come around,” he continues. “The mechanic usually doesn’t know what it’s like to drive, so I can offer guidance to some of these younger guys. I’m also a big advocate of girls in racing, too.”

Oskie grew up in Southern California. At 16 he started racing, driving a family-owned jalopy and soon after a modified-sportsman at Balboa Stadium in San Diego and Ascot Park. His father, A.L. Oskie, owned an auto glass company and fielded cars on the CRA circuit for a variety of drivers, including veteran racer Bob Hogle, who soon became a mentor for young Oskie. 

In 1968, after returning home from two years of Navy service during the Vietnam War, Oskie was back behind the wheel. This time he was driving a state-of-the-art four-bar-style sprint car that was built for him by Hall of Fame builder Granvel “Hank” Henry. “The car was ahead of its time,” he says. “The torsion bar points and the frame layout was basically the same that’s being used today.” In his first year driving the car, he won CRA’s Most Improved Driver award and three main events and finished second in final points to Hogle. 

In ’69, Oskie won his first CRA championship with six main event victories. He’s also proud to point out that the title was the last logged in a non-cage sprint car. 

Jimmy Oskie, 2019. (Photo Saroyan Humphrey)

Jimmy Oskie, 2019. (Photo Saroyan Humphrey)

In the new decade, Oskie would continue his ascent to the peak of his career, driving for a variety of car owners and adapting to ever-changing race technology. He won his second title in ’74, driving for Don Blair on a week-to-week basis. He began a long and fruitful association with Jack and Wilda Kindoll in ’76, driving the JFK-sponsored sprint car. He claimed three titles with the team in ’76, ’77 and ’79. Oskie also competed at the Indy Mile in ’78, driving for Walter Knepper, finishing fifth in the USAC event behind winner Lealand McSpadden. 

Oskie would win his final CRA race at Ascot in ’83, as his career began slowing down. “I got tired of traveling,” he says. And when Ascot closed [in 1990], that was enough for me.” Oskie retired the same year with victories in 58 CRA main events —sixth on the all-time list. He also won 56 trophy dashes (most of all time) and 29 fast times. Of course, the statistics tell just a fraction of the story. 

“I wanted to see what everybody else was doing on Saturday nights, too,” he says. Today, Oskie is an accomplished country two-step dancer. It’s a passion he developed since retiring from racing over the last 25 years. He likes finding parallels between racing and dancing. 

 * * *

I understand you’re a skilled country two-step dancer.
With a partner, it’s just like driving a sprint car: You can’t make it do something it don’t want to do. If you do, it’ll turn out bad. There are so many parallels. They all handle different. Some turn hard, some turn easy. You have to adapt how you lead and dance to your partner’s style, so they have a good time. I think racing got me ready for dancing. I think that was the purpose of racing, for me.

How did the dancing become a passion?
I went to a country dance hall, somewhere in Santa Monica, a while ago and I noticed they’re all going around like race cars, same direction. I said, “I guess I could do this.” After the things that racing awakened in me — the confidence that I could do things — I thought I could do just about anything. 

So, I knew the learning processes: It’s probably going to feel awkward, it’s going to take a while and I’m going to learn things that I don’t even realize I’m learning, like muscle memory. It’s like when I learned how to drive a race car. Sometimes you sit around after a race and you think, “I didn’t learn anything.” But I didn’t realize I was learning all kinds of muscle memory stuff. I knew it was going to be like that in dance. 

Oskie driving his own modified-sportsman at Manzanita in 1964. (Oskie archive)

Oskie driving his own modified-sportsman at Manzanita in 1964. (Oskie archive)

Before racing, if somebody’d said, “Do you want to be a dancer?” I’d have thought, “I could never dance.” I just started picking it up on my own. It was hard to get girls to dance with me because I didn’t know how to dance. I started getting better and better, watching and observing. 

So, after about 10 years, I thought I was pretty good, then I saw this guy one night and he was doing really good. So, I kinda made friends with him. I asked him how he got so good, and he said he took lessons and he gave me the name of the studio. I went there and they were doing stuff I’d never even seen. I kept learning. A lot of competitors were based out of this studio, and the guy that was teaching was a three-time world champion. So, he was just perfect. And, he kinda taught with humor, so, I learned all these things. I stayed in the beginners’ class for like two and a half years. 

Finally, I went to the intermediate class and I kept going for like five and a half years. I went to competitions. I learned a lot. I’m probably one of the best three dancers at the dance hall. I have a lot of dance partners. 

Where do you like to go when you’re back home?
There’s a place called The Ranch in Anaheim. It’s first class. The bathrooms are all tile. There’s guys cleaning all the time. Real nice. There’s a five-star restaurant in conjunction with it. It’s really popular. It’s near Disneyland so there’s a big turnover of people; there’s a small nucleus of regulars but there’s a lot of people you’ll see one time. You’ll dance with ’em one time and never see ’em again. 

But I’ve been to a lot of different dance halls all over the country. Nebraska, Indiana, Oklahoma … I’ll find a dance hall somewhere. At the Chili Bowl [in Tulsa], after being there all week at the races, I’m ready to change worlds after about six o’ clock.

What do you remember about growing up around racing?
I started going to the races when I was 11, 12 or 13 with my dad. Those guys all seemed to me like brave heroes. It was exciting. 

I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about it. Racing with no cages. Those guys just had open face helmets, a handkerchief over their mouth and goggles. We were going to Ascot, Gardena Stadium sometimes. El Centro. Sometimes we’d go to Champion Speedway in Brisbane, near South San Francisco.

If you still don’t win when you get out, we’ll know you’re no good and you can quit.

I never thought that I could do anything like it. So, I started getting aspirations to drive and I always thought if I could just be half-way good, I could be a part of the whole thing and I’d be happy. Of course, nobody knows before they do anything how good they’ll be at it. 

My dad sponsored jalopies and he bought a jalopy later. Bob Hogle was driving for him. He was famous in CRA. He showed me a lot of stuff about racing. We hung around together and he was kind of my mentor.

I started in a jalopy for about three months, and later, my dad had a modified-sportsman. They were kinda like a sprint car but with a body and roll cage. So, when I was about 17, [my dad] was getting ready to change drivers and I talked him into letting me drive it. He said, “If you work on it, tow it and everything, you can drive it.” So, I worked on it and towed it to San Diego every week and raced down there. 

I had a guy doing the engines and there were some sprint cars housed at his shop. So, I kinda talked my way into a mediocre sprint car. It wasn’t that good but at least I was driving sprint cars. 

My mom didn’t really like it that much. So, I was drafted into the service for two years in ’66 and ’67. She said, “We’ll have a state-of-the-art car built for you when you get out. If you still don’t win when you get out, we’ll know you’re no good and you can quit.”

So, we had [Granvel] “Hank” Henry build a four-bar [sprint car]. I had noticed when the USAC guys would come out to run they were all running the four-bar cars. He’d never built a four-bar before; they were all springers. He wanted to take his time. I said, “You have the two years that I’ll be gone.” So, he liked that and it was all ready to go when I got out. I started running with the leaders then. 

I drove it for two years and the second year, I won the [CRA] championship. So, people started asking me to drive for them. So, I kinda parked mine and just drove it whenever I didn’t have another car to drive. 

Hall of Fame builder Granvel “Hank” Henry was also a driver. Henry was killed in a race crash in ’68. He was 42. (Oskie archive)

Hall of Fame builder Granvel “Hank” Henry was also a driver. Henry was killed in a race crash in ’68. He was 42. (Oskie archive)

While you were in the Navy you were sending money back home to help pay for the race car.
My sister, my mom and dad were all helping. My mom would go down and give Hank some money every month or so. Hank used to tell me, “I’d be working in the shop and then I’d hear this sound, ‘Pssst, pssst’ and it would be my mom, over in the corner, and she’d have $500 and slide it to him when nobody was looking. He always liked that story.

I was stationed on an aircraft carrier off of Vietnam in the South China Sea. It was scary. I had never been away from home before. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever make it back home. I was right in the middle of a war zone. I didn’t really want to be in the service but I was drafted. So, I figured I better go in the Navy for two years instead of the Army. It was the height of that war. 

We picked [the car] up when I got back. Hank had arranged for an engine, too. The car was like $6,000, and the engine was $2500. He wanted to make sure that a good engine got in it. Then, somewhere along the line, we figured out you could take one of those high-performance short blocks from Chevrolet and balance it and clearance it, put the good heads, roller cam in it and injection and it would run pretty good. Maybe not when the track was tacky; you’d need a little more power, but once it started drying out with those narrow tires … that’s all we ran for those two years, even through the early ’70s.  

Anyway, I got out in November and the first race was in March [’68]. He was the premium builder on the West Coast. He’s in the [National Sprint Car] Hall of Fame as a builder. He was pretty particular with the stuff he built. He wasn’t satisfied with a lot of the things. He had a high standard. He built everything by hand. 

He got burned at Phoenix a long time ago [in ’63], when he was driving. His hands were kinda burned pretty good but he could still build cars even like that. My car was the first and only four-bar car that he built. He was way ahead of everything. I think it was the only four-bar car out there, besides [Bruce] Bromme’s. The rest were all springers. 

How did that car feel when you started racing again?
Well, I was still basically a rookie. …The car was way ahead of me, which I didn’t know at the time. [laughs] I thought I was just getting better, which I was, but being in a good car made me get better. … I think I didn’t win until August but I was right up in front right away. I won the last race in ’69 at Ascot and that was the last non-cage race that CRA ever ran. In ’70 the cages came in. So, me and that car are the last ones to win a non-cage race. 

You won your first championship in ’69. That must’ve felt good.
Yeah. It was like nothing I ever expected. 

Were you working on the car yourself?
A guy named Chuck Howard used to do the engines for me. I didn’t want to work on it, too. I always remember when I was working on that modified, right in the middle of the race sometimes, I would think, “Did I get that one nut tight?” So, I didn’t want those thoughts. I just wanted to come to the track and see that it’s ready to go. And, all I have to do is go fast. So, I hired a guy named Leonard Surdam who Hal Minyard drove for and won two championships in the mid-’60s. He kept the car at his place, worked on it, towed it, made sure it was running good and I gave him a percentage [of the purse money]. He did it for two years. 

It would smell like nitro and when I started winning everybody started saying I was running nitro.

He was right down the street from Francisco Fuels and that’s where he got all of his fuel. It was greenish color. It was real good alcohol. High-quality and that’s all he ever ran. He would run castor oil in it too. It would smell like nitro and when I started winning everybody started saying I was running nitro. (laughs)

What was your day job while you were racing?
My dad had an auto glass business, and when I wasn’t racing, I’d go help him. I learned how to put glass in cars by accident. [The business] was in South L.A., not too far from Ascot. On Saturdays, I’d tell everybody, “I just left my day job with a bulletproof vest on and now I’m coming to my night job with a crash helmet.” [laughs]. 

Sometimes the tracks sent out flyers to all the drivers to fill out: hometown, where you raced, and there was one line that said: driver accomplishment. So, I wrote down, “Put 12 windshields in one day!” This was after I was five-time champion. The announcers all liked that one. 

How would you describe your driving style?
When I was a rookie, I was starting on the inside second row in a heat race and they were lined up on the front straightaway and the guy who taught me, Hogle, came over and said, “Hey now, look, this guy in front you, he’s going to go in way too hard. He’s going to slide up and this guy on the outside is going to try and stay with him and they’re going to take each other out. So, you go in easy and drive underneath all of ’em.” The race starts and everybody did exactly what he said they were going to do. So, right then and there I thought, “There’s more to this than trying to go fast.” 

That’s how he ran, thinking ahead, knowing who he was driving with, their strengths and weaknesses. He drove with calculation and that’s how I drove: smooth. I left just that much room for error [showing a sliver of space between two fingers] which didn’t really hurt the speed but it kept me out of a lot of wrecks. 

And, your connection with Hogle kept growing.
Yeah, the first race on that new car was at Irwindale on pavement on a Sunday and they had a practice on Saturday. So, I was out there practicing and Hogle was there and he comes over and says, “You’re the kind of guy I like to beat: brand new car, engine, you’re wearing the tires out and you don’t even know what you’re doing.” So, I said, “OK, then, tell me what to do.” He probably thought I was going to get mad, or something. “Show me how to do it.” 

So, he said, “OK” and showed me different lines and make an adjustment and go back out. So, that whole afternoon we were doing that. So, the next day was the race and I qualified pretty good and in those days, the fast guys started in the back. I was probably back in the eighth or ninth row and he was up in the front because I think he took it a little easy qualifying. He’d say, “I’m too old to start in the back.” So, the race started and I’m just hanging on and the car is just leaping by cars and pretty soon I’m up to third and there’s Hogle right in front of me. He’s driving No. 1 and that number just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I started laughing to myself; he told me all of these things to do and now I’m going to go right by him. 

So, I went flying by him and l looked over at him as I was going by and it looked like he was on a Sunday drive. His buddy, Bob McCoy, was leading. So, I think he was saying, “I’ll just let McCoy win this one.”

Oskie racing with Hogle in the Tamale Wagon. (Oskie archive)

Oskie racing with Hogle in the Tamale Wagon. (Oskie archive)

So, I go by him but on the next straightaway, he goes back by me but he’s up on the wheel. I knew he was saying, “I’m not going to let this kid beat me after everything I told him.” I ran third and from then on, I just pitted next to him. He was driving the “Tamale Wagon” that Roger McCluskey built in ’57. In those days you used to run the same car for years. 

I know you have some stories about Hogle.
He used to carry umbrellas in his trunk; he’d get ’em at the Goodwill for a $1. He had cards printed up with his name and number on ’em. And he’d say, “This is the perfect place [Southern California] to do this because it doesn’t rain that much.” So, he’d see a girl walking down the street with no umbrella and he’d pull over and give her an umbrella and say, “I didn’t want to see you get wet. Return it whenever you get time.” And he’d take off. He met a lot of girls that way. He’d change clothes like six times a day. He said, “You never know who you’re going to meet.” He wanted to look nice. He didn’t run in a uniform. They didn’t make you run with a uniform in the late ’60s and the Tamale Wagon didn’t blow oil; it was an Offy. So, he’d wear suede shoes and slacks and a nice dress shirt because he wanted to look good for the trophy girl. He knew he was going to win anyways. 

I told him at the banquet after I won the first championship [in ’69], I said, “I want to thank Hogle; he taught me a lot and some of it was even about racing. (laughs) 

Today, he’s like 85-86, still the same, hasn’t changed at all. He lives in the high desert, near Victorville. He married Mike Sweeney’s mom, Sally. You know, Mike’s dad, Max, died in a midget back in the late ’70s [at Ascot]. He’s been with her for a long time. He’s lucky because she takes care of him. I talk to him about once a month. 

How do you remember Ascot? It’s such an iconic place.
There would be 50-60 cars there every night. You really had to be on top of things to make the feature. The crowds were packed every Saturday. It was a big happening. It was right near the beach. The moisture kept coming up so the surface of the track would change. It would look like it could dry out and the moisture would come up. Sometimes the fog would roll in a little bit. Sometimes it was wet-slick. Sometimes it was a little tacky. Sometimes the dew would settle on it and make it a little slippery. It was a unique way to drive because the turns were so sharp you would really have to pitch it sideways to go in. 

Gradually the cars started getting better. And, eventually the assembly line cars came along and the engine builders … in the late ’70s, early ’80s. 

A lot of famous names, too …
Yeah, from ’61 to ’62, USAC would come to town once a year. The Unsers, McCluskey, Foyt, Bettenhausen, all those guys would race there. 

Paul Newman wanted to come out and learn how to drive a sprint car.

Bettenhausen was a piece of work, too. I ran with him in USAC and got to know him real good. He’d tell me these stories when he was in the hospital and he’d get together with the nurses. His wife would come in and the nurse just left — close calls. He was always pretty serious; one time he said, “I feel sorry for drivers today because the cars are so safe, a lot of them are going to miss a trip to the hospital. They’re going to miss getting in bed with a nurse. They’re going to miss all that.” (laughs) He was serious, too. 

Ascot had a Hollywood connection with the Agajanian family. 
It was famous worldwide. Gene Hackman would come about once a month. I made friends with him. And when I was driving for Agajanian in the mid-’80s, Paul Newman wanted to come out and learn how to drive a sprint car. So, he came out on a Wednesday. There wasn’t too many people there and we had two cars and I showed him how to drive sprint cars. We spent the whole night. 

He was down to earth. One of the cars was pretty quick and there was another car that was a little slower and a lot easier to drive. He got in the A car first and he was having all kinds of trouble. So, I had him get in the other car and he liked that a lot better. It was more stable. But he was going pretty good; it didn’t take him long. 

Baseball players would come out. I always liked baseball, so, I always had a mitt and ball in my helmet bag. My dad never liked baseball. He said it was too slow. In the ’70s I’d go to the Dodgers games. 

You did some traveling worldwide while you were racing.
Right. I went to South Africa to race twice in the early ’70s from January to April. I went by myself the first year, and the second year Hogle went with me. We ran with a team. It was sprint car racing but they had trouble getting parts. So, the cars were a little inferior. The tracks were just little quarter- or fifth-mile pavement. I went over there for the experience of traveling to another country. I stayed with a family, walked the dog, took the trash out and just lived like they did. 

You always raced without a wing …
Yeah; we never raced wings. When I was driving that modified there were some open races at Ascot [in the early ’60s] and a friend of mine, he was a fabricator, he said. “I’ll build a wing from aluminum …” We put it on and it was fast. It was a lot easier [to drive]. But I kept thinking I was ruining myself for non-wing cars. I’d get back in the non-wing car and think, “There must be something wrong; it’s not getting ahold of nothing.” So, I thought, “I better not drive those cars with a wing because I’ll get too used to it.”

That was before the Outlaws and all that. Before cages there was no wings because there was nothing to put them on.

You were never hurt during your career?
No. Just bounced around a little bit. I made a few trips to the hospital. No broken bones or nothing. A few little burns and stuff. In the early days, those cars all blew a little bit of oil and water, so … the drivers all had burns on their feet and stuff. The oil tanks were right under the seat. 


Do you have a favorite win from your career?
It seems like they were all good. But I won at El Centro [February 22, 1969], it was a hole-y track. That car that Hank built got through those holes really good. 

I’d been going there ever since I was a kid. I’d run to all the wrecks and I remember one time, this guy went through the hay bales, through the trees and I remember watching him walk back across the track and I kinda fell in about five feet behind him, just walking. And, I looked and he had branches stuck in his jacket from where he went through the trees. I was just taken away by that whole atmosphere at El Centro. There was a fair going on. … The track was so bad, they only ran 20-lap features. I thought, it would be great to race here, let alone ever win there. 

That [night that I won] felt exciting. It felt like I did something. Having known all the guys that had run there and won in years past — and then I was part of the winners. I always remember that. 

You won your second title in ’74 …
I was driving for Don Blair. The good thing about him was he’d had a car for 30 years and he’d never won the championship and it felt good to be a part of that. It was the same for the JFK team. [Jack Kindoll] had never won the championship in 30-some years. I had a good combination with both of ’em. 

I had this point lead and I didn’t even want to be part of it.

But the year before [in ’73], I didn’t want to run for points because I didn’t want to have all the stress to make every race. You have to drive differently when you’re running for points. You can’t go for wins; you have to make sure you finish. So, I said to myself, “I just want to relax, have a good time, I’m just going to drive different cars and car hop around.” But I kept finishing second in every car I drove. I hardly ever won; I kept finishing second. So, I had this point lead and I didn’t even want to be part of it. That was the year [Don] Hamilton won [the championship]. So, me and Hamilton, we’re really good friends, each race we’d swap the lead. It came down to the last race and my car broke something and he won the championship. 

I remember sitting there in a pile of dirt watching the race. I was really down because I’d lost the championship but then the next year, little did I know, I was going to drive for Blair and win everything. And that showed me that you can be really down in life and you never know what’s on the horizon. Another one of those things that racing has taught me. 

Oskie at the wheel of the Jack Kindle sprint. (Oskie archive)

Oskie at the wheel of the Jack Kindle sprint. (Oskie archive)

You started driving for Jack Kindoll in ’76. 
I didn’t have a car to drive at the start of the year. Clark Templeman was their driver and he decided to go to USAC, so that car became open. So Jack called me and said, “You wanna drive this thing? I don’t know if it’s that good or what.” He was talking it down but it was almost a brand new car from the east. So, I was talking myself down, “Well, I don’t know, I haven’t won a race in a while. Are you sure you want me to drive?” That’s how the whole conversation went. So, the first race was in Chula Vista and I won. First time out. And the next night was Ascot, and I run second. And the next week was at Ascot and I won that. So, I won the first two out of three. 

So, then after a few months, I learned that we were both born on the same day. Aquarius. So, our whole attitude about racing was the same: Just do as good as you can, don’t get hurt, or anything, just whatever feels good. A lot of the other guys that I’d drive for they wanted you to drive hard and win. It was pressure. 

It seems like that was the beginning of the pinnacle of your career; everything was coming together.
Right. And, they brought food, too. I always liked driving for people who brought food.

Of those five titles, does one stand out more than the others?
Well, the first one was exciting because I didn’t know I could win. But they were all exciting in their own way. 

The Blair one [in ’74] was kinda by accident because I didn’t have a car to drive until they asked me around April and the races were already going on. 

The first one with JFK [in ’76], I didn’t know what was going to happen. The fourth one [in ’77] was right at my prime so, I won most of the races that year.

(Oskie archive)

(Oskie archive)

The last one [’79], at about mid-season, the Maxwell car was getting kinda older and heavier and the Stanton cars were coming out and they were lighter. JFK was a dealer for Stanton. One night [at Ascot] Dean [Thompson] blew an engine in front of me and I went over his right front wheel and went through the billboards and landed on a motorhome. Dean said it looked like a rocket ship taking off. I went over his wheel and went up in the air. 

After that car got wrecked, they brought the Stanton out. It was lighter, faster and, I think, at one point, I won five out of six. That was the last championship. And, that was because I went through the billboards and landed on the motorhome. It was kinda like a circus. Even the guy whose motorhome I landed on was happy because he was part of the whole show. I thought he was going to be mad at me. [laughs] 

You seem to enjoy the emotional aspect of racing as much as anything. Especially now that you’ve had time to reflect.
Yeah, I was brought up with not a lot of emotion. So, when I first started racing, it went without saying, that you don’t get close to drivers, because they’re not going to be here very long. So, almost all of the drivers were pretty emotionless. Even at home, I talked to a lot of their kids, they said their fathers showed no emotions. That was from racing. 

So, I felt all of these things I’d never felt before. I was trying to shut them out. Eventually I started letting ’em in and letting ’em out. It was a long process, but in the end I looked forward to experiencing things. And I took that into life, too. It’s one of the things that racing did for me is let me see the world in a different way, a more positive way. I still go to the races because I want to give back as much as I can. 

How do you give back?
Well, I talk to the rookies a lot, just hang around with them. They like me being there. When they have frustration, they know I’ve been through everything, and I know what they’re going through. I get the feeling when I go to somebody’s pit that they all kinda smile and feel relaxed. I don’t know if it’s my imagination or not. [laughs]

Who have you had your eye on lately?
Matt McCarthy. I talk to him a lot. He likes to listen to things. He doesn’t think that he knows everything. He tells me about his ups and downs. I’m not racing with him, so, he’s comfortable talking with me. 

When Jake Swanson first got there, seven, eight years ago, he was driving a car that was kinda underpowered but I could see the way, his lines, and how he came off the turns, nice and straight. I talked to him a lot. I told him, “If he ever got in a good car, he had potential.” He’s turned out pretty good. 

You raced with some of the next generation of drivers as they were coming up like Sammy Swindell, Shane Carson … 
He [Swindell] was one of the guys that they talked about. He was fast, even then. Yeah, around ’77, ’78 he’d come out and race with us. He wasn’t even old enough to get into bars and we used to take him and go. He was always quiet


There was Shane. I would talk to him when he’d come out here. Aggie would bring him out sometimes to run his car. We’re good friends. I always liked his personality. I went to the Chili Bowl for the first time in about ’05 and Shane was there. So, I met up with him and after I got back home, he started calling me and we were talking. We’ve traveled cross country together and hit all the hamburger joints and stuff. 

When you retired in 1990, you felt like you’d done all that you needed to. You were burned out.
Yeah, I’d gone to USAC to run [in the Midwest], like you were supposed to do in those days. I stayed there for two years. I didn’t do that good, so, I thought, I’ll go back and run CRA and be by the beach and everything. 

I guess I didn’t really have that burning desire to run at Indy. I wanted to see how far I could go. When I retired, I was mid-40s. They’d closed Ascot and I didn’t want to do any traveling and it was six years before they got Perris in ’96. 

What other things besides dancing were you interested in while you were racing and after you retired?
I started scuba diving. I traveled around the world. I kinda followed the equator: Tahiti, Jamaica twice, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cozumel … I even went to Australia and dove on the Great Barrier Reef. I did that for about 10 years. 

Other things, too. I went to a different world from racing: plays, concerts, ballets. I wanted to see how everybody else lived. I always wondered what other people do on a Saturday night. I was always at the race track. So, I wanted to expand my horizons. 

But with racing, during the week, except for the friends I had, I didn’t eat, sleep and think racing. When the races were over on the weekend, I didn’t have pictures or trophies in my house. If somebody came over, they wouldn’t even know that I raced. I didn’t want to see it. I just wanted to wait until I got there and give it everything that I had. 

A car owner told me once: “All I want from you — all evening — is six and a half minutes — which is the time it took to run a feature non stop — of everything you have mentally and physically. 

Before that, after races, if I didn’t do good, I’d always criticize myself and surround myself with more negativity. But after he told me that, I started thinking, processing, and I started thinking there’s nothing more that I can do. I just gave it my best. If there’s nothing more that I can do, so, however it turns out, I’m going to be OK with it. So, after I got that attitude, I was straddled by positive and I took that into life, too. 

I think the best part now is people come up to me and say, “I used to watch you guys race when I was 12 and it was the most exciting time in my life. It made my life better.” I never knew that was going to happen. 

Every time I go to Tulsa [for Chili Bowl], or somewhere, I must get 20 people in that whole week, come up and tell me that. It’s a great inner feeling that we’ve made the world a better place. And, I like coming here to Calistoga. I like listening to people talk. I absorb it a lot more. I never had the time when I was racing. 

I know you’re a big fan of the original Twilight Zone. Are you still watching?
Yeah, that was probably the third thing that I learned the most about life through. It deals with the human condition, second chances, loneliness, regular people caught up in irregular circumstances. The outcome is different for everyone who watches. It’s not cut and dried. It’s just how it applies to each person and what they learn from it. 

It sounds like Rod Serling should have met you at some point.
Well, one of the high points of my life was meeting one of the writers for the Twilight Zone. There was a photographer who introduced me to George Clayton Johnson, who was his friend. He was swept away that I knew all the narration and characters.

Do you have a favorite episode?
There’s just a bunch of ’em. In their own way, they’re great. There’s one called “The Lonely,” it starts with a scene looking out over the desert, mountains and rocks and Rod Serling’s narration: “Witness, if you will …” (Jimmy recites the entire episode-opening narration). There’s “Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”

I didn’t start watching ’em until the late ‘70s. I didn’t watch ’em as a kid. I probably wouldn’t have understood ’em. 

Do you still own the sprint car that Hank built?
Yeah, it’s in a museum [Woodland Auto Display in Paso Robles]. It’s an original car. I never wrecked it, never turned it over. It just sat in my garage all those years. The side nerf bars were replaced. It’s got the original grille and front bumper. It looks like it just came off the track. It probably has some Ascot dirt on the belly pan. 

What’s a regular day like for you when you’re home?
Well, I never had kids of my own because I wasn’t married that long. But the last girl I was married to, we stayed really good friends and they live down the street from me. She remarried and me and him get along really good. They have a kid and they made me his uncle. He’s 14 now. And we play baseball and he’s pretty good; he’s a good athlete. 

I live in a 100-year-old house. I bought it about 30 years ago, it’s a Craftsman house. So, there’s always something to do there. Sometimes I’ll just take off and go to the desert or mountains or beach. Places I’ve read about and never had a chance to go. 

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