The Ballad of Jim Gresham

I got the call about six am. My partner Bob Hedlund was on his way to one of our jobs in Malibu. “Mike,” he was breathless on the cell phone, “the radio is reporting there’s a bad accident out on highway 126”. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Is it one of our trucks?” “No, no” he said, “That’s not what I’m talking about. This is terrible, really bad.” “What is it?” I ask again. “ Mike”, he says with a deep heaviness that made me instantly weary, “the radio says it’s a race car trailer and truck. My buddy Jim Gresham was supposed to be back from the Midwest yesterday, he didn’t call me so I figured he was running late…but that’s the way he would go. Oh man, I got to call his brother, Steve….”

Jim Gresham At The Renaissance Of Speedway

Jim Gresham grew up with younger brother Steve and sister Kathy in Las Vegas. Had a paper route and one day when his dad was out of town, he talked his mom into buying him a little Honda 50 cc motorbike for his route. A couple more papers got tossed, but he took that bike and started racing TT on a local dirt course. The family pulled up and moved to San Francisco in ‘66 settling in San Mateo. Now Jim’s at Hayward Speedway running more TT and short track and even Dad’s grooving with it. Jim moves up to a half mile at Bay Speedway. In a short year or two they move again now to the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. Jim was a young man now and headed back to Vegas where he got a job in a casino and was racing off time. Another move for the family a short distance from the Valley to Thousand Oaks and Jim decided to leave Las Vegas and come home. The Sixties are ending and on the west coast motorbikes are exploding in speedway, short track, super bikes and motocross. Unknown to him, he was coming home to a cultural epicenter of all things cars, motors and bikes.

He took a job at Thousand Oaks Honda and started getting more serious about racing. Hooked up with local underground riders like Patty Carroll and they started hitting tracks from South Bay to the desert. Shared a speedway bike with a local legend named “Wild Bill” Todd and got racing at Whiteman Stadium. The deal just grew, speedway bikes were in the middle of an American renaissance and Jim was in the thick of it. It was Ventura on Tuesdays, Bakersfield on Wednesdays, Irwindale on Thursdays, Costa Mesa Fridays, Lancaster on Saturdays and even some special races on Sundays. Only Mondays were dark. About this time he was changing a split rim truck tire when the thing exploded and the rim hit him in the forehead, throwing him across the shop. He spent three months in intensive care. It took him two years before he could climb on a bike again, but he went out on his first race back, Costa Mesa, savaged the Main Event and took that trophy home. It spoke volumes. Younger brother Steve got old enough to ride and started working his own destiny. He headed to Europe in 74 and had a real good time. Steve tells me his success was modest, but to Jim back in California, for anyone who would listen, his brother was a racing god.

Jim shifted his scene to stock cars and Saugus Speedway, a cool 1/3 mile on considerable acres in Saugus, California. He hooked in with promoter Ray Marshall and both raced and worked the paved oval. He went from stocks to modifieds until the track shut down, something about OSHA and the grandstands. Ventura was forming a sprint car division under IMCA sanction and a small but growing clique of drivers started having at it. Early years included drivers Harlan Willis, Bob and Randy Moody, Rick Taylor, Jim Gresham and the Jordan brothers. It was the core genesis for what has become a storied history of sprint cars at Ventura Raceway. Jim was having limited success and his brother was back from Europe and helping. Lot’s of fights over setup, engines and driving strategy. After one bitter brotherly fight over set up, Steve decided to build his brother an engine. Jim took it out and won a memorable heat race battle against sprint star Ron Shuman. Steve carries the memories of that heat race to this day. Another story told me, Steve and Jim were having a row over how to get it done and both disappeared into the trailer yelling. When they came out, they had switched fire suit and crew chief hat. Each telling the other, “If you think you can do it better…”

Winning Where It Mattered
(Photo courtesy of Dave Wolf)

Steve started driving and an upcoming upstart named Jimmy Crawford pulled in Jim Gresham as crew chief. They campaigned hard and took the VRA Sprint Car Championship in 2002 with Jimmy "the Neutron" Crawford at the wheel. Jim took a brief detour into light Indy cars, becoming a team fabricator. He did a little traveling but found it weak after the mud slinging open wheel racing. He had developed the unshakeable opinion that sprint cars in the dirt were the highest evolution of speed and skill. He came back to Ventura and hooked up again with Crawford. They started racing from Perris to Hanford and all points in between. They started running a 410 at Perris Speedway and set their sights on the SCRA Midwest Tour, with Jim and Jimmy planning to hit it light in 2003.

Jim’s had evolved into a rather sophisticated mechanic, fabricator and expert on all things racing. Loved to collect spare parts. He never saw a used piece of equipment he couldn’t take home and squeeze another lap out of. He bought a property in Oxnard with living quarters and a race shop. Had the killer TIG welder, the bender and shear damn near everything you needed to build racecars. It was ten paces from the house to the shop. He’d skip eating if he only had money for racing. The only thing that mattered to him outside of racing was his precious daughter Tara. But he also had an infinite capacity of help for his friends. If you needed a part he would take it off his car or run back to his shop and grab it for you. He had become the spitting definition of your local home track racer. It’s funny with racing. Relationships are like walking through a minefield. Seems with everybody there is always some race, some deal, some words spoken and you get a lot of different reactions to people. But when I was thinking about this story, I went to people I know and trust. They told me about the core racer. They told me about the skilled car builder. They kept telling me about a heart as big as an oak tree.

As 2003 went on, things got tough and then tougher. Jim was building sprint cars. Steve was building engines. Crawford was the driver and Jim was the crew chief. Steve Gresham tragically lost his step son and son both in a short period of time and was trying to work his way out of a grief stricken paralysis. Crawford and Jim were racing Perris and all about. Crawford and Jim decided to hit the SCRA Midwest Tour again in 2004 for a couple of weeks. They had a crew cab dually with a 45’ trailer, with two sprint cars stuffed in with spare parts. They practically had to drag Steve into the truck, but they were determined. Steve was drowning. They hit every race from Oskaloosa, Iowa to Lakeside Speedway in Kansas. It was motels, fast food and hardcore racing. They were in the middle of the pack, scrambling from heat to heat and nobody was winning. But they were seeing dream tracks and racing their hearts out. In hindsight, the time the two brothers and their racing confederate spent together on that road became irreplaceable.

Steve Gresham and Jimmy Crawford (shown here at the Oval Nationals)
Are Still Close and Still Racing Their Hearts Out

At the end of that Midwest swing, Jimmy and Steve both flew home to Newbury Park. Jim took the truck and trailer and proceeded to haul it home. Seth Wilson’s team was in a caravan with them. Seth had some trouble with his rig and decided to strike south. Jim ended up giving Seth’s dad, Steve Wilson, a ride to Las Vegas. Once again, he was passing through the town where he got his start. He called his brother and reported that he was hanging with the Wilson’s and having the time of his life. He told Steve he had a plan and he laid it out. He was going to sell everything. Provided he could get Tara to go with him, he was going back to the Midwest to buy a home and shop. He knew what kind of cars he wanted to build. He knew he wanted to race full time. Steve put up some gentle protestations but Jim was unmovable. In his tender middle age, he was going to take it to the next level. He was going to spend the rest of his life in the racing heartlands. Excited and happy, he cruised across town and hooked up with longtime friend Mike Reynolds. But with the truck and trailer out on the street, Jim knew he had to get home. The desert heat made him decide to leave at nighttime for the final haul of the trip to Southern California.

I wonder about that last night of driving. Up off the Mojave Desert into Barstow, low moon in the West luring him on. Skirting the north edge of the naked metropolis, across the Pearblossom Highway, low hills dotted with oaks heading over the 14 down to the 5. Tack north for moment up to the 126 and swing west into the gentle farmlands of Piru and Fillmore. In the fragrant bosom of Ventura County, tired, almost home, should of pulled over and slept. But Jim was always full throttle. I don’t think he ever saw it coming. I think he fell asleep watching the trees slide by and the Lord just reached down, cupped him in his hand and took him home. The rig crossed over the divider, hit a power pole and jerked back across the divider. Off the shoulder and hit a combination of gulch and trees and came to wrenching stop. The fifth wheel trailer took the truck’s rear bed and folded it over the top of truck like a pretzel. Lee Davis was on an early morning haul for Taylor Truck and Crane and came across the crash. Phones started to ring in the early morning all over Ventura County.

All Things Racing

I don’t know how Steve Gresham ever got out of bed for the next few years. I can’t even think about the loss Tara endured. Jimmy Crawford went through a long stretch of pain and bewilderment. His new wife brought him a child and time does heal. Now Steve’s got a new daughter too. Bob Hedlund still gets up early, drives to another job and thinks often about his old friend. I think about the value of home track racing and it’s sturdiest citizens like Jim, Steve and the Neutron. Racing has a rhythm, the syncopation of Saturday nights, turning laps and engine revolutions. I hear it everywhere. You hum the memories and I’ll write a couple of lyrics. To me, racing sounds like the Ballad of Jim Gresham.