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Jimmie Who?

By Chris Sokoloski
Coastal Observer

For every Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin, there are thousands of Jimmie Wilsons.

Wilson settled in Litchfield after spending 50 years working on almost anything that had four wheels and went fast.

So well-known was Wilson in his day, he was the subject of a magazine article after a reporter watched him walk down pit road and be greeted by most of the drivers, crew chiefs and team owners he passed.

Wilson died this week at Waccamaw Community Hospital. He was 71. Last year he shared his some of his memories with the Coastal Observer.

Wilson grew up in Columbia, the son of a janitor. As a boy, he said, his family had "nothing."

When he was 16, he worked for a junk man who owned a race car in Ashwood. In those days, there were hundreds of tracks and everyone from the junk man to the guy who owned the filling station owned a race car.

His boss asked him if he wanted to race it. It only took one race and he was hooked.

But cars began to interfere with other obligations.

"I played some ball in [Dreher] High School and one of the coaches said you've got to decide if you're going to play ball or mess with those race cars," said Wilson. "Coaches complained that I was getting paid when I raced cars on the weekends. They put pressure on me to make up my mind, and I said 'see ya round.' "

Wilson worked on or drove cars in the late 1950s and early 1960s, while studying mechanical engineering at the University of South Carolina.

His career wasn't glamorous.

"You didn't have time to savor anything," said Wilson. "We did it to make money. I could give my wife some money to raise the baby."

Wilson raced in Sumter on Tuesdays, Columbia on Thursdays, Savannah on Fridays, Greenwood on Saturdays, and Harris, N.C., on Sundays. "I couldn't afford a car, I'd drive for other people," said Wilson. "I did lots of tire testing or testing for anything. I'd get tires for half price or for free."

One of his heroes, whom he worked for in the early 1960s, was Curtis Turner. Wilson regards Turner as "the greatest stock car driver that ever lived." Turner won 360 races and in 1998 he was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers.

In 1964, Wilson and three friends fielded a car driven by Ralph Earnhardt, father of Dale.

During one race that year, Earnhardt qualified third, and Richard Petty qualified fourth. While waiting for the race to begin Petty walked up to Earnhardt's car, slapped the trunk and said "I'm going to put my bumper right here or maybe up to your back window, so get out of the way." That was not an idle threat. Something broke on Earnhardt's car and Petty left him in the dust.

Ralph Earnhardt died in 1973, but Wilson remained friends with Dale.

Wilson said Dale Earnhardt was competitive in everything on and off the track. He and Earnhardt went frog gigging with two friends and when the trip was over, Earnhardt displayed five frogs and asked "How many you got big boy?"

Wilson then showed off 18 frogs and a duck.

"I don't how ya'll did that making all that noise," said the dismayed Earnhardt.

Wilson said "The Intimidator" that everyone saw at the track and in public was very different from the introvert he knew.

"You can't even get a beer at a filling station anymore," Earnhardt complained. "You go in and people mob you."

Wilson comforted him by telling him "you could walk in and nobody would know you, but you wouldn't have the money."

By the early 1970s, Wilson said NASCAR had changed. A partnership with R.J. Reynolds in 1971 created the Winston Cup Series and brought in big money.

But money brought problems.

"A lot of shyster people came along because it was a lot of money and no contracts," said Wilson.

He won his last race as a crew chief in 1975.

In 1994, Wilson was crew chief for Jim Sauter when NASCAR debuted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In 1995, he was crew chief for Shawna Robinson.

"She was a pretty good race driver," said Wilson.

Robinson was trying to race her way into the Daytona 500 in one of the two 100-mile qualifiers. She had worked her way through the field and was about to pass Geoff Bodine to ensure a spot in the 500. Bodine told Wilson that he recognized Robinson's car and started weaving around the track to prevent her from passing.

Robinson told Wilson she would have tried to pass Bodine, but she didn't want to get killed.

"Don’t worry about that," Wilson joked. "We’ll have somebody in the car next week."

Wilson said NASCAR racing is much harder than Indy racing. Although the cars in both series run the same horsepower, the Indy tires are wider and the wings on the both ends keep them level. NASCAR cars are tall, have a high center of gravity, and they lean.

"If [Indy cars] could run that fast upside down they would stick to the ceiling because the downforce is greater than the weight of the car," said Wilson.

After 50 years in racing, Wilson doesn't spend a lot of time watching it on TV.

"A carpenter doesn't go out on Sunday to watch someone build a house."

He said he never dreamed NASCAR would be as popular as it is now. If he had, he would "have paid more attention. I would have documented everything. Back then you made your mark and you were satisfied in your heart. If nobody knew about it that’s OK."

Wilson said the heroes of racing are the ones who get behind the wheel.

"I'm not a hero, but I made some heroes."

And he's uncomfortable with accolades.

"Some people break their arms patting themselves on the back."

For now the husband, father and grandfather is happy with his quieter life.

He's a civil process server for the Georgetown County Sheriff's Office, and in his spare time he's building a lakester. Wilson started working on the 33-foot racecar about eight years ago when he was teaching motorsports to high school kids in Lumberton, N.C.

Once he finishes it, he wants to get the students back together to race it.

What does a man do after 50 years around the high-decibel world of racing?

"I want to sit on my porch and listen to the ocean."

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