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A Visit with James Close

A Visit with James Close
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A Visit with James Close
August 2, ‘09
Biography by James Close, editing by,Richard Parks
Photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz

This was a club motorcycle trip in the French Alps during the month of May of 2009. My wife Rachel and I currently have a 2006 Yamaha FJR1300 sport touring bike that I ride in France.

 

My grandparents on my father's side were British and immigrated to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia also prior to the First World War. My grandfather last name was Close and he was a coal miner. Grandmother Close was a school teacher. My grandfather was also into body building, and ran a gym in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. They had nine children; James, John (who died when still a baby), George, Sadie, Earl, Clarence, Ida and two more whom I have forgotten the names of. My father was James Close and he was born in February, 1917, in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. My grandparents on my mother's side were the Purdy's, from Ireland and Scotland. They immigrated to Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada before the First World War. The Purdy’s were farmers. They had three sons and three daughters; Vern, Carmon, John, my mother Verne and her two sisters, whom I can't remember their names. My mother was Verne Purdy and she was born in August 1916, in Amherst, Nova Scotia. James married Verne in her home town of Amherst. They had James, my brothers John and William, and my sister Mary. My brother John resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is a design draftsman. My other brother William has lived in various places in Canada and the United States and is an auto body repairman and brick layer. My sister Mary lives around the Toronto and Niagara Falls area of Ontario and is an office worker. My nephew Robert, John's son, died recently from cancer. My niece, Sheree, is Mary's daughter.

I was born James Close, in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada on September 20, 1942. I went to an elementary school in Truro, Nova Scotia, until the family moved away when I was seven years old. I transferred to Fairview Elementary School, in the town of Fairview, Nova Scotia and still remember some of my friends there; Jimmy Cunningham, Vernon Denty, Jimmy Kaiser and Billy McClain. I went to Armdale Junior High School, but at that school I don't remember any close friends as I was training every day for track and field events, as well as working every evening until 11 PM and every weekend in my father's auto body repair business. I did a lot of sanding and masking on the cars before they were painted. My first job working for a business other than my father's part-time auto body repair shop was at the age of 12, for the summer in a grocery store in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was pricing stocked items for the shelves, and packed groceries at the cash registers. When I was 14 I had a job during the summer months for an electronics company called EMI Cossar Electronics, in Halifax, working in the sheet metal shop. At EMI my job was to sand weld joints and punch holes in sheet metal panels. The next summer, when I was 15, I worked in a gas station, Hebb's ESSO, at Prince's Lodge, Nova Scotia. The owner's name was Fraser Hebb, and my job was pumping gas, changing oil, fixing flat tires and doing minor repair work. I was also into track and field, primarily a high jumper, from the age of 12 until I injured a knee at the age of 15. I was selected for Olympic training in Canada at the age of 15, but because of the knee injury, I quit the sport rather than go through surgery. Also at the age of 12, I started lifting weights, and subsequently, I have never really stopped working out. I still work out perhaps 4 to 5 hours a week. In Nova Scotia, it was difficult to do any real hot rodding, because there was no available hot rod parts, etc. When I was sixteen years old, I did shoe-horn an Olds engine into a 1956 Chevy, which I promptly blew-up. I went through 5 engines in the Chevy in 50,000 miles. (I was 16 years old then).

I went to Halifax West Municipal High School, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I also completed a four-year program at the Nova Scotia Institute of Technology in avionics technology. I took classes in wood working, and drafting in junior high, high school, and tech school. I married when I was very young to a Canadian woman that I met in high School. Her name was Nancy Lee Green and we were married on July 14, 1961. She was always very slender at that time and of average height. She was probably the easiest person I have ever known to get along with. Immediately after completing my education, my wife and I immigrated to the United States in 1965, with the hopes of getting involved in motor racing. I a got draft notice from the United States military system almost immediately upon arriving in the United States, but because my wife was pregnant at the time, they reclassified me and I didn't have to go into the military. Our daughter was born in 1966. We divorced, probably because I was never home as I was always away somewhere, either working or racing, and also she sat through and watched when I had my most severe racing accident at Ascot in 1971. After that, she didn't really want to go the track that much.

I met Jim Murphy as a result of my father going to work at a small machine shop where Jim Murphy was working at the time, and started hanging around Jim's place helping him build a sprint car. I also helped Jim start a speed shop at that time called Auto Racing Engineering, in Orange, California while I was working at All American Racers in South Santa Ana, California, owned by Dan Gurney and Carroll Shelby. Jim had a great shop there, with lots of machine-shop stuff, Heli-Arc and gas welding equipment, etc. Murphy is a master craftsman, fabricator, welder, machinist, and mechanic. He is "one in a thousand" related to quality of workmanship. I would trust Jim Murphy to build me a race car in a minute. You never have to worry about whether something was going to fall off the car, or whether something was going to break and cause you to have a serious accident. There are very few people like Jim Murphy. He is also a workaholic; he doesn't seem to know when to quit. Jim Murphy was the first person other than the staff at All American Racers that helped me learn something about racing. I took my father to All American Racers one evening when he first arrived in California to try to get him a job in the machine shop as a machinist, hoping that would be helpful for me to get started in a career as a race driver (which it didn't) and my father didn't get a job there, but I did as a designer.

The drafting classes were helpful in my being selected by Dan Gurney's All American Racers (AAR) to do some part-time design on his Formula 1 and Indy cars from the fall of 1966 until the fall of 1967. I was hired at AAR by Bill Fowler, who ran the machine shop and metal fabrication part of the business. My office was next to a large office shared by Dan Gurney and Max Mullman (Dan's PR person, who after leaving All American Racers went on to become the business manager of top athletes and/or race car drivers). There was an African American by the name of Hardy Allen (I think you may know him) who was responsible for the parts stock room. Another person that I knew at AAR was Wayne Leary (I think that was his name) and another we called Dean. Wayne and Dean did the final assembly of the Indy cars. I went to Willow Springs, California with them one time when AAR and Dan were testing a Ford powered Lola Can Am car there. Johnny Miller (a Hawaiian ex-motorcycle tuner) was running the engine shop at that time, and he used to spend hours porting and polishing heads and then flow testing them. There were evenings when I would finish up doing drawings for the day, and if Johnny was running an engine on the dyno, I would go over there and help him take readings off the various gauges during the dyno runs. One time we were running a Ford 4 cam Indy engine on the dyno, and Gurney went into the engine room part of the dyno facility, and was looking down the intake stacks of the fuel injection system with a flash light. Those engines had the intakes directly above the cylinders and the exhaust was in the valley of the engine where the intake manifold is located on normal V-8 engines. Dan was trying to see if he could see stuff working in there. I also got to spend a week with Gurney and a few of the race track crew at Riverside International Raceway doing Goodyear tire commercials. We spent the entire week there, running a Formula one car, as well as a Cougar provided by Ford Motor Company, with a film crew shooting literally thousands of feet of film. Some of the footage was on television in Goodyear commercials during that period of time (1967). I got to run some laps around the paved oval that was part of turn nine with the Formula 1 car.

At the time I was also going to the Jim Russell Race Drivers School out at Willow Springs. I never met Jim Russell, as I don't think he ever came over to the US, at least not while I was attending the school. He was British, and lived somewhere in the United Kingdom. There was a heavy set Scotsman running the school, and there was a skinny young British guy working on the cars. I don't remember their names. Willow Springs at that time was a pretty basic facility. There wasn't much there other than a fantastic road circuit that I very quickly became fond of. We were using Lotus Formula 3 cars at the school. Gurney's Eagle Formula 1 car seemed to me to be much easier to drive than the Lotus 31 Formula 3 cars; it was kind of like comparing a Mercedes to a Chevrolet. The Eagle Formula 1 was very smooth and predictable, where the Lotus Formula 3 was somewhat harsh and difficult to drive. Even though the Lotus was more difficult, I managed to set a Formula C track record at Willow Springs during my SCCA qualification race for my SCCA racing license with the Lotus Formula 3. This was even with the Formula C class running an 1100cc engine at that time and the Lotus Formula 3 had only 1000cc engines. After 8 days of in-car on-track classes using Lotus Formula C single-seater race cars, I was afforded the opportunity of using the school cars to get my SCCA racing license. I got my license with 50% of the normal SCCA required track time. I then started to buy and assemble a LeGrand Formula B car, but ran out of money. I then started going to TQ races, midget races and sprint car races, trying to get a ride in anything that I could, but with no luck. I was going to Ascot, Trojan Speedway, the old Irwindale paved track, the little El Toro dirt track, etc. I don't remember the names of any of the people that I was talking with then, but I do remember a few of the driver's names that were running at the time.

Eventually, in the winter of 1970/1971, I traded an old 1957 T-Bird that I had blown up the motor in for an old Curtis midget (ex-Al Hendrix car that he had run against sprint cars with a super charged Offy engine in the car) that was stretched out for a Chevy V-8 for sprint car racing. I installed a new crate Chevy 350 in the car, using the stock motor with Hilborn injectors and a mag. The car still had a midget front end, a midget in-out box, and a midget rear-end. When I finally figured out that I had to set the car up completely different than a real sprint car because the engine was really high in the chassis, I was able to qualify within a half second of fast time, but I could never get the car to live through a heat race because of the midget drive train. I sold that car a guy named John, can't remember his last name. Jerry Crowell, as well as Jim Murphy, helped me a bunch with my old stretched midget when I was running CRA. I ran a couple of races back east in New York and Pennsylvania in a super sprint wing car for a team that had no money and couldn't afford to run as hard as I was trying to go, thus that came to a very quick end. I ran a winged super sprint car for Jim Ruth from just north of Philadelphia, but he wasn't the same Jim Ruth who ran the CRA. Ruth had no money and couldn't afford to run as hard as I was trying to go, thus that came to a very quick end. I also ran a modified for Becker Tire at the old Reading Fairgrounds track in Reading, Pennsylvania. They were also under-funded, and I quit after one race. The week after I quit the ride, a young driver was almost killed in the same car in an incredible accident at the start of a race at the Reading Fairgrounds track. I ran a few CRA races at Ascot for Keith York from Reseda, California in 1975, but they also didn't have the money to provide good equipment, so I quit that team. Keith's son, a TQ driver, had been trying to run the car, but he was never able to make the show with it. The best I could do was sometimes make it through the consi (consolation round) to the semi, but the car was so bad that it was very frustrating. That was the end of my sprint car racing.

   I ran one CRA race at Ascot for Pop Miller around that same time (in 1975, I think), when Ronny Rey didn't show up that particular evening. Pop didn't put me in the car until after qualifying was finished, thus I had to start last in the consi, and I was able to get all the way up to second place, and lost second place on the last lap when I almost spun out and ended up third, just missing getting into the semi and that was the last of my sprint car racing. Pop Miller was an interesting guy and nearly everyone who ever drove a sprint car in CRA at that time drove for Pop at least once. When he was young enough to properly run a racing team and build great cars, it must have been really something to drive for him. The one race that I ran for him was a great experience. I told him after the race that the engine started to run a little hot during the race, and he told me to not be watching the gauges, but to concentrate on driving the car instead. He said that he would tape over the gauges if I kept watching them. Pop Millar became a friend, and I used to visit him whenever I could. I got to know a bunch of folks that were either involved with race teams and/or hung around the tracks from 1968 through 1975, including Ralph Foster. I used to drive Ralph to the tracks between 1968 and 1971, because a lot of the time he was in no condition to be driving and it afforded me the opportunity to try to get a ride. Ralph was a track photographer, and as far as I know, he never was a car owner. He was a race car driver back east prior to and just after the 2nd World War, and he showed me newspaper clippings that he kept that indicated that he was winning a lot of races, and track promoters offered other drivers extra money if they could beat Ralph. I used to go over to his house in Garden Grove, California and go through his scrap books and photographs. He was a very interesting character, who lived a lot longer than I ever thought he would. Jim Murphy put a Chevy V-8 engine into a small Hillman British car that Ralph had in the 1960's when Jim was running the speed shop. That was how I first met Ralph, and then we started going to tracks together where he was working as a photographer.

   I spoke to J.C. Agajanian once, at the Sacramento mile track, the day that Ronny Rey killed another driver that spun out in front of him going into the third turn. Walt Reath was also killed at that race, when he ran out onto the track to try to warn drivers (that had just finished the first lap of a race and were coming down the front straight away full throttle) that there was a bad accident in the first turn. There was also a driver killed in the accident in the first corner, which meant that three people died in one day. Ronny Rey was a very quick driver at times, but it seems that he could not be consistent. I never knew him as a person, but he went very fast at times. I had a real good race with him one evening at Ascot, when I was driving for Keith York. I still have a photograph at my home in France of the two of us side by side in the first and second turn of Ascot that night. I ran a Formula 2 car for Rogers/Murray Racing in a series for Formula Atlantic cars in Ontario, Canada, in 1978 and won several races and the season championship. The 1974 March that I ran was a very satisfying car to drive. It was very fast, but was not difficult to drive. I was always the fastest car at the tracks we ran, and when I didn't have some sort of problem, I won. We ran Mosport in Ontario, as well as Shannonville. Again, I couldn't afford a second season, thus I completely quit motor racing. I did run a few times in a Formula 3 Dallara for Prestige Formula Racing in France somewhere around 1990, but again, I was paying my own way and couldn't really afford to continue. Thus, race driving was finished for me. I ran at a small track in the northeast of France, just east of the Nancy/Metz area, as well as a really neat track in the northwest of France which was just southwest of Lille. This particular track was perfect for a Formula 3 car, and it was possible to really push hard in the car. Formula 3 cars don't have a lot of power (perhaps 180hp), but they are very light (perhaps 900lbs), thus they actually are pretty quick on the right kind of track, like the track southwest of Lille. I don't remember the names of any of the people, partly because I only ran a few times, and because French names are very difficult for me.

   I married my present wife as a result of accepting a work assignment in Europe in 1988. I rented an apartment on the same street and next door to where my future wife was working. We met around Christmas 1988, got married in 1993, and have been together ever since. My French wife never got to see me really racing cars, but she did get to see me run Formula 3 cars a few times in France. My careers are as complicated as my life generally. My education was in avionics, but I never worked with avionics after completing my education. I worked as an electronic engineering technician, as a race car designer, as a customer service engineer, as a tech specialist on several different sophisticated microfilming systems, as a car salesman and leasing agent, as computer service engineer, and ultimately my last position before retiring was with Toyota Financial Services in Torrance, California as a business systems analyst. I am currently retired from everything. I haven't raced in many years, and I retired from my last full time job in August of 2006. I currently spend a part of my time at my wife's home in the Dijon area of France, and I have a 40 foot turbo diesel pusher motor home in the United States that I use as my home there. I still am an avid motorcyclist, and I currently have a 2006 Yamaha FJR1300 sport touring bike that I ride in France. It is the closest thing in performance that I can afford that performs on a level that satisfies some of my racing feelings. I have one of the 6700 or so 1988 Pontiac Fiero GTs that was built that year. I now keep it in France, and I take it to several car shows a year. I have done so many things with the car that it would be difficult to list them all herein, but it is a real nice car. It corners probably better than most street cars, including Corvettes, but it doesn't have a lot of power. I have done a few things to enhance the power, but it is still under-powered. On the other hand, it is fun to drive on twisting roads, like in the mountains.

I have one of the 6700 or so 1988 Pontiac Fiero GTs that was built that year. I now keep it in France, and I take it to several car shows a year.

I'm in a Formula Atlantic in the Toyota museum in Torrance California (I won a championship in this class of race cars in Ontario Canada in 1978)