Thursday, February 25, 2010

We'll Have Diamonds As Big As Horse Turds

The full quote was "Stick with me, kid, and we'll have diamonds as big as horse turds." J.C. Elder, better known in NASCAR circles as Suitcase Jake Elder, said that to a young Dale Earnhardt Sr. after coaching Dale to his first win. But, he was Suitcase Jake - he didn't stick with Dale.
Elder, one of the most successful crew chiefs in the history of NASCAR, died Wednesday. He was 73 years old and had been in failing health since suffering a stroke in 2006.

Elder was the top wrench for driver David Pearson when Pearson won Sprint Cup championships in 1968 and ’69. Over a career that began in the late 1950s and stretched over the next 40-plus years, Elder worked either as a crew chief or leading mechanic for some of racing’s best drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Fred Lorenzen and Benny Parsons. He attended public schools for only three years, but he might have been the best “shade-tree” mechanic ever in NASCAR racing.

During Elder’s crew-chief years, the job was more about preparing the car and less about organizing and scheduling, as is the case today. Elder’s main task was to produce durable, winning race cars.

Rusty Wallace remembers:
Jake was old-old school. He worked for soooo many teams. But he was the guy you would call when you needed some help. If your old car wasn't running right, and you were confused, you'd want to call Jake and say, ‘Hey, can you come bail me out?' And he could help you fix it. I called him once, when my car wasn't running right, and asked, ‘Jake, can you come over and crew chief this car for me?' And he said, ‘All right, just one race.' And he came over with his tool box -- which was filled with so much doggone prehistoric stuff that it was unreal. He had the string out, and the levels, and said, ‘You do this and this.…' And I took it to Charlotte and had my best run ever."
J.C. Elder was a standout of a character in the early rough and tumble days of NASCAR, when characters were legion and the cars were essentially stock. He worked with many teams and drivers, notably Holman Moody with David Pearson and even Mario Andretti in his 1967 Daytona 500 win. Darrel Waltrip, Benny Parsons, Buddy Baker and Terry Labonte are also on the list. Writer and broadcaster Steve Waid:
"Perhaps there was not a more truly gifted shade tree mechanic in stock-car racing, one who succeeded without formal education. Elder never got past the third grade and could neither read nor write."

"And perhaps there was never a keener observer and nurturer of raw talent."

A bit of a far cry from today's crews, where engineers are hired just for shock absorbers.
“He could hook up whatever horsepower they had to a chassis and make it work,” said long-time NASCAR broadcaster Barney Hall. “He knew what made the cars work underneath. Teams would see him coming down pit road and let the jacks down on their cars because they knew he could take a glance at the springs and know what they had.

“And he was a man of few words. I remember several radio interviews with him after his car fell out of a race. Somebody would ask him what happened, and he’d say, ‘Blowed up,’ and walk off.”

"They" don't make 'em like Suitcase Jake anymore - and if they do, they can't get a job in today's NASCAR.


drjim said...

Once in a while somebody with so much natural talent comes along, and just flat amazes everybody else. Smokey Yunick was another one. Chuck Yeager had that talent, but in a different area.

Lisa Paul said...

What a great character story. Thanks for highlighting it.

And I must find a way to quote that line. Every day.