When Jim got out of high school he went to work at a gas station where there was a `40 For
Hot rodders, the so-called hooligans, didn’t hang out in bars, they hung out at speed shops and drive-ins; drive-ins to find out who was going faster and speed shops to learn how to go faster.
Jim Travis met his future wife, Deloris, by cruising the drive-ins. Deloris went to Whittier High School and moonlighted as a carhop at George’s Drive-In in Pico Rivera, California, plus Jim hung out at Automotive Specialties in Montebello that sold new and used speed equipment. It had the allure of burning rubber and a trace of fuel in the air with two owners who were skilled fabricators, mechanics, and most importantly—racers.
Mind you, even though Jim was in the Army that didn’t stop him from opening a shop called
Jim probably made a nuisance of himself, but owners Jerry Eisert and Bill Fowler took a liking to him and introduced the young man to the hot rod world of Bonneville and Indianapolis. Because of that initiation, Jim eats, sleeps, and drinks hot rods. Actually he lives on bologna sandwiches, sleeps above his shop, and until a short time ago, drank Pepsi.
Jim would later go on to chop one of the most hammered ’34 Ford coupes, racking up more miles on the Salt than a cab driver in Fargo, North Dakota—we’re talkin’ Bonneville baby!
Jim is also a highly respected and sought-after restorer of historic race cars. Between 1991 and 1999, Jim restored 28 race cars of distinction, including the late Jack Chrisman’s (Art’s uncle) chopped Hemi-powered ’29 Model A sedan, plus Mickey Thompson’s four-engine Challenger 1 Streamliner and the Assault, and Mickey’s single-engine Pontiac dragster that looks more like a Bonneville Streamliner than a streamlined dragster. Read on.
Jim had just gotten out of the service when he stopped by the Speedway. “That was January
Jim Travis of Whittier, California, was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania (home of Zippo lighters), in 1934, but his grandfather, who was in the Spanish American War with Teddy Roosevelt, contracted Malaria and was told to move to a warmer climate. Jim’s grandmother had a brother who lived in Montebello, California, so the whole family moved to the racing town.
Jim rode in his dad’s ’34 Dodge four-door and Jim’s mom in Grandpa’s new ’47 Olds to California. When he got here, Jim hit the shop classes with both hands at Montebello High School: “I took metalworking, and in radio shop I made a one-tube crystal set (which needs no battery or power source but runs on power from radio waves using a high antenna), machine shop, and auto shop.
“I sold papers on Whittier Boulevard for the Herald and the L.A. Times. I stood there on the corner, they were piled up in front of the A&P Market and I had to make deliveries up and down the boulevard to different merchants. I’d come back to my stack of papers and there’d be money lying on the papers. I’d count the money and it was the exact amount to cover the missing papers.”
Jim not only got in with nothing more than a look that he belonged there, but ended up wor
When Jim turned 16 he found a ’37 Plymouth coupe at one of the garages that he used to deliver papers to for $70. He sold his bicycle for the down payment and gave his paper route to his brother. To pay for the Plymouth, Jim started working at some of the gas stations that he used to deliver papers to. Of course they all had lube racks and tools but all that free equipment couldn’t save the Plymouth. “It didn’t take me long to blow it up,” Jim laughs.
The car Jim had through the remainder of his two years of high school was a ’31 Fordor, which his dad saw for sale on the bulletin board at work. Jim paid $60. He had to upholster it, and make a top for it. The roof fabric was gone when he bought it, which is why the interior was no more. Taking various shop classes, Jim worked on the car in school. Not exactly a girl-magnet but it was wheels and, for some reason, the too-many-door Model A landed in the high school yearbook. Jim graduated in 1953.
The late Bob Higbee, SCTA Chief Starter, speaking with Jim in 1962 at El Mirage. Higbee ga
When he got out of school he worked at a gas station. There was a ’40 Ford Tudor for sale. Jim bought it after selling the Model A, which sat on the street for years till it finally got hauled to the junkyard. He started drag racing the ’40: “I was doing a lot of street racing. I ran it at Santa Ana in 1954 with the Flathead V-8 with two carburetors and nothing else. That was back in the days when they drag raced four abreast.
“I wanted something more powerful. I was hanging out at Automotive Specialties. The more I hung around guys with cars in high school and guys like [owners] Bill and Jerry (Bill Fowler and Jerry Eisert) the more I learned about working on cars. In Pennsylvania cars were only to get you back and forth to church and to work. My mother drove in Pennsylvania but she never drove when she moved to California.
“This police officer came to our club meeting one night and he had this association over in Maywood called the Police Officers Car Club of America; I still have a decal on my toolbox. He wanted clubs to race off the street, not on the street. He had a track built on vacant lot on the corner of Slauson Avenue and Eastern Avenue in Maywood near the Chrysler assembly plant and the Lincoln/Mercury plant. He got Bethlehem Steel to donate the land where we raced.”
Tweedy Pie Got the Olds
That’s circle track chauffer Jim going into a turn in 1995 with his Midget at a Western Ra
“Bill Fowler set me up! I was racing my ’40 sedan with an Olds engine, I was spitting out gearboxes, rearends, and drive axles. I’d have to take it to Automotive Specialties to get it fixed. I was working for U.S. Rubber and I had to have a way to get to work. One night Fowler and I were out cruising the boulevard and we went up to Tiny’s Drive-In and a ’34 three-window, full-fendered coupe pulled in. I didn’t know Bill was setting me up. He said ‘Jim you ought to have a car to get back and forth to work and you should have a car for racing. Every time you blow that SOB up on a Saturday night or Sunday, you have to have it towed into our shop and we have to bust our butts to get it done by Tuesday so you can go to work.’ I said, ‘What do you have in mind?’ ‘You know, a coupe like that ’34 that just pulled in, or a roadster.’ ‘If you could find me a roadster, I’d buy it.’ ‘I happen to know that a bunch of kids tore a ’29 Model A all apart and they’ve lost interest in it. You can buy it for a $150.’ ‘SOLD!’”
“A couple days later Jerry Eisert had the Model A piled in the back of his ’40 Ford pickup. When the gaskets disbanded, the Flathead was taken out of the five-window. I went and got the engine and put it in the ’40 sedan and sold it.”
When Jim first got the roadster it didn’t have an engine. “I had a girlfriend who had an extra garage and I started working on it at her house.” Jim tried to stuff the Olds in his new roadster but soon realized that there was no way to put headers on it so he pulled the engine back out. Ed “Big Daddy” Roth bought it and put the Olds in “Tweedy Pie”, a ’23 Model T roadster.
The locals could almost set their watches when Jim’s rig would roll into Wendover, UT—the
Jim had a nothing-special ’34 Ford Flathead V-8 given to him that he put in the Model A bone-stock roadster “just to get it running till I got a paintjob on it. It’s always been one color for the last 55 years, Goldenrod Yellow. I probably had probably two or three different Flatheads in that roadster over the years.” Jim still has that Model A roadster.
“In 1956, I heard Bill and Jerry were going to go to Bonneville. I asked if I could go along. ‘You can but you buy one tank of gas, chip in on the motel, and you’ll have to sleep on the floor.’”
Jim and Bob Opperman were riding in Kay Kimes’ Buick (Kimes later designed the body and chassis of the “Lead Wedge”, an electric Land Speed record holder that went 139 mph with Jerry Kugel driving) following Eisert’s pickup. Kimes had a belly tank with Ed Johnson’s Nailhead Buick in it with six Stromberg carburetors: “Eisert was driving his ’40 Ford pulling a single-axle trailer with the belly tank on it … he had a healthy Flathead in it. We’re out there in the middle of nowhere … it’s midnight; just north of Ely, Nevada, we’re doing 55. There’s a set of headlights coming up pretty fast. The guy was about to pass us on this two-lane road, he turned out to be Tom Beatty with his ’40 Ford pickup with a Caddy in it, towing his tank. (Beatty would set a “C” Lakester record of 211.88 at Bonneville that week.) Jerry put his foot in it and wouldn’t let Tom over. Those two guys were drag racing down the two-lane a couple of miles before Beatty passed us.”
Don Francisco, who nominated Jim, handing the cherished plaque to Jim during his induction
In The Army Now
One of Jim’s shop teachers in the Army Reserve encouraged his students to join. Jim did and while on his two-week summer training (he had graduated from high school by then) he’d upset one of the officers enough that Jim was told he was to report for the draft. Knowing that he had to act fast, Jim enlisted before the draft notice came through and it worked. He was ultimately sent to West Point, New York. Mind you, Jim wasn’t at West Point as a cadet, he was an Army enlisted man who repaired radio equipment, public address systems, and telephones for two years until his discharge.
Jim and Deloris were married two weeks before Jim went into the service. Deloris went back to Highland Falls New York just outside of West Point to join Jim for a brief visit before returning home to give birth to their second son, Wage.
Never one to lay around the barracks on weekends, Jim made good use of his time at West Point, and it wasn’t spit and polish. Jim and fellow soldier Orv Schultz had a shop doing engine conversions putting Chevy engines in Flathead Fords (on the side naturally) doing a little street racing, plus racing at the drags at York, Pennsylvania, on a Saturday night, and also at Newberg, New York.
Don Francisco, who nominated Jim, handing the cherished plaque to Jim during his induction
“A guy at the shop wanted to trade me his 1948 F-100 Ford pickup with a Flathead in it for my ’50 Plymouth. I found out that the Texaco Testing Laboratories was selling some reconditioned ’54 Olds engines for $100. So I bought one with a Hydro and put it in that pickup. We started racing it at the dragstrips. I went to York, Pennsylvania, and cleaned everybody’s plow with the automatic.”
Automotive Specialties is where Jim learned there was an Indy—the Indianapolis 500. “When I went down to Bill and Jerry’s the day of the race, you couldn’t say a word because they were listening to the race on the radio.”
Out of the service, Jim was initially working at a 76 gas station and hanging out at Automotive Specialties. Bill Fowler had left Jerry Eisert and went to work for Frank Arciero Racing then ultimately for Dan Gurney in a small shop in Costa Mesa in 1962.
Few cars or drivers have made as many runs together as Jim and his beautiful chopped coupe
“I found out they were going to Indy in 1963. I asked Bill, ‘If I come back to the Speedway, do you think you can find me work?’ ‘We’ll see,’ he said.” (Jim was separated from Deloris who was killed in an auto wreck in 1965.) By that time, Jim had a Ford Sedan Delivery with “L.A. Roadsters Tow Car” plus Travis Automotive lettered on the side.
“I drove it back to Indy with a mattress in the back and my toolbox. I was walking back to the garage area one night with Dan and Bill when Bill handed me a tray of tools. I put the tools away in the garage and cleaned up the place. I ended up working in the garage while wearing my L.A. Roadsters jacket. The guard just assumed that I belonged there and never asked me for a badge. I worked on Gurney’s Lotus for a couple of weeks. Dan had crashed [in practice] and we had to take another tub and take all the parts off of it, plus the bladders for the fuel and switch them over. Gurney did not have any help from Colin Chapman (Lotus founder),” Jim adds. “We weren’t allowed to touch the engines; they came in a crate from Ford already dyno-tuned for 500 miles. The PR guy from Ford asked Dan, ‘Who’s that guy eating all our sandwiches and drinking all our Pepsis? Get rid of him.’”
After it sat for seven years in the El Monte High School auto shop, the powers to be wante
While the PR guy needed a lesson in tact, it mattered not because Jim (who wasn’t paid nor did he expect any for his efforts) took part in getting the Lotus back on the track, plus hot rodder Dan finished the 500 miles in Seventh Place. “I went to Indy for the experience,” Jim says.
It was like old home month because the garage area was crawling with hot rodders from the L.A. area who Jim knew. He next knocked on Ermie Immerso’s garage door. Immerso was a card-carrying 200-miler at Bonneville in 1956 when he built and drove a belly tank to 213.190 screaming miles per hour.
“I’m looking for work. I’ll work for free, I just want the experience,” Jim told Immerso. He said, “I certainly need the help.” “I helped him for about a week; Paul Russo the driver never qualified the car. Ermie and I stayed friends until the day he died. Then I worked on an old Kurtis of Ozzy Olson from Denver Colorado. His driver was Don Freeland. The last day of qualifying Freeland blew the motor all over the track at 9 o’clock in the morning. They put it in the garage. We replaced one broken motor with one good motor but we were in line when the gun went off and qualifying was over. I watched the race and then I drove home.”
Jim’s brashness got him in a place many of us only dream about, Gasoline Alley, but his ability kept him there for a month. Not too shabby for a guy with a mattress in the back of his wheels for a hotel room. After returning from Indy, Jim opened up a shop, Travis Automotive, on Whittier Boulevard.
Enough of Spectating
Jim outlined in the Bill Fowler story in the January issue of R&C the history of his severely chopped 1934 Ford three-window coupe before he acquired the Ford from Richard Stricker in 1970. “When I went into the Army in 1957, the coupe was sitting in front of Automotive Specialties. I fell in love with it and took a photo of it.
But it was always in the back of his mind. He called his friend Opperman about how the Ford did at Bonneville. “Opperman told me Jerry and Bill went to Bonneville (in 1957) with the blown Cadillac in the coupe and Stricker drove it. Stricker had it until 1970; it just sat in his garage.
Only a chosen few have kissed the bricks at Indy, starting with Dale Jarrett who started t
The coupe changed hands a number of times before Jim acquired it, but it was Jim who got the car to handle and drive safely: “The coupe was a mediocre handling car at best,” Bill Fowler says. “Jim, by reworking the front steering geometry, was able to kill the lift that the car was getting. He took all the bumpsteer out of it, we didn’t even know what the term ‘bumpsteer’ meant at the time. It started going down the racetrack pretty straight after that.”
“I drove the ’34 mostly at the drag races and the thing was absolutely perfect but when I drove it at El Mirage. The handling problem reared its head and the car began to lift in the rear and it would start pirouetting on the front cross spring; it definitely wanted to hunt. Jim got it to handle.”
Jim, a member of the Gear Grinders, ran his faithful A-Bone roadster almost into the ground from 1961-68 at El Mirage, at the quarter-mile drags, and the SCTA half-mile drags at Riverside Raceway where he set four records.
That wasn’t a typo! SCTA went drag racing in the winter months at Riverside and Lions Drag Strip when the dry lakebed of El Mirage became a lakebed. Plus, Jim and racers like Al Teague (the multiple record holder who went 409.978 in 1991) went to a huge dry lake, 60 miles long in Laguna Salada in the Sonoran desert of Baja, where Jim set a record of 110 mph in the Street Roadster Class.
Jim got to Bonneville only to find out he couldn’t run the A in the Street Roadster Class there, only at El Mirage and the drags. They put him in Gas Roadster, which is a highboy with the engine set back into the cowl. “I ended up putting all those guys on the trailer and sending them home by Saturday (the end of Speed Week). I had the record of 124 mph with my 3/8x3/8 Flathead.”
Those car club plaques represent Jim’s association with racing both as a young hot rodder
“Jerry Eisert built a 1/2x1/2 Ford Flathead V-8, put it in the ’34 coupe, and ran it on 90 percent nitro at all the local dragstrips. They painted it red and put Automotive Specialties on the hood, but Richard Stricker still owned the car.”
Jim painted the ’34 coupe blue and white as soon as he got it in 1970: “I didn’t like solid red. I ran it in 1971-73. I got the record with the Flathead, the same engine that was in the roadster. I had to redo the rollbars to make it legal, and I had to move the fuel tank to the nose because you couldn’t have it next to the driver.
Then I went to Dean Moon and Fred Larsen (Moon Equipment) and we started talking about a front-mounted blown Chevy. I took the blower off of Stricker’s Cadillac engine and put it on the Chevy engine. I rebuilt Moon’s engine in his roadster and he gave me everything I needed and Larsen picked out the parts for the blower setup. That’s when I started running a blown Chevy in 1976 at Bonneville. In 1978 I hurt the motor, so I went down into Wendover and bought a junkyard motor, put my blower, oil pan, oil pump … everything on the junker. So now the pistons are flush with the top of the deck. I was told to build the engine with 7:1 compression because of the supercharger. I ran it on straight alcohol. I ran 187 mph on that $20 motor. I got Bill Miller (Bill Miller Engineering, Carson City, Nevada) in to make me some rods and repaired the broken engine using them so the pistons were flush with the deck. I started going 190. I started learning a lot more about the 300-inch Chevy and ran 230 mph. The record was 238 and I never got closer than 230. I probably had 50 or 60 runs well over 200 mph, but that doesn’t count unless you break a record—you have to break a record in order to get into the 200 MPH Club.”
Salted Pumpkin Seed
Jim wanted to bring back another famous old race car originally built by Bill Burke: the “Pumpkin Seed” that went 205.949 with a 156-inch Falcon engine in 1959. Then Mickey Thompson purchased the Streamliner to test his Pontiac four-banger Tempest engines. Danny Thompson, Mickey’s son, had taken it to the Alhambra High School Auto Shop where Mickey went to school. Jim checked on it over a seven-year period. Finally the school wanted it out. It was in pretty sad shape and Jim offered to buy it from Danny. The concern was the car was in pieces, so before stuff came up missing, the timing was right to get it out of there. “No deal,” Danny says. After all the work Jim had done for the family, Danny gave the Streamliner to Jim. Jim not only restored the Challenger but the “Assault” Pontiac-powered dragster that Mickey set 12 new world records in May 1960 at March Air Force Base.
While it had possibilities, a new ’cage was needed, the frame had to be replaced and stretched 2 1/2 feet because it had held the six-cylinder Ford Falcon engine. (Mickey built the aluminum body.) Right off the trailer in 1999 at Bonneville Jim set a new record of 217.586 mph with the “Pumpkin Seed” (named as such because it looked like one) powered by a GMC-6. Then in 2004 it went 253.563 with the Ardun-Ford V-8 and became the World’s Fastest Ardun. How’s that for an old racer about to be thrown in the trash?
At the same time Jim was thrashing to get the Streamliner ready for Speed Week, Steve Chrisman called and asked, “Do you want to do my dad’s car?” Steve’s dad was Jack, Art’s uncle. Jack and Art drag raced a rather harmless-looking (but chopped ) ’29 Model A two-door in the late ’50s that was anything but. It was a nitro-burning A/Fuel Coupe that, at its peak, it did 129 mph in the quarter-mile. Of course the answer was “Yes!” And so he’s said “yes” 28 times to restoring historic race cars.
Jim’s seven children can be proud of their dad for all he’s achieved, including going 203.502 to gain entry in the 200 MPH Club at age 64. The same year, in 1998, Jim was inducted in the Dry Lakes Hall of Fame in Buellton, California; the late Don Francisco nominated Jim for the honor.
Jim wanted to acknowledge the influence Art Chrisman, Don Ferguson Sr., and Bill Fowler had in his path to success when it came to racing, plus the assistance they gave to the many race cars that Jim has restored over the years and life in general.