Q & A: Jimmy Sills
National Sprint Car Hall of Fame racer remembers thrill and heartbreak from his open-wheel racing career
Interview + Portraits: Saroyan Humphrey
Feature | Dust flies as three-time USAC Silver Crown champ Jimmy Sills, 65, motors his hard-working ATV across the driveway to his northern Sacramento County house and points toward the horizon. “We were rice farmers,” Sills says of his mother and father, Marilyn and Jimmy Sills, Sr. “They had 900 acres. They moved here in about 1949 or ’48 and I grew up here with four sisters. It’s been divided up and sold since.”
Sills still has plenty of elbow room as he owns a sizable portion of the land. Across the property, since retiring from driving in 2006, the racer has built a private three-quarter-mile, winding motocross track that features a 56-foot jump, a twisting, flat road course for go karts and, like a miniature West Capital Raceway, a dirt oval is carved into the backyard. A water truck stands by, ready for track prep. Sills keeps an open invitation to his closest friends and fellow racers to come by and kick up the dirt at his homegrown motorsports complex. The retired racer also keeps an array of motocross bikes and karts and works on modifying his fleet from his two-car garage. “These are my toys,” he says with a grin.
Sills’ father, a Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) midget racer, passed away at 30 from cancer when young Sills was just 3. Marilyn later married hometown super modified and stock car racer Richard “Dick” Johnson, who would eventually move the family to North Carolina to further pursue a career as an independent NASCAR Grand National driver in the late 1960s. Johnson’s best finish was a sixth at Darlington, S.C., in May 1969. After finishing high school, the teenaged Sills moved back to California to start his journey as an open-wheel racer.
Short stories turn into longer ones as the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame racer remembers the thrill and heartbreak of his racing career. Known as “professor” for his racing wisdom and versatility as a driver, Sills was victorious in Silver Crown cars, midgets, sprint cars and super modifieds. Driving for at least 67 different car owners, Sills competed on quarter-mile bullrings all the way to the one-milers, both dirt and paved.
Besides his three Silver Crown titles, a sampling of career highlights include all-time win leader at Fremont’s long-gone 0.3-mile Baylands Raceway Park with 43 main event victories; fourth in the 1986 World of Outlaw Series points; eight career WoO wins; 15 total USAC midget and sprint car victories; and 12 USAC Silver Crown wins: eighth on the all-time list. Sills also won the West’s prestigious Dirt Cup a list-topping six times.
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Do you remember going to the track with your dad when you were really young?
Sills: I don’t remember much about my dad, because I was just 3, just a couple things. But with my stepdad [Dick Johnson], we got to go to Roseville on Friday nights and I very seldom got to go to [West] Capital [Raceway] because that was my mom and [step] dad’s date night. So we always had to stay home. I got to go to all the open shows [at Capital] when they’d open the half-mile. Those were always the best shows anyway.
How long after they got married did you move to North Carolina?
Sills: They got married when I was 6 and we moved [to Arden, N.C.] when I was 15. I did the last three years of high school there and then wanted to start racing and wasn’t real enthused about racing a stock car, which is all they had there. Nobody even knew what a sprint car was [in North Carolina] and I didn’t really know enough people that were willing to let me drive. I had one ride in a street stock from a kid in high school. He’d built a really nice street stock, but he’d welded the gears in the rear end, so it was a full-locked rear end. It wasn’t a differential. It just pushed like hell. You couldn’t hardly get on the gas or it was going to hit the wall.
Where was the track?
Sills: That was at New Asheville Speedway and for a town with as much racing [history] as it has, they don’t even have a track there anymore. There used to be Asheville-Weaverville, which was just west of town, and NASCAR Cup used to run there once a year. It was a half-mile.
Did you travel with your stepdad to the Grand National races? Was he running the full schedule?
Sills: He pretty much ran the whole schedule. He’d start at Daytona in February, then Atlanta, Martinsville. … We did the Northern Tour, which I think started in Trenton, N.J., and went to Islip, N.Y., and that was a real tight race track. Then we went to Oxford, Maine; and we’d come back down to Fonda, N.Y., and it was a half-mile dirt. There were a couple of dirt tracks on the schedule then, Greenville-Pickens [S.C.] was dirt and Columbia [S.C.] was still dirt.
And your heart was in dirt racing?
Sills: Yeah, I liked dirt—and the open wheel stuff! They had the NASCAR Modifieds, but the only time I got to see them was when we’d go to Martinsville, and they’d run the Cardinal 500, which was 250 laps for Modifieds and 250 laps for Late Models. If I just wanted to see some open-wheel racing, that was pretty good [laughs]. I remember driving up there after I got my license in high school.
How did you keep your racing connections in California?
Sills: I graduated from high school, and me and my stepbrother rode motorcycles from Asheville to Sacramento and worked in the rice harvest. I was looking for something to drive, and Ed Watson wanted to do a two-car team in ’73. My mom actually put up some money. I think it was $3,000 and that was enough to finish the new car. So, when the season started, Larry Burton was in my car and he told Ed, “I don’t wanna drive that piece of shit anymore.” I remember hearing Ed on the phone with Larry and they were having an argument, yelling back and forth, and Larry came out and said, “Get ready, kid; you’re going to start your racing career tomorrow!”
Of course, I didn’t sleep at all that night and went and started racing at Capital. It was a good super modified. At first, I was just making laps.
That was your first time on a race track?
Sills: First time on any race track. Well, except for that street stock for a few laps [laughs]. I didn’t qualify good. I had to run the C main and got in a wreck in about four laps. It was just a big pileup in front of me. So, Ed started taking me to Vallejo on Friday nights, which was an easier track to drive. It wasn’t so hooked up; it had longer, flatter corners and it was easier to rotate the car. At Capital, it was so sticky you had to really be on the gas and get it rotated and back on the throttle. So then I started getting to make good laps, and I think in my fifth week I won my heat and they had a heat-winners dash and I won that. The next week, I qualified a little bit better and I started on the pole of the A [main] and won my first feature. So I thought, and so did everyone else, that I should win every race after that. But I ended up spending more time fixing my car because I was over-driving it and trying to win every week. Finally, I got settled down and learned how to do it.
How long did you race with Ed Watson?
Sills: A season and a half. We won the Dirt Cup with a super modified. Then it was a three-race series. It was Sky Valley, Skagit and Elma [Wash.]. A couple weeks later he wanted to put [Gary] Patterson in for the Jimmy Gordon Memorial. Well, I wanted to run the Jimmy Gordon Memorial. He was one of my heroes and my stepdad had raced with Jimmy. They were team members. They both drove Jack Gordon’s cars when Jimmy was just starting out. So, I said, “The hell with you; I’m going to find another ride.”
Well, Larry Burton was driving for Duwayne Starr at that time, and he’d about had enough of it and was ready to quit. I would go and talk to Duwayne all the time to just learn about racing and parts and stuff. I told him I needed a ride for the Jimmy Gordon, and he put me in his car and we actually got in a wreck caused by Patterson in Watson’s car [laughs]. He was on the front row of the heat and I was in, like, the third row and [Patterson’s] motor wouldn’t take off on the starts. It would fall on its face. He caused two false starts and I thought he was doing it because he wasn’t getting a jump. But then on the third one, I climbed somebody’s wheel and just about took the flag stand out.
But in Duwayne’s car we were good. We were a top-five car every night. I finally junked it, but the season was just about over. Then I drove Bob Davidson’s car a few times after that.
Your career got off to such a fast start and you were getting good rides right away.
Sills: Yeah; I didn’t have to own my own car, or drive my family’s car. There were enough race cars around that would hire drivers. I didn’t get paid. I was just doing it for experience. And then when I started driving for Bob Davis with his super modified, he wanted to go to Pennsylvania and race and I wanted to travel, too. So he got a sprint car and started traveling and racing. That was ’75.
You’re kind of a bridge between the older and younger generation of California sprint car drivers.
Sills: Yeah, I still know all of us guys that raced without wings. I never raced with an open-face helmet and I never raced without a cage. When I started, racing was starting to think about safety. You know Wally Baker; he used to race with my dad a lot. It’s fun to hear his stories. Brent Kaeding. Rick Hirst is a really good friend of mine. Even the people that you really had trouble with when you were racing back then, you know; we’re friends now.
You were known for finding the cushion and running the high groove. How did you learn that feel as a driver?
Sills: You had to learn how much angle to put in the car, and depending on how deep the cushion was, whether you slid up to it further in the corner, or get the right rear to it as you first started your turn.
And, I always felt like what Jack Hewitt says, “If you pass somebody on the bottom, it’s because they screwed up and they gave it to ya’. If you pass ’em on the top, you earned the pass.” And you did. You felt a lot better about the pass.
You seemed to have a natural feel for it.
And you drove for so many different car owners.
Sills: When I was running Silver Crown, I ran a lot of different cars because when I was back in the Midwest to run a Silver Crown race, there was always a sprint car race somewhere on Friday, or maybe Monday, you know, during that time. I had a good list of car owners and so, I’d call somebody up and I’d look at Speed Sport News and see where the sprint car races were and then try to call somebody and get a ride for that race. I got to drive a lot of good cars for a lot of good people.
It must’ve been a sign of your reputation for your adaptability and versatility.
Sills: Yeah; you know, I always admired Gary Patterson because he always had something to race. It didn’t matter what kind of car it was, he would have something to drive, whether it was dirt or pavement. He was always adaptable to any of the cars. He’d jump into a midget at Ascot and go win, or a sprint car on pavement. I always admired that about Gary … and we were good friends when he was alive.
What do you think of when you remember Gary?
Sills: He was quite a bit older than me. He was really a smart guy and I don’t think he gets credit for how smart he really was. Setups, engines, life, racing, track conditions: He had it all and that’s why he didn’t have any trouble finding a ride. We had a few adventures together. I spent some time with him in Australia. He and Larry Rice were running midgets and I was running sprint cars. He came and ran with the sprint cars one night and we were doing team match races [U.S. vs. Australia]. So it was me and Larry Burton and they had Willie Kay, who was actually from New Zealand and they passed him off as a Yank.
Patterson came and raced with us and we were at the Sydney Showgrounds. There were over 20,000 people there. They’re interviewing us and we’re standing there [on the front stretch] holding our American flag. I think it was Steve Frasier, Gary Rush, Bob Tunks and I think Gary Winterbottom, were the Australian team and they’re holding their Australian flag.
Patterson went over there, grabbed the flag out of their hands and went and made like he was wiping his ass with it and threw it on the race track. And, I thought, “Patterson, you son of a bitch, you’re gonna get us killed!” Beer cans came flying over the fences. But it was just part of his show.
He revved everybody up…
Sills: Yeah; nobody wanted to fight. There was one big, huge guy up there [in the grandstands] and he was raising a bunch of hell. Well, [Mike] Andreatta was going around to the speedway office and ran into that guy and he stopped and didn’t know what to do. So he stuck his hand out, to shake his hand, and said, “Just stirring up some Yankee shit, mate.” [laughs]
You raced a sprint car a few times on a mile.
Sills: I raced at Indianapolis [State Fairgrounds] and thought it was great. The first time I didn’t get to run much because we had some plastic wheels that were built by Marsh, and somebody told us we better not run those on a mile, and we had one aluminum wheel and something happened to it. The wheel failed, split through the center. So anyway, I only got to run part of a heat race but I thought it was pretty cool.
The next time I went there [Indianapolis] was with Larry McCarl in ’87 and the car was good. With a wing, you run wide open. You’re going about 170. I remember I started on the pole [in the main event] and I still wasn’t that comfortable. [Steve] Kinser was starting on the outside of me and his motor was loading up and with that gear, you really need your motor to take off because you’re going from like 40 mph with a gear that’s going to run 170. So it really takes off slow. And his was loading up. I thought, “Good, I might have a shot.” He was out there trying to get it to clear out, and in the first start, he jumped on it early and I just laid back and let it be a false start.
So, whenever somebody gets called for a false start, you know for the second one they’re going to really behave. So I chugged ’em down a little bit slower, because I knew that was going to make his bog a little more. I took off and sure enough they threw the green and I had the lead. I got to get out there by myself and really get used to the speed and I was starting to feel comfortable. It felt really good.
Well, the first lapped cars that I come to, there was three of ’em, and down the straightaway they spread out and they’re all racing and I knew they were going to tuck in behind each other and go to the bottom of the corner. I knew Steve or Sammy [Swindell] had to be right on my ass and I thought, “I’m not going to follow these guys [into the turn] and let them pass me.” So, I carried it in around the outside and left it wide open and went by ’em.
There was so much downforce going that fast that it didn’t matter if that track had any grip at all. With that wing, I just rolled right by all three of them—and Steve followed ’em in [on the inside]. So I had a half-straightaway lead. Well, then I had all the confidence in the world! Then, every car that I got to, they’d go to the bottom and I’d roll around the outside. I lapped up to sixth place that night. That was my favorite win.
How do you remember racing at Baylands? You won more races there than anyone.
Sills: It was a real fun race track. It always had a top groove. A lot of times it was a skimpy cushion, right up on the fence. The first time I raced there, I just fell in love with it. Lee Roy Van Conett won the very first race there in Bailey Brothers’ car [in 1981]. I came and ran the next race and won. I’d run the Lovell Brothers car, Marks/Kepler’s car and Bailey Brothers was the best one. Me and Sam [Bailey] had a good combination. He always hit the setup right.
What’s the difference between racing a Silver Crown car and a sprint car?
Sills: The Silver Crown cars are 10 inches longer in wheelbase, so they react a lot slower because of that. They’re heavier, because they’re a steel block; they’re 360 and they carry 75 gallons of fuel, so you can run 100 miles without a fuel stop. They run on pavement and dirt. Their heritage is from dirt. Back in the days when USAC was the Champ Cars [1956-1979] you ran dirt and pavement to win the championship. So the same guys that were at the Indianapolis 500 were running Silver Crown but they just called them Dirt Champ cars then. So that’s where they come from. The dirt mile is where they really got their start.
Do you remember your first time in a Silver Crown car?
Sills: The first Silver Crown car I drove belonged to a guy named Kenny Jarrett [May 1989]. Steve Butler was driving his car and Steve was getting a shot at the Indy 500. Kenny says, “Hey, will you come run my car at Indy Fairgrounds?” I go, “Oh, yes; I’d love to.” So I went and stayed at Kenny’s house. We get there and we hot lap and you get to hot lap for an hour. Man, I was out there, having a blast. I’m out there running in the shit and passing these guys. You know, they’re all following each other on the bottom. Once you start racing, that’s where you gotta be, but in hot laps it was kinda wet and slick down there and you could pass ’em on the outside. The thing that I didn’t know at the time was while you’re passing all those guys, they’re throwing all that roost and it’s covering up the radiator. I pulled in and the thing is tea-kettling and the temperature gauge is pegged. I went, “Oh, shit; I hope I didn’t hurt something.”
So that night, I drew the front of the heat race and Johnny Parsons was starting on the outside of me and [Gary] Bettenhausen was in there somewhere, too, and I thought, “Oh, man, this is cool—Indy 500 guys right next to me!” Man, I really wanted to beat them down to the first turn and win that heat. Well, it had torched the head, so it wouldn’t hardly run. I was done but that was when I knew I really wanted to do that [race Silver Crown cars].
You were supposed to retire at the end of the 1988 season. What made you come to that decision?
Sills: I’d gotten a divorce. I was at Eldora [Ohio] the night [July 23, 1988] that Brad Doty got hurt, and the night before I’d had a wreck. I was passing Joe Gaerte around the outside and he came out and pinched me into the wall. The front end folded up and I slid to a stop in turn one. Eldora, because it’s so high-banked, it’s hard to see down the track. To look down the track, you gotta look down from the top left side of the cage. You’re going so fast, you’re covering a lot of ground and I got hit. Rocky Hodges hit me in the side. It knocked me out. I had a concussion. The first thing I remember when I woke up at the hospital was the doctor telling me that they did a CT scan and I had no fractures or anything. But I had a concussion. He says he’s going to let me go back to the track. He says, “And your girlfriend is here to give you a ride.” And I says, “Oh, I have a girlfriend?” He says, “Yeah; she’s right here.” [laughs] I didn’t at first know who she was. That’s how dinged my head was. But then she spoke and I remembered who she was.
So the next morning, [Bob] Weikert calls me up and says, “How ya feeling, son?” I says, “I feel like I got a hangover.” He says, “The doctor said you should stay out of these things for a few weeks. We’re going to load up and head back to Pennsylvania.” I said, “We got a spare car and I feel like I’ve [just] got a hangover and I’ve raced with plenty of those.” He says, “OK, son.” So we drag the car out, cut the frame, because the frame was wrapped around the motor [from the crash] and put the motor in the other car.
We went out and I think we qualified sixth and Brad [Doty] was fifth, or vice versa. [Before the main event] they had everybody [drivers] lined up on the front straightaways, and somebody from Knoxville [Raceway] gave everybody a watch. It said “Knoxville Raceway” on it and I’m looking at it and Doty’s laughing. He yells, “Hey, Sills, are you confused on which track you’re at?” I says, “Says Knoxville right here on the watch. This must be the Nationals.” We just laughed.
When we pushed off, the oil light was on; we didn’t have good oil pressure. It had like 10 pounds of oil pressure. So I pulled in the pits and Davey Brown Sr. was my engine builder and he said, “Probably the bypass is stuck, or the spring broke. Go ahead and take the green; if the oil pressure comes up, go ahead and race it and if it doesn’t, bring it in.” Well, then I had to start in the back, which was probably good because we get the green flag, go into one and two and Jeff Swindell goes up and hits the wall and he came back down into the pack. I know there were three cars that were flipping. By the time I got to it I was clear down on the wall in the infield and barely slipped through. It was a huge, ugly crash. We finished the race and Richard Brown, who was working for [Gary] Stanton and Doty, came over. He was pretty upset. He goes, “Man, it’s bad; it’s really bad.” I went to the hospital the next morning on my way home to Pennsylvania and Brad’s wife was in there and he was out. His face was scratched up and swollen. So I asked, “How is he?” She said, “He’s paralyzed.”
That was hard to take. I went out [to Ohio] and saw him three weeks later, maybe longer, and he was in a convalescent hospital up by Cleveland. I’d gone out to run an All Star [Sprint Car Series] race. He was really depressed. He just wished he’d died in that wreck. It was really depressing. I finished the season and finally it was getting cold [in Pennsylvania]. I thought, “Well, I think I’m going to head home.” So I told Weikert, “I’m going to go back to California.” When I was on my way home, I stopped in Columbus, which was where Doty got moved to and he was with four other guys with similar injuries. They all had to use the restroom [on their own]. They had to get in and out of a car, had to get in and out of the bed and cook themselves a meal. He was behind them because he was still really depressed. Jac Haudenschild and Kenny Jacobs were there [for encouragement]. They were all good friends; they lived in Ohio, grew up racing each other.
So I came home to California, finished the year out with the Outlaws and decided I’d had enough. I ran 114 races, saw a good friend get paralyzed. Went through a divorce. I thought maybe I’d get a job.
But you couldn’t get out of racing completely.
Sills: I became a sales rep for Carrera Shocks. I wasn’t a very good salesman, because I didn’t want to sell something to someone that they didn’t need.
Finally, I was needing a paycheck and a guy called from Australia that I’d driven for [in the past] and asked if I wanted to run a couple of races. I says, “Yeah, but don’t tell anybody because I’m really retired.”
You’d made a formal announcement about your retirement.
Sills: When I retired, my last race was at Baylands. They made a nice plaque for me, so they made a big deal out of it. And I was serious; I was going to quit. So, I snuck down to Australia and another guy called me up that owned a midget and asked if I wanted to run it at Chico. I said, “God, yeah; that sounds like fun. But don’t tell anybody that I’m driving.” That’s when I raced as “Luke Warmwater” for five races.
What was your inspiration to come back?
Sills: I had chased the World of Outlaws and winged sprint cars. I thought, “I’ll do something different.” I drove a Silver Crown race at Sacramento [June 4, 1989] for a guy from Sacramento, Tex Countryman. We would’ve won but we had a right front brake lock up. We spent about three laps in the pits, pulling the brake off and running with three-wheel brakes. I went out there and passed everybody on the race track, including George Snyder who won the race. But I knew then, this is the kind of car that I want to drive.
And you won three Silver Crown championships. Looking back, how proud are you of that accomplishment?
Sills: Yeah, it was pretty big deal. There were a lot of cars. I remember when you went to the Indy fairgrounds there would be 60 cars there and they would start 26 to 28 cars [in the main event]. So there were a lot of cars that went home. It was really competitive; a lot of good guys, a lot of guys that were in NASCAR were running.
Did you have a favorite year driving Silver Crown?
Sills: Probably the last year , with [Gary] Stanton was probably the best year. We had Mopar and they were running really good. We had our pavement program straightened out. When we first started, we’d run the same car on dirt and pavement and we were racing against a lot of cars that had special pavement cars, so we were getting beat. So he built a pavement car and I got it on the pole at Phoenix but had motor troubles. We won at Richmond with it. We were pretty strong everywhere.
And you won two championships with Gary Stanton.
Sills: Two [’94, ’96] with him and the first one was with Bob Consani [’90]. Stanton was originally from Phoenix. He sold his [race car chassis] business to Harold Annett. Harold’s son [Michael] races NASCAR Cup cars now. He [Harold Annett] took it over and operated it as Challenger Chassis Company. Gary took the money [from the sale] and ran with the World of Outlaws for a few years. Doug Wolfgang drove for him a lot. He [Stanton] did really well. Then Stanton decided he was going to move to Kentucky, found a place near Lexington and started an engine shop and he’s done very well. He’s got a midget engine that’s really fast. It’s called an SR-11 and I think he gets 50-grand for a motor with four cylinders. [laughs]
Tell me about Jimmy Sills Racing School at Marysville Raceway.
Sills: I quit that about five years ago. I ran it for close to 18 years. I was still racing when I opened it. It was a lot of work. Every time you’d do a school, it took three days: a day of prep, a day of school and then a day of cleanup and maintenance, and I was racing every weekend, too.
Was it hard to make the adjustment from driver to teacher, to think about things differently?
Sills: It was. I got to thinking, “I’m not going to drive these things my whole life, so it might be a good way to go.” Then every time I’d go to a race track, I’d think to myself, “How do I explain this?” There’s just so many things that you naturally do, you don’t even think about ’em and then you gotta try to explain to somebody what you did and why you did it and how you feel the car. So, while I was driving, we’d get a yellow, and I’d think to myself, “Now, how would I explain something that just happened?” [laughs]
It seems like you enjoyed it. Who were some of the drivers that you worked with?
Sills: Kasey Kahne, Justin Grant, who just won the Oval Nationals [at Perris, CA], Ed Carpenter. I really enjoyed it when the serious racers were there. We would do classroom and talk about track conditions, track setup, and what the car did in each part of the corner. We’d divide the corner into thirds and talk about when you first turn in and how it affects the left front. It’s going to dive down and free up the right rear or tighten up the right rear. Then go out and put everything into practice. I’d prep the race track, too. So I would dig the top of the track, kinda like how I do the go-kart track, and really water it heavy and keep everybody off of it so that later in the night, it would have a good cushion. So they’d learn to run all different grooves.
There was a kid from Louisiana. His car owner sent him out because he wanted him to learn how to run the cushion better. So we got him running the cushion and he went home and won the first night back. A couple weeks later, he says, “Hey, he’s going to send me back out. He wants me to work on the bottom of the race track.” So he came out and we made him run the bottom the whole night. I don’t remember his name. It’s been quite a while ago. So many people have gone through there.
You’ve mentored drivers; is that something that you still do?
Sills: I don’t do it anymore. I quit going to the races much. I got married. I was single since ’86, and got married in ’06, and we’re both retired now and we do go to a lot of races but there’s just so much to do. You know, when you’re racing, especially for a living, that’s your whole life. So when I was done [driving], and done with the school, I knew it was time to do other things.
And the shock thing has changed. It’s changed most of it [setup]. I wasn’t around that; it kinda passed me up, so that’s why I don’t even go to help somebody.
When you were inducted to the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2006, what was that experience like?
Sills: It was the greatest experience. Your whole career has been justified. It was the coolest thing that could’ve happened.
You were still racing when you were inducted, I think, right? That’s unusual.
Sills: Well, I was jumping in a car every once in a while, but I don’t think they knew that. [laughs]