Richard Kratz Remembers Jim Baker

My Friend and Mentor

Words by Richard Kratz

After Jim Baker died at age 80 on August 30, 2019, Richard Kratz, former editor of sister publication MoparMax.com and owner and tuner of the “Maulin’ Magnum”, wrote a remembrance of him.


This is stream of consciousness. I have to tap into my memories of Jim to write what my heart wants to say. He was different; he didn’t tell drag race war stories, at least not to me. He watched me, he talked mental game, he talked philosophy not just of racing but of approaching life. He reminded me of the natural intuitiveness that Frank Hawley possesses, without Frank’s deep sports psych research. I do have the last photo of Jim with us. We won Phil Painter’s New Hemi Challenge at Mopars At The Strip in 2016. Jim was very ill, couldn’t really get out of his scooter. But when we won, he insisted on coming to the staging lanes and posing for a photo with us before the official Event Champions photo. I asked him to stick around and be in that official photo, but he said he couldn’t, he didn’t feel well and needed to get back to his hotel.

During this race, we set up an extension cord from our race trailer’s generator so that he could recharge his scooter while he was driving around with his son, Brad. He told me all week that he’d been watching me. He asked to look at my written logs where I wrote down 40-50 parameters and readings on each run and looked over my shoulder at my laptop’s dual data log data (Diablosport and AEM Electronics loggers). Jim always told me that I was born a crew chief, I just didn’t find my calling until I was too late in life.


The car was suffering big problems at MATS that year. We had a new nearly 1000 HP engine that on every single pass broke the blower belt and belt tensioner. Moving a 4,000-pound race car down the track to 9.7-second times isn’t easy. We ran four classes that year, so we were always in the lanes, not much time in the pits. I used metal epoxy, good old JB Weld, and Gorilla tape to try to hold a cracked tensioner together—we also ran to the auto parts stores near the track and bought a bunch of new ones. But the new ones just broke and we lost our run. In the huddle Jim said we should think of giving up on the news ones and try to fix the old ones. Rather than try to glue it ridged, I set it up to flex a bit hoping flex was better than breaking. This started to work.


At one point I was so frazzled I considered dropping all but one class. Jim and our sponsor, Arrington Performance, said don’t do that, keep running all of them and gathering data, it doesn’t seem like you’re facing catastrophic failure, just partial failure that kills a run. I listened to Jim and Arrington. In addition to repairing the tensioner every round (and replacing the expensive belts every round) I still had to read the data, figure out tire pressures, shock settings, set the power/torque curve for each pass as the track evolved quickly through Las Vegas’s famous morning cool/afternoon heat changes, wind changes and the track changes occurring as classes that used street tires would run before us and chew all of the starting line prep down to the concrete.


I remember that Jim saw at one point that I didn’t look so good, it was really hot and I was in the sun with little chance to get into the shade and A/C of our trailer. He motored over to me in his scooter and offered me a big bottle of water from the basket on the front of scooter. “Richard, drink this,” he said. I replied, “In a minute, I have to fix this.” Jim said, “Richard, you’re about to pass out if you don’t drink this and then you can’t fix anything, can you?” This simple yet powerful wisdom cut right to my core and I knew he was right.


Jim didn’t yell this advice at me. He wasn’t even forceful in his speech. He said it to me in his quiet, country boy voice with the weight of a lifetime of wisdom behind it. I took a break and while I drank the water we talked. Jim said what he’d been saying to me since we met in 2012 at Auto Club Dragway in Fontana, California. He said he loved watching me race the car because I was such a fighter. In the early days, I took every lost round hard. Jim told me he understood, he saw the winner’s drive in me. But he imparted to me what my boxing coach used to say (I fought 72 fights as an amateur light heavyweight in the 1970s). “Richard,” Jim asked, “did you give it your best?” Yes, I replied, but it wasn’t good enough, I should have adjusted for the this or that more, I shouldn’t have changed the dial at the last minute or I should have changed the dial at the last minute.


Jim told me that in his opinion most racers made race tune decision illogically, based on emotion and feeling. He noted that I didn’t, he said, ”You crave data and you make decisions based on facts, not feelings.” He said, “Some racer’s mental process before a round can be written in grease pencil on the back of a postage stamp, but not you, you have reams of data and you do your best.”


A few years later he told me that I had a special ability, a thing that helped him to so much success when he raced. He told me that even when I lost, I won. He noted how when we lost, I went home and poured over the data and videos and I learned. I learned what we did wrong that we could better next time. Jim taught me that you actually learn more when things go wrong and you’re forced to figure out what happened and then how to fix and improve on it from there, than you do from when everything goes right and you win easily.


“What lessons do you take to the next race with a few rounds of luck, a few rounds of the other guy breaking and winning the final on a red light?” Not much. Jim also told me that it’s good to feel you’re on a streak when you are, as long as you don’t take it for granted and you keep digging on how to be better for the next race.


Back in 2012 he asked me about how much time I spent in the shop on the car, how much time I spent thinking about the car. I told him I spent enough time in the garage that it bothered my wife. As to thinking about the car, I told him every second of every day. Driving, eating, working, the car was always on my mind, how to make it faster, more reliable, more consistent—it was what my mind did first and foremost, everything else was secondary. Jim said these were the signs of a good crew chief, never off duty because the passion for my car was second only to my passion for my wife, maybe not second to my wife Jim said with a slowly growing sly smile. I laughed from deep in my belly at that. Jim laughed too. He had a long, committed and happy marriage before he lost his wife, Sherry. He confided in me that he was always reluctant to share with her what percentage of his mental energy was devoted to her and what percentage to the car. Since his wife had passed, he confided that it was at least 51% to the car and then he laughed again.


Jim never scolded me at the track, never said, “Well you screwed the pooch on that one, didn’t you?” He talked to me and led me down paths where I could find my own answers. At least I think they were my own answers -- how much of the answer does the probing, quiet teacher provide and how much credit goes to the hard-working student?


From somewhere in Heaven, where I know Jim is happily reunited with his wife, I hear a gentle country boy chuckling and saying, “It’s half and half, Richard, half and half.”


I miss Jim. The world was more thoughtful with him in it. Peace, brother, for the rest of time may peace be upon you.



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