J. C. 'Jake' Elder
Born: November 22, 1936 - Died: February 24, 2010
CUP: ‘Suitcase’ Jake Elder Dead At 73 SPEEDtv
He was known to many simply known as "Suitcase"...
His name was J.C. Elder, but virtually everybody who knew him called him Suitcase Jake.
Elder, one of the most successful crew chiefs in the history of NASCAR, died Wednesday. He was 73 years old and had been in failing health since suffering a stroke in 2006. Elder was in a Statesville, N.C. assisted living facility. A fundraiser was held for him recently, and those who weren’t able to attend still contributed by sending a check to Memory Lane Museum at 769 River Highway, Mooresville, N.C. 28117.
Elder was the top wrench for driver David Pearson when Pearson won Sprint Cup championships in 1968 and ’69. Over a career that began in the late 1950s and stretched over the next 40-plus years, Elder worked either as a crew chief or leading mechanic for some of racing’s best drivers, including Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Fred Lorenzen and Benny Parsons. He attended public schools for only three years, but he might have been the best “shade-tree” mechanic ever in NASCAR racing.
During Elder’s crew-chief years, the job was more about preparing the car and less about organizing and scheduling, as is the case today. Elder’s main task was to produce durable, winning race cars.
Elder also is remembered for one of the best quotes in the history of the sport. It was been repeated in numerous versions over the years, but after crew-chiefing for Earnhardt in his first win, Elder told the young driver: “Stick with me, kid, and we’ll have diamonds as big as horse turds.”
Ironically, it was Elder who did not “stick with” Earnhardt. A season after helping Earnhardt win the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year title in 1979, Elder left the Earnhardt team for other pastures. It was a process, Elder, a committed perfectionist, would repeat many times during a career that saw him in more jobs than a normal resume sheet could hold. His frequent job-hopping earned him the nickname Suitcase Jake.
If he soured on a situation, he would pack his tools and head down the road, sometimes with only a moment’s notice.
“I have a problem getting people to understand how I want things done,” he once said. “Usually, I can get it done myself quicker than I can explain to them how I want it done.”
Earnhardt, then a rough-and-tumble, hard-core racer still trying to figure out the top level of the sport, later said Elder played a key role in his racing education.
Elder, whose success in stock car racing could be linked to his expertise in developing winning chassis combinations, started work at Petty Enterprises in the late 1950s. He made a name for himself in the 1960s while working for the giant Holman-Moody Ford factory team, based in Charlotte, N.C.
Elder and Pearson were both rising quickly through the sport during that period, and they teamed at Holman-Moody to win 27 races and the national championship in 1968 and ’69, seasons in which Pearson started 48 and 51 races. The toughest competition during that period came from Elder’s former employer, Petty Enterprises, and its lead driver, Richard Petty.
While at Holman-Moody, Elder also led Mario Andretti, one of the world’s best racers but an infrequent visitor to NASCAR, to victory in the 1967 Daytona 500.
In the early 1970s, Elder hooked up with young driver Darrell Waltrip and was pit boss for Waltrip’s first Cup victory at Nashville, Tenn. in 1975.
“He could hook up whatever horsepower they had to a chassis and make it work,” said long-time NASCAR broadcaster Barney Hall. “He knew what made the cars work underneath. Teams would see him coming down pit road and let the jacks down on their cars because they knew he could take a glance at the springs and know what they had.
“And he was a man of few words. I remember several radio interviews with him after his car fell out of a race. Somebody would ask him what happened, and he’d say, ‘Blowed up,’ and walk off.”
As racing got bigger, more impersonal and more sophisticated in the 1990s, old-timers like Elder often were passed by as engineers and specialists began to dominate the sport’s shops. Late in his career, he moved away from high-level responsibilities and worked as a team mechanic and in various other jobs.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.
"Suitcase Jake" refers to Crew chief Jake Elder, arguably one of the best crew chiefs in the history of the sport. Jake knew what he was doing when it came to cars, but he had a problem settling down or fitting in. He earned the name by never staying with one team long enough to settle down, but by the same token, his brief stays were welcomed by every team that was lucky enough to benefit from his knowledge. Throughout the 70s and 80s he probably lent his expertise to almost every driver on the track, but he always seemed to move on. Even while he was there, he wasn't hard to spot. Jake would be the on who wasn't in any kind of uniform. Usually a short-sleeved shirt was what you would see. Patty Kay - InsiderRacingNews.com
'Suitcase Jake' epitomizes early years of engineering
Long before there were laptops, and waves of technical gurus, NASCAR had its own version of engineering expertise.
Jack Roush, who entered the Winston Cup series as an owner in 1988, has fond memories of guy named Jake Elder, a respected crew chief of the 1960s and 70s who exercised a knack for garage problem-solving in his later years.
"If you had a demon, if your team was beset by bad luck, he would bring his little bag of templates and stuff to check out a car with," says Roush. "And he would go in and the guys would get out of his way, and he would make his adjustments, and when he was done, if there was a demon in there, he'd have it chased off.
Nicknamed "Suitcase Jake," Elder -- who still lives in North Carolina -- apparently wasn't just practicing voodoo. He was David Pearson's crew chief during Pearson's Cup championship seasons of 1968 and '69, and had, "instinct, a great feel for the cars," according to another former Cup champion, Benny Parsons, who worked with Elder as his crew chief for four seasons.
"And his tape measure, on the sides that didn’t have the numbers and the lines, he would put his felt-tip marker marks," explains Roush. "And those would be things that he would use to check various places on the car for critical dimensions, that he'd worked out to be correct."
According to Roush, "Suitcase Jake" had one tape measure for short tracks, and one for long tracks. And Roush -- who has a masters degree in scientific mathematics -- swears the man could chase demons (real or imagined) from race cars.
He remembers noticing Elder on the hauler roof next to his one day at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"And I'm timing on the front side on the start-finish line, and he’s timing on the back," says Roush. "And it looked to me like you'd have more trouble seeing back there based on the motor homes and things. I said, 'Jake, why are you timing on the back?' And he said, 'Well, I'm trying to pump my driver up today. You know, whenever I time on the back I usually get a faster time, and he needs a little pick-me-up today. I'm trying to pick up his spirits a little.'"
The retelling prompts laugher; Roush clearly relishes the story. He says the legend of "Suitcase Jake" epitomizes stock car racing's old common-sense approach to a very mechanical, and sometimes mystifying, sport.
"But that era, I think unhappily, is gone," laments Roush. "To where nobody can really take the race car on themselves. We're today resigned to having specialists in different areas." Sports Illustrated
Grand National / Winston Cup Statistics
3 Cup Championships:
YEAR DRIVER OWNER C. CHIEF MAKE WINS EARNINGS
1980 Dale Earnhardt Rod Osterlund Jake Elder
Chevrolet 5 $451,360
1969 David Pearson Holman-Moody Jake Elder Ford 11 $183,700
1968 David Pearson Holman-Moody Jake Elder Ford 16 $118,842
Copyright © 2003 LegendsofNascar.com by Roland Via. All rights reserved. Revised: 06/08/12 08:11:11 -0400. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works. FAIR USE NOTICE: This web page may contain copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. This page is operated under the assumption that this use on the Web constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. Any text or images that you feel need to be removed please contact me. LegendsofNascar.com is not associated or affiliated with any racing club or organizations including that of NASCAR. It is constructed simply as an internet information source. Images and content made be used with email permission. Opinions and other content are not necessarily those of editors, sponsors. Please visit official NASCAR information website at NASCAR.COM.