Car Community- Passion Handed Down
The Story of Jim Matthews
As the curator of an automotive museum I feel very lucky to interact with a wide variety of car people on a daily basis. I always love hearing how people become so passionate about the car hobby whether it be Hot Rods, early Miller Indy cars, Muscle Cars, Dirt Track Racers and everything else in between. In the beginning I was convinced that most people of my generation become interested in cars because they are guided to it by a family member. More recently however I have encountered a number of younger enthusiasts who have found passion for cars completely on their own. This gives me hope that car culture can remain strong despite the lure of modern technology’s distractions.
People commonly ask me where my passion comes from and how I acquired a job where my love for cars is aligned so perfectly with my daily work. The question causes me to spend more time thinking about my heroes and those who have fueled my love for cars.
I remember cars being an integral part of my life from as far back as I can remember. My father had been a circle track racer, restorer, and car freak since before I was born. I spent my formative years hanging out in junk yards, at car shows and swap meets, and my daycare was my Dad’s garage where he always had a car project in the works. I suppose a memoir of someone who fuels my automotive passion would start with my Dad as the obvious choice, but I would rather go further back in time to remember and document the person who started it all in my family - my great uncle Jim Matthews.
Jim, known in his time as “Jimmy” or “Big Heavy” was a hero in my family but also to many generations of racers and fans. He was a larger than life personality during a simpler time immersed in the golden age of dirt track racing. He began racing in 1953, about the same time Speedway Motors was founded.
I could go into great detail about Jim’s life but could never do his story justice here. A biography was written about him by historian Tom Savage that chronicles every twist and turn of his racing career. I will touch on Jim and what type of person he was and why he was such a huge influence in my family. To do so I must first set the stage.
My father Jeff was born in 1959 in Mitchell, South Dakota to a 15 year old mother. My father would never know the identity of his father and because his mom could not take care of him he was given to his grandmother Jenny just after his birth. As my dad grew up he was desperate for a male role model. His superhero materialized in the form of his grandma’s oldest son and his uncle, Jim Matthews, who had already become an accomplished and well known race car driver. Jim would consistently stop by to see his Mom Jenny and the new little nephew she was taking care of. Jim knew my Dad was dealt a tough hand so gave him much needed attention when he stopped by. He would drop off slot car tracks, car toys, and bicycles during Christmas and birthdays always treating him like gold. This is during a time when my Dad would describe carrying groceries home from the store with his grandma on foot (because they didn’t have a car), and he would see his birth mom drive right by. Jenny was caring but strict. Anytime my dad stepped out of line with his Grandma she would warn - “don’t make me call Jim!”
One constant in my Dad’s young life was that despite Jenny not having a car she would always find a way to make it to the track to cheer for Jim. He became my Dad’s ultimate role model.
Jim was a larger than life guy. By day he managed the Mitchell concrete plant. He was a gentle giant who transformed into his alter ego when he punched out and went to work building and racing cars. The racing historian Tom Savage described Jim best in first pages of his 1979 book titled “Jim”. Tom describes the first time he saw Jim near his 1937 Ford coupe dirt racer at the track.
My very first impression of the man was that he resembled the movie actor, Marlon Brando, in a scene from the movie ‘On The Waterfront.’ In that particular scene Brando had just survived a tough street brawl and appeared worn out, dirty and tougher than a bag of nails.
Jim was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. Both were grimy from racetrack dirt. The T-shirt was bulging at its seams from the powerfully built arms and chest. Except where the goggles had protected his eyes, his face was caked with dirt and sweat. Small trickles of sweat had drooped strands of hair across his forehead. His eyes were piercing and he wore a cocky grin on his face. In his right hand he grasped a cold can of beer. In that very moment he looked like he could have taken Brando in a back alley brawl. He looked like a mean, arrogant, selfish bully. He wasn’t.
Throughout his driving career we all found that Jim was none of those things. He was the opposite. He was a race driver who was thoughtful of his fellow competitors at all times. Jim was a loving sharing man who was humble in his victories and gracious in his losses. His accomplishments on the racing tracks are long and many. Jim won track championships, countless feature victories, and established records that will stand for many seasons. His single most important achievement however, is the rapport that he had with his fellow man.”
As I grew up stories of Jim and his racing adventures were always present in our home. My dad would tell of how he drove his ‘69 Chevelle on the rural gravel roads pretending to be Jim. “I would duck down into the ditch to take the inside line of a sharp corner….always wanting to be like him”. "He died when we started dating," my Mom would explain. "Jim was all your dad would talk about."
Dad talked about Jim’s car being known as “Blue Thunder,” proud to be powered by a Ford V8 even after everyone else had switched to Chevy. “I would get beat up at school when I proudly wore my blue oval Ford t-shirt in honor of Jim!” he would say.
Aside from being a locally famous race driver I could see why my dad saw parallels in comparing Jim’s life with his own. Jim had a tough childhood working on his uncle’s farm doing hard labor with his younger brother Joe. The toil resulted in both a strong will and strong body. Jim did not have a good relationship with his Dad and my father not knowing his could certainly relate. I know my father looked at Jim’s challenges and saw how he rose above them through his automotive endeavors. Through racing Jim was noticed and adored. Cars became a method of achieving a freedom and identity my Dad longed for. My dad fell in love with the car first for the hope and freedom it represented as he observed over and over with Jim’s racing. Jim’s love of racing and competition directly sparked the passion for my Dad which was certainly passed down to me.
Jim’s life would be cut short doing exactly what he loved. A year before I was born, on August 15th, 1976, his car went over the embankment at the Sioux Empire fairgrounds. While he had crashed cars numerous times he would not recover from his injuries.
I recently found one of Jim’s surviving race cars. It is one of his early cars, an old 1932 Ford sedan which sits outdoors next to a storage building. It still sports its deuce frame and all of the typical “trick” adaptations of a ‘50s dirt racer. The paint is faded but you can make out the #69 on the door. I immediately wanted to buy it so knocked on the owner’s door. The person who greeted me was an older gentleman who looked just like the early sixties radio DJ Wolfman Jack. I explained who I was and that I would love to buy the car. The fellow laughed and explained “That was Jimmy’s car!” “I remember watching Blue Thunder race every weekend - Jim was everywhere. I am going to restore that car someday…..I loved Jim!” The car still sits in the same place and with every season of rain, snow, and sun there is a little less of it remaining. It is very apparent that the memory of Jim is still very much alive in the areas where he raced. It makes me feel happy.
Doug Wolfgang recently visited the Museum and told stories about knowing and idolizing Jim.
“When I was a young boy growing up in Mitchell I would sneak into the cement plant weekly and talk to Jim about racing. I would ask how he did, what was changing with the car...I was just a punk kid. My family moved me to Sioux Falls so I couldn’t go and visit Jim like I had in the past. Later I saw him at the track when I first started racing. He came up to me and explained he missed me when I stopped coming by. He worried that he said something wrong or I didn’t care about racing anymore. I told him I was relocated when my parents moved but it was touching that he missed me. Later I beat him in a race. He walked up to me in the pits grabbed me by the shirt and lifted me off the ground with his arm straight out. He had super-human strength unlike anything I had ever seen. He ribbed me for beating him….I will never forget it.”
When I sit in my old 1940 Ford coupe I often think of Jim. He piloted so many cars just like mine sending each and every one to the iron pile after squeezing every last ounce of “go” out of them. I like imagining what I might say to him if I had a chance. If I could speak to Jim I would give him a big hug and thank him for the kindness he paid to my father when he needed it most. I would thank him for not blaming my Dad for wearing out Jenny because it was certainly taxing on a grandmother to raise a boy at her age. I would tell him that I regularly repeat the stories I have heard about him to my young son and daughter ensuring his memory will live on.
Our family was short on male role models but he made up for it. Had he not been such a well loved and admired race car driver my Dad’s life would have taken a different path, and I certainly would not be writing this as a car-crazy automotive museum curator. It is amazing how the course of history hinges on such subtle details and kindness shown to others at just the right time.