Jim Liked to Go Fast

Jim, in his young “hottie” phase, turns the tables and snaps a rare self-portrait at, we think, the first corner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sometime in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.

There was an integral part of Jim that always liked fast things and things that made his heart race, whether it was cars, guns, women, music, drugs.  But maybe it started innocently enough back when he discovered he was an above-average runner – he was a miler in high school and told me that, for a time, he held the record for the mile in the Air Force.

In fact, he has said many times that the first time he took serious note of a photographer (not just obsessing about the cameras, but the act of using them to document the decisive moment) was when a photographer shot him at the finish line, winning one of his high school track meets.

What sticks in my mind most is how rueful Jim was that he couldn’t go faster, that he had decent endurance but he didn’t have sprinter’s speed and thus wasn’t truly competitive at the highest levels.  Perhaps it was running all those laps not as fast as he wanted, but Jim definitely seemed to need to drive around in circles (and straightaways and S curves, etc.) as fast as mechanically possible … and then some.

Today’s blog focuses on a couple of “Jim with Car” shots that we’ve dug up from the archive, accompanied by some thoughts from a dear friend of Jim’s, Dutch Mandel, associate publisher and editorial director of AutoWeek.  Dutch goes way, way back with Jim, and graciously provided the following insights and recollections to help offset my woeful ignorance:

Jim with his Triumph Spitfire at Woodstock in 1969, with his cowboy boots off taking a break backstage sometime during the festivities. Note that he had cut off the sleeves of his safari coat to deal with the heat.

“Jim earned this love for cars the old-fashioned way, by growing up in the racing hotbed of Northern California.  British cars were being imported into the U.S. by a guy named Kjell Qvale.  Jim worked at Qvale’s Burlingame car dealership in the back shop, pushing a broom.  He told a story of working at the same dealership as another guy who would take his car knowledge and put it to different, creative means … my father, Leon Mandel, who sold cars at that same British Motors of Burlingame, Calif., dealership.”

Dutch went on to recall, “Jim brought his budding photojournalism efforts to the Half-Moon Bay drag strip as a boy of 16; he captured some of the great and soon-to-be great racers of an era in their nascent careers (see previous blog and Rodders Journal feature on Jim).  He grew up with them and captured some of the best and the brightest drivers that campaigned cars along the Northern California coast.”

About the red sports car, Dutch has this to say: “That is a Triumph Spitfire. That repose is one that many Triumph owners knew: The car is British and is notoriously unreliable. So ‘stopped’ is its natural form.  He obviously was catching some rest and used it as a backstop.”  I uncovered Victor Kahn’s groovy site that has a still captured from the “Woodstock” movie of backstage on Day 1, where you can clearly see Jim from the back with the sleeves on his jacket still intact, check it out.

And about the self-portrait of a very tan, very cool Jim at a race track back in the day, Dutch notes: “Looks as though it was in the late ’60s-early ’70s, taken at the first corner at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  The interesting thing about the shot is that tree in the background; so oblivious to safety were the owners of the Speedway – heck, everyone was at that time – that they allowed this tree to remain standing.  It wasn’t there for shade but aesthetics.  And imagine how aesthetically pleasing it would be if you wrapped a race car around it?  A death trap, for sure.  Jim liked Indy – it was the cultural experience, the notion of Americana.”

Sure, an Assyrian-Armenian punk terrorizing the streets in highly customized European sports cars … what could be more American than that, I ask you?

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