February 28, 2010
By Kim Roberson
When you look at Chad Knaus and hear about the long hours of research and studying he puts in to ensure that the 48 team is the best it can be, it is hard to imagine that in the years before Knaus was born, a man who barely made it through the third grade and could not read or write, won two championships himself with driver David Pearson.
Before there was Chad, there was Jake.
“Suitcase” Jake Elder may have been illiterate when it came to the written word, but that didn’t stop him from being a genius when it came to creating winning stock cars for talented drivers.
Jake passed away this week at the age of 73, taking a lifetime of racing knowledge and memories with him.
Richard Petty first hired Jake in the early 1960’s as a welder for Petty Enterprises. It didn’t take long before Petty recognized Elder’s talent for piecing together the parts of a winning car -- even if he didn’t really know what they were called or what they actually did. He could just look at a piece, know where it went, and know that it would make the car better.
And, as NASCAR Hall of Fame Executive Director Winston Kelley recalled Friday, when something went wrong with a car, Elder didn’t need fancy technological terms to explain what happened.
“One of my most vivid memories of Jake is asking him what happened to one of his meticulously prepared cars and Jake putting it so succinctly and simply in saying, ‘It blowed up.’”
Another story about Jake’s talent is explained by ESPN.com’s Ed Hinton, who remembered an encounter with Jake while he was visiting the late Dale Earnhardt’s Busch Series shop. Elder was the crew chief for Dale’s team, and was looking over a car that was being put together for a race. He picked up an upper control arm (the piece of hardware that attaches the suspension parts to the chassis of a car) and held it up, announcing that it wouldn’t survive the upcoming race at Talladega.
“Then he picked up another control arm that looked exactly the same to Earnhardt and me. "So we gon' use this thing right here," (Elder) said. Certainly he didn't know the metallurgy of the alloy in "this thing right here" -- just that it was stronger,” recalled Hinton this week.
Darrell Waltrip, who worked with Elder in the 70’s, says it took him a long time to realize his crew chief didn’t know how to read because he was so smart about things related to making his car go fast. "He was so smart and knew so much about cars that you never even considered he couldn't read or write."
Besides Waltrip and Earnhardt, Jake worked with 30 different drivers including, Lee Petty, David Pearson, Richard Petty, Benny Parsons, Bobby Allison, Davey Allison, Terry Labonte, and Sterling Marlin. It is because he worked with so many drivers and teams that he earned his nickname “Suitcase Jake”.
While many crew chiefs in this day and age are shifted around or let go by the team owner, in Jake’s day, he decided when it was time to leave a team. And when he packed his tools up and left, there was always another team waiting with a door open to have him work his magic on their car and driver.
“NASCAR was built on the shoulders of individuals like Jake, men and women who gave their heart and soul to the sport,” said Kelly. “He dedicated his life’s work to NASCAR and motorsports. Pioneers like him paved the way for the national and international success of this industry we enjoy today.”
On Thursday night, Claire B. Lang spent the evening remembering Jake, playing interviews with him, and talking with some drivers about their memories.
“Back in Jakes day, it was ‘what could a man come up with in his mind?’ There weren’t engineers, there weren’t computers, there weren’t wind tunnels -- you didn’t have simulation programs -- you had to do it on your own.
It had to be something that came out of your mind and not something that a computer said this might be better,” commented Tony Stewart. “You had to do things by feel, you had to do things by what you came up with idea wise, and it was literally who was the most creative and was able to think of the right thing and the right set up, to make a car go so fast.”
Sadly, that creative mind had lost a lot of its spark in recent years. Jake lost his wife to cancer, and four years ago, he suffered a stroke that left him unable to care for himself.
You have to wonder if Dale was getting a little bored sitting up in heaven, and decided that it would be good to have his old friend on hand in case he decided to do a little racing through the clouds. Maybe they are brainstorming ways to make the season a little more adventurous.
Or maybe they are holding class for the newest members of the NASCAR family –- the children who are scheduled to arrive later this year to the families of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Brendan Gaughan.
One thing is certain –- “Suitcase” Jake Elder was one of a kind, and his knowledge and ability helped lay the foundation for the crew chiefs, like Chad Knaus, of today. And that foundation benefits all of us who call ourselves NASCAR fans.