Jim Baker's Then and Now

My Final Lap

When writing this column started back in 2009, any thought of 2019 never entered my mind. And yet here we are, starting a new season!


H A P P Y  N E W  Y E A R


During the previous years, numerous readers have asked me for a log of my racing days. Feeling incorrect at first, and not having enough photos collected, kept this from appearing. Now committed to a FINAL LAP, it is time to offer readers a visit to my humble racing world.


It probably started in the late 1940s when my dad caught me racing a neighbor using a Farm-all tractor on a dirt road in northeast Missouri. We moved to Arizona in 1948 and after about four years, at age 14, most of the male drivers at Willcox High School were drag racing at the World War II auxiliary airport for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. My straight 8-cylinder 1950 Pontiac didn’t fare too well, but racing was just pure excitement.


Realizing my penchant for things mechanical, Dad made an offer I could not refuse: his irrigated farm in the Sulphur Springs Valley of Arizona had a cotton allotment of 29.3 acres. We were not cotton producers and Dad did not like raising cotton. He therefore made me this proposition: raise a crop of cotton on that small plot and use whatever yield to purchase a new car! At 20 bales per acre a new ’56 Chevrolet was easily paid for.


Through making trades, I owned and raced a ’57 Chevy power pack, an Oldsmobile J2, and then a ’58 Pontiac ‘A’ engine “world’s fastest street car” in 1958. We won a lot of races too, on and off the strips of the day. One day we ventured to Quad Cities Dragway at Cordova, IL, and met defeat -- some guy named Arnie Beswick with an identical Pontiac Chieftain, stopped us cold. I became close friends with Arnie to this day.

This is an old photo of the first Top Eliminator final at Tri State Dragway taken on June 14, 1960. The black car was Jerry Childers of Memphis, MO, while the 711 white car was me driving my Pontiac powered ’32 Ford B/A Coupe. I won by about 6 inches! The track man between the cars is Russ Guymon. The Guymons, Russ AND Donna, now live in southern Missouri where Russ still attends NHRA national events when possible!


Because two other racers in the area were building lighter altered-type cars by 1959, we found and destroyed a pristine 1932 Ford three-window coupe. We used the same motor from the car and running in B/A won a lot in ’60-62! After that we built a tube frame kit altered for AA/A and AA/FA. On nitro we ran 9.52 secs. at 163.50 mph in 1963 at Cordova. That car turned my head into Top Fuel, purchasing Ken Chenoweth’s roller in 1964. From the start it was pretty good, lots of learning about nitro, but we won 31 Top Eliminator titles in five years.

At that time, I moved back to Arizona and Arizona Raceway (aka Speed World). O.C.I.R. hired me as Race Director in 1967. GM Mike Jones (at OCIR) had left Bill Thomas Race Cars as PR Director to build and manage the ‘supertrack’. Thomas was looking for a replacement and we hit it off from the start. In 1968 we were offered a ’68 Camaro project car with an eye for a second book about the buildup of a Super Stock. The project was successful, starting with a bone stock 396 round port automatic and winning the SS/EA trophy at Pomona.

SS/EA at OCIR 1968. Ron Ogilvie, crew chief.  (Bob McClurg photo)


Next in line was a different ’68 Camaro built for Pro Stock with partner Howard Harmon. We named the car “Chevy West” because on May 9, 1970 at OCIR we won the Pro Stock feature. This was after Bill Jenkins had cleaned house with his ’68 Camaro.

From that point, Ron Ogilvie, Jim Glaze, Chuck Clemmer and my oldest son, Guy, campaigned a series of Pro Stock Camaros, a Vega and Monza until 1979. Dave Smith was a primary sponsor after Bill Thomas closed. We also helped and then raced several Camaros with our friend Larry Johnson during that time.


My last racing adventure was with Rick Rader and his small block Vega. Dale Falk, Clarence Thomas and I worked for some time on 500 cubic inch big block motors. Clarence did finish the project and ran a Pro Stock quality Chevy Cavalier when it was too obsolete for NHRA.


My last actual racing sojourn was helping former crewman Jim Glaze get his NHRA driver’s license in 2013. His all Pontiac 1968 ‘Big Tire’ Firebird was totally built by Jim at his shop in Golden Valley, near Kingman, AZ.

I’m very fortunate to have many close friends through my long involvement with the sport. Back in the mid 1960s, Tommy Johnson, Sr. was a Tech person at Tri State Dragway. Tom and Sarah were always at the track, helping however they could.


In previous DRO articles I have mentioned Kent Martin. Kent was as responsible for starting Tri State Dragway as anyone. He raced everything in his early years and won his share of awards. Cancer claimed Kent a couple of years ago, but we still have FB contact with his widow, Marilyn, who lives in Quincy, IL. Russ Guymon and wife Donna, from Keokuk, IA, ran a ’55 Chevy with my 6-71 blower on it. We went to Indianapolis for the first US Nationals in 1961. Jerry Saar was from Keokuk too, and my DRO column a few months ago gives his racing story. There are many others from the Midwest who deserve mention but word limits prohibit.


A special mention must be made about my long association with Tony Sheffler, the feature announcer at Atlanta Dragway. We go all the way back to Tri State. I must also remember my friendship with Peoria’s Jim Narramore. He and Bill Pryor won two NHRA Division 3 Top Fuel Championships back in the ‘70s. Today he continues to operate Jim’s Speed Center.


One of the first people I met opening night at OCIR was Stock Eliminator Champion Bob Lambeck. What a long and successful career Bob has had.


Selling Chevrolet High Performance parts at Bill Thomas Race Cars allowed me to meet several new friends: Larry Johnson, who I would race Pro Stock with until 1979; Tom Huggins, who raced Pro Stock in 1970 and appeared in three NHRA Nationals in 2018; and Leon Fitzgerald of “Pure Heaven” Fuel Altered fame. At Bill Thomas Race Cars in 1970, we built Butch Leal’s first pro car, a Camaro. Butch and Donna have remained friends to this day.

Fellow Chevrolet racers include Bob Anderson, Gary Dodd, Don Lorentzen, and Sonny Bryant.


Around 1972, Dale Falk, Jack Manchester, Lee Hunter, Rod Aumondson, Hansen Brothers, Gordy Rivera and others, showed up to race in the West Coast Pro Stock Association which I spearheaded.

Dale became one of my closest friends stretching all the way to the present. I must mention two others post mortem; Dick Landy and Kevin Rotty (Including Frank Townsend & Butch).


I’m certain there are many others deserving as these. Space requirements do not allow me to reminisce further. In 2009, I started using a trade I learned at Arizona State and the U of A, writing. I have to thank Jeff Burk and the entire Racing Net Source group for allowing me to be published in all three magazines! Suffice it to say, I have had a great and full life, through drag racing. I would not want it any other way.


Until Next Time, Be On Time! 


My longtime friend, Larry Johnson

Arnie Beswick with his ’58 Pontiac identical to mine.

Last version of our ’69 Camaro with chassis ‘back halved’ by Dave Smith

Don Lorentzen’s, beautiful ’69 Pro Stock Camaro

Baker & Smith, small block Vega at Bakersfield, 1974.

In 1977 Dave Smith & Co. built this Monza, which I drove as a Chevrolet.

Then the Monza became an Oldsmobile with an Olds motor which Dave Smith developed. It ran an 8.73 to qualify 5th at Pomona, 1979. Dave and Tom Chelbana won the AHRA World Championship in 1983 with his Olds motor on Nitrous.



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