Vintage News

3/28/2014 - Corvette Racing Legend Jim Jeffords Passes Away

Palm Springs, CA -- Jim Jeffords, 87, one of the all-time great Corvette racers, passed away March 6 at his winter home here, just weeks after the death of Ronnie Kaplan, who helped build the Purple People Eater Corvettes that made the two men fixtures of the American road racing scene.

Right: Jim Jeffords. (photo by Art Evans)

Jeffords started his racing career in a Jaguar XK120, followed by an XK140 and a Mercedes Gullwing 300SL.
But it was in May, 1956, that the Jeffords tale truly begins. Jeffords met GM's Ed Cole and said he had heard Chevrolet was forming a Corvette race team. "How can I get on the team, Mr. Cole?" asked Jeffords. Cole suggested that Jeffords visit Dick Doane, a Chevrolet dealer from Dundee, Ill., and Cole promised Jeffords a production Corvette to race at Road America. But the promised Corvette did not materialize. Doane raced a Sebring Corvette at local hillclimbs, and Jeffords realized he had to prove that his driving talent earned him the right to drive Doane's Corvette.

A month later, on June 24, 1956 at the Road America June Sprints, Jeffords and his Jaguar XK140 raced against Dr. Dick Thompson, Fred Windridge, Bark Henry and Ed Davis, the top Corvette drivers of the day. Jeffords was leading the race with one lap to go when the engine popped a freeze plug, and the car limped home. Though his masterful drive had not ended in victory, the fans and Ed Cole mobbed Jeffords when he returned to the pits. As reward, Jim was given Dick Doane's blue 1956 Sebring-modified Corvette to race in other Midwest events that summer. Jeffords raced this Corvette in a couple of races during the balance of 1956, although he had it painted white with blue stripes, the American racing colors.

The next major step came in the spring of 1958, when Nickey Chevrolet of Chicago retained Jeffords to drive Corvettes and head up a race team. Jeffords was so confident of his ability he promised the owners that "if I do not bring you the championship, then I will pay you back all the expenses."

The Stephani brothers who owned Nickey Chevrolet agreed, and they hired Ronnie Kaplan as crew chief, who took over the maintenance and race prep of the SR-2, which Jeffords now owned and had already painted purple. In an early and successful melding of racing and pop culture, Jeffords had taken inspiration from the popular song "Purple People Eater" by Sheb Wooley. The Purple People Eater Corvettes were born.

In 1958 and '59, on his own and in partnership with Nickey Chevrolet, Jeffords entered 21 race weekends (a total of 42 races) with the famous 1958 and '59 Purple People Eater Corvettes at tracks across the country. The results speak for themselves: 29 first in class, with only three DNFs due to mechanical failures.

Jeffords was a phenomenon. In August 1958, Jeffords won B-Production races at two different SCCA Nationals on the same weekend. The first, in his native Milwaukee, was on a Saturday, as Jeffords drove his B-Production Nickey Corvette to victory. He then hopped on an airplane and flew to Montgomery, New York, where Nickey had another 1958 B-Production Corvette waiting for him. Without practice or qualifying time, Jeffords won his second National of the weekend. He did another double in July 1959, when he won both the B-Production race in the Corvette, and the feature race in the Scarab, at the SCCA National at Denver's Buckley Field airport course.

In 1958 Jeffords won the SCCA National B-Production Championship and earned 7000 points in the SCCA. Second place was Fred Windridge, with 4000. In 1959 the SCCA changed their point-scoring system. Jeffords won the SCCA B/P Championship for the second time, earning 76 points to Roy Tuerke's 54.

Over Labor Day weekend of 1958, Jeffords met Lance Reventlow at the hotel lobby next to Thompson Raceway in Connecticut. Their conversation over dinner changed Jeffords' motorsports career. On the Tuesday following the final race of the season in Riverside, California in November, Jeffords met Reventlow at the track and bought the #002 Scarab. Jim got Nickey Chevrolet to add the car to the stable, and dubbed it "Nickey Nouse."

On July 18-19, 1959, at Riverside's Kiwanis Grand Prix, Jeffords surprised the West Coast racers and brought out the '59 Corvette "Purple People Eater III" to defend his SCCA National '58 title. Bob Bondurant, Dean Geddes, Bill Gaskins and Paul Masse were listed in the top six Corvette finishers. West Coast sports car racing was independent of any national bodies like the SCCA, and the rules were different, allowing racers to use "retread tires," and that upset Jeffords and his crew chief, Ronnie Kaplan.

The race was shortened due to a bad crash, a yellow flag complicated matters, and it seemed that West had beaten East. Bondurant, driving his long-serving '57 Corvette, claimed victory. At the time, Bondurant was declared the winner. Nickey Chevrolet protested the race finish declared by the West Coast club. Only last year in October 2013 did Jeffords receive a copy of a letter from SCCA Chief John Bishop dated September 24, 1959 that granted Jeffords the victory. The letter had been lost for decades in a file at Nickey Chevrolet. The race photos and the event have been the subject of jokes at race reunion events for a half-century.

The 1959 season with the Scarab held mixed results, but two victories in the professional USAC events at Meadowdale near Chicago stand out. In one of the events, Jeffords 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. Jeffords won the three-heat USAC 505km race on Memorial Day weekend, then followed that with another win in the 444km USAC race on Independence Day weekend. The week following, Jeffords won the Denver SCCA National at Buckley Field in the Nickey Scarab.

In 1960 by special arrangement with Zora Duntov, Lucky Casner bought two heavy-duty #687 HD brake/suspension-optioned Corvettes from Don Allen Chevrolet in Miami. The two cars were campaigned under his Camoradi USA banner (CAsner MOtor RAcing DIvision).

The No. 4 car was assigned to its first race at the Grand Prix of Havana. On February 24, 1960, Jeffords drove it to a 1st-place finish in the GT race. On the following Sunday's Grand Prix of Cuba, he finished 1st again in GT class, and 8th overall. Jeffords drove his victory lap with Fidel Castro's son beside him holding the checkered flag. (Editor's note: You can read more about these races in the book "Caribbean Capers" by Joel E. Finn.)

In June of 1960, Jeffords again joined Casner and co-drove a Maserati Tipo 61 "Birdcage" at Le Mans. His only European experience was not a success thanks to an off-course excursion by Casner that loaded the gearbox with sand, a DNF in 40th position the final result.

Later that year, Casner sold Jeffords the streamlined Birdcage that Masten Gregory and Chuck Daigh had raced at Le Mans, and Jeffords raced it to victory at Road America in the USAC Road America 200, beating Jim Hall in the first professional sports car race ever at Road America. This streamlined car was much faster than the "Cage" Jeffords had driven at Le Mans.

Before the 1961 season, Jeffords was struck by a mysterious allergy that almost killed him. He was in intensive care for nine months. His driving career was over.

In 1968, Jim stepped away from his busy advertising business and briefly returned to the racing scene as manager of the AMC Javelin Trans-Am race cars. Kaplan was crew chief and Peter Revson and George Follmer were the drivers. This was the first year for Javelin in Trans-Am, and while they had no overall wins, Revson and Follmer combined to score six 2nd-place finishes.

Jeffords had served on the Board of Directors for Road America at Elkhart Lake since 1958.

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