From illegal street and county road drag racing as a youngster to sanctioned Pro Stock and Pro Modified Championships, a 40 plus year, "Instant success"! LOL!!
In 1967 I quit my job at Peterman Ford in Peru, Illinois, and Linda quit teaching in Utica, Illinois. We then moved from LaSalle/Peru area to Lacon, Illinois, 40 miles away. I leased a Gulf gas station in downtown Lacon and featured an auto service and repair business. In time, it became more of a hot rod shop. “Hot Rod" defined by me is the same as John Force’s definition. The term includes any type of fast car. John even refers to his Funny cars as Hot Rods.
Here I am at 22 with my new 427 Merc. I was Superman then.
T.he last thing we moved was my pure stock original ‘57 Mercury Monterey two door sedan. We towed it with a tight bumper to bumper wrapped log chain to Lacon. My sister-in-law, Suzie, had given me the car, the 312 engine was broken. As I worked on it the folks would ask what I was going to do with it. I would tell them I planned to race it at Oswego, Illinois, drag strip. Some thought that was pretty funny.
One high school senior, back then, Bruce Kissee, who became my crew guy, told me some said I would not have a chance racing at Oswego. That used to make Bruce mad as hell. Bruce and I showed them! The city of Lacon now has a sign erected at the city limits that reads, "The Home of Animal Jim Six Time Drag Racing Champion." What an honor. I was not sure how to respond. I did send the city a letter of gratitude and thanks. The local newspaper had me pose by it in a hot orange Animal Jim T-shirt and put the article on the front page.
The Big Animal was ready in July of 1969. I gave the Merc that name thinking of my friend back in LaSalle who used to remark about my muscle car, the ‘63 Merc 427, as it left the line. Dave would expound, "That big black Merc leaves like a big (blanking) Animal". I left Dave’s F word adjective out of the name! LOL!!
On July 20, 1969 (moon landing day), I won a trophy first time out in the 1D Hot Rod class at Oswego. I started racing Big A with a 406 FE tri-power engine and rowing a top loader trans. Later I used several 8V 427s, including a Tunnel Port 427. In ‘73 and ‘74 I was Oswego Run Tuff Champ both years.
1975 --- Me and Frank Marshall Run Tuff Eliminator. I was 34 and fit.
By ‘75 I had my eye on Pro Stock, wanted to race heads up. US 30 in Gary, Indiana, and Oswego Dragway in Illinois were two of very few strips anywhere that had a local Pro Stock class. I crashed my first PS on the first hard run in June 1975 and was lucky not to be killed. I got beat to hell. It was a ‘72 Comet with a 427 Tunnel Port and Liberated Top loader trans. The cause was a Detroit locker malfunction. The locker stayed locked on one side and the cogs slipped on the other when I power shifted fourth gear. The Comet turned hard right and rolled and flipped like a Sprint car.
I went back to racing The Big Animal in RTE until September. I then bought a running UDRA Pinto PS. It had a Roush Cleveland and Lenco. The Pinto was a player!
It had Strange 35 spline axle and spool in the rear end. I ran that car end of ‘75 to end of ‘79. I only got to run that car in the "Chicagoland" PS class twice. It was close to the end of the 1975 season. I ran once at US 30 and once at Oswego. Sadly the Chicago PS class was dropped for 1976.
But sometimes things work out in strange ways. To race Pro Stock I was forced to race nationally. So April of 1976 I got the NHRA license forms, got the required physical and my crew chief, then Rick Davis, and I went to Byron, Illinois, Dragway and made the required six runs to obtain my NHRA Pro Stock license. Back then all other sanctions, circuits and venues honored a NHRA license. It’s funny, I never intended to race nationally. Now like the country song, "I've been everywhere man!"
The Pinto was my first car that was emblazoned with ANIMAL JIM on the doors. Everyone called me that by that time. Driver nick names were in fashion then.