Remembering the brilliance of 'Suitcase Jake'

February, 26, 2010

There were just three of us in the late Ralph Earnhardt's old garage, out behind the house in Kannapolis, N.C. Dale Earnhardt and I were standing, having just breezed in from one of our around-town pickup truck cruises of the time.

Jake Elder was squatting on the concrete floor.

I don't think I ever saw Jake sit in a chair, except at a poker table. Otherwise, he always squatted or stood -- usually within 3 feet of a race car.

Dale had his own Busch (now Nationwide) team at the time, and Jake ran it for him -- shop manager, crew chief, did probably 80 percent of the labor himself.

Jake squatted near the right front of the car, where the steering and suspension pieces lay disassembled. Then there arose a scene so powerful, so telling about the simple genius of Jake Elder, that years later I would contribute it to the ESPN movie "3," a docudrama about Earnhardt.

Jake picked up an upper control arm and shook it at us.

"You see that thing right there?" he asked, never naming the part.

I'd bet even odds he didn't know the name of the part, or care. Jake was a savant, with total grasp of the interrelationships of suspension pieces.

Never mind that Jake couldn't read or write. As surely as Bobby Fischer with chess pieces, or Mozart with the musical scale, it seemed that Jake was just born knowing.

He could read those parts and he could read playing cards, and that was all he ever needed to make himself a living legend, even by then -- which was sometime in the 1980s.

He'd sent young Mario Andretti to victory in the Daytona 500 of 1967, then David Pearson to NASCAR championships in '68 and '69, then made a winner of young Darrell Waltrip in the '70s, and then taken on his biggest project of all -- wild and reckless young Dale Earnhardt.

"Hell, a young driver don't know what he wants in a race car till I show him," Jake told me when he first showed up to guide Earnhardt in '79. "I'll show him."

I wrote that with Elder, Earnhardt would win a Cup race within a month -- and he did, as a rookie, at Bristol.

"Stick with me, Jake! We'll be wearing diamonds big as horse [droppings]," Earnhardt crowed, fully aware how ironic he was being -- he knew Elder had catapulted him to stardom, not vice versa.

Jake was also born to ramble, and never to take any crap from anybody. Cross him (and that didn't take much), and he'd pick up his tools and quit, thus the nickname "Suitcase Jake." For a long time he could catch on anywhere, but in time, team owners grew wary of his restlessness.

By the '80s, it was Earnhardt who made sure Jake had a job and a paycheck, even though Jake had left memories around the racing world, and I mean that literally -- at Le Mans, before the start of the 24 Hours in 1982, Andretti and I had sat on the pit wall telling stories of "ol' Jake," as Mario always called him.

Even when Jake would throw down his tools and stomp out of Ralph's old garage, quitting, Dale Earnhardt would just stand there with his arms folded and grin. He knew Jake would be back.

And now, back for another stint and another paycheck in Ralph's garage, Jake shook the upper control arm at us.

"That thing'll break at Talladega," he said, and threw it toward a corner of the shop. Then he picked up another control arm that looked exactly the same to Earnhardt and me.

"So we gon' use this thing right here," he said.

Certainly he didn't know the metallurgy of the alloy in "this thing right here" -- just that it was stronger.

Come to think of it, of all the poker hands I saw Jake win, I don't recall hearing him state the name of the hand -- "three kings," or "full house," or whatever.

He would just lay the cards down. To Jake, it was all vision, and verbalizing was a waste of time.

J.C. "Jake" Elder died this week at 73. I just couldn't let such a towering figure of the NASCAR garages and poker rooms pass so quietly.

I just had to tell you how important and how wonderful he really was, how brilliant at star-making, even in his own obscurity, manipulating "this thing right here" or "that thing right there."



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