Cathy Elliott muses about about the passing of a NASCAR great while a current driver celebrates the arrival of a new edition to his team.
Guest Column by Cathy Elliott
It seems ironic that as NASCAR prepared to race last week at perhaps its most modern, contemporary track of all — Las Vegas Motor Speedway — one of the most significant events that occurred in the sport during the week leading up to the race focused not on the NASCAR’s present, but on its past.
Last Wednesday, February 24, 73-year-old J.C. Elder — “Suitcase Jake” — passed away.
Newer NASCAR fans may not know much, if anything, about Suitcase Jake Elder. In the days before celebrity crew chiefs like Chad Knaus and Greg Zipadelli were representing their team sponsors in national television commercials, Elder was hunkered down in America’s garages, interacting with a chassis rather than a camera lens.
His third-grade education might not have allowed for much of a detailed explanation about NASCAR telemetry; Rusty Wallace once described his tool box as being filled with “so much prehistoric stuff that it was unreal.” Elder ground out speed the old-fashioned way, by getting his hands dirty.
And he was very, very good at it. The long list of drivers he helped get to Victory Lane includes Darrell Waltrip, Fred Lorenzen, Benny Parsons.
He was Mario Andretti’s crew chief when Andretti won the 1967 Daytona 500, and David Pearson’s crew chief when the “Silver Fox” — NASCAR does love its nicknames — won back to back Sprint Cup Series championships in 1968 and ‘69.
The man who acquired his nickname thanks to a reputation for being somewhat of a NASCAR job hopper also worked with Dale Earnhardt for a while, helping “The Intimidator” win NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 1979. In fact, his character was even featured briefly in the 2004 ESPN original movie “3: The Dale Earnhardt Story.”
The famous names the sport is built on were propped up, gassed up and sped up by Suitcase Jake Elder. He has left an indelible impression, and will not be forgotten.
NASCAR honors its history.
It also celebrates its future. Even as tears fell for one of the most successful and respected crew chiefs in stock car racing history, eyes lit up in another part of the country, on the very same day, as Carl Edwards and his wife Kate welcomed 8 lb., 4 oz. Anne Katherine Edwards into the world.
In a single day, NASCAR lost a piece of its past, and gained a part of its future. What a poignant, albeit bittersweet, example of the way the world renews itself.
The Edwards’ baby’s story is yet to be written. I’m sure we’ll be seeing her at pre-race ceremonies, and maybe even in Victory Lane, before the end of the season.
Maybe she’ll be the CEO of “Backflip Motorsports” someday, in the tradition of Kelley Earnhardt.
She could become a doctor like her mom, or – I say this with my fingers crossed — a race car driver like her dad. We just don’t know.
But we do know this. She is part of the NASCAR community now, and fittingly, she has gotten off to a great start, with a nickname of her own — “Annie.”
A flight of fancy it may be, but still it is nice to imagine that the spirits of Annie Edwards and Suitcase Jake Elder may have nodded to one another as they passed on February 24.
As one bade its final farewell to the NASCAR family and the other said hello for the very first time, perhaps they both smiled to think that on this momentous day, the circle of life was an oval.