San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

March 25th, 2011
Thunderhill’s oldest driver still on the road

Cars sit at the starting line before a race on Saturday at Thunderhill Raceway. For some drivers, Like “Gentleman” James Huff, the sport is a family affair. At one point, Huff was regularly racing against his wife and brother-in-law. (Photo by Lincoln Ramirez)

 

by WES FERGUSON

The purple race car bolted around a corner. Then it stopped dead in its tracks.

The driver crawled through the side window and ambled forward, offering a smile and a handshake.

Thunderhill officials see good times ahead

STAFF REPORT

In its first year as an official NASCAR home track, Thunderhill Raceway in Kyle is speeding toward a couple of other new developments, including a possible reality show.

Thunderhill spokeswoman Debbie Williams says the raceway is also following closely the efforts to bring Formula One to the Austin area. The annual race would be the only F1 event in the United States.

“An event like that,” Williams said of Formula One, “is bigger than any NASCAR event. You’re talking millions of people.”

Thunderhill, a 3/8-mile oval track, opened in 1998 on Interstate 35 north of Yarrington Road. Williams spoke about Thunderhill earlier this week.

On Thunderhill’s relationship with Tavo Hellmund, the Formula One promoter:

He has rented our track in the past for Texas Racefest and has brought some NASCAR races to our track over the years. We have a relationship already with him, and we look forward to partnering, tying our events together somehow.

He’s got way bigger fish to fry than us right now, but hopefully down the road we can somehow combine our efforts … We haven’t talked to him about it.

On whether a reality show will be filmed at Thunderhill under the direction of Paul Hogan and Hogan’s partner Sarah Platt:

They have put together their presentation to the networks based on videos and photos we were able to send them. … They’re making progress, and they’re real optimistic. When the deal is signed, they feel like things will move very fast and furious.

On Thunderhill’s first year as a NASCAR track:

Most people are very familiar with what you see on Sunday afternoon on TV, the NASCAR Sprint Series. What they might not realize is NASCAR has many rungs on the ladder.

Our track is a NASCAR home track, which is the grassroots level of NASCAR. Our drivers can say they are NASCAR drivers legally, and that’s the biggie. The fact that we’re sanctioned by NASCAR gives us exposure, and our drivers are now competing with NASCAR drivers all over the country for NASCAR points and NASCAR money.

The casual stock car fan or somebody that’s not even a stock car fan will recognize the name, more than anything.

“Hi,” he said. “James Huff.”

That would be “Gentleman” James Huff, as his fans know him. At 74 years old, Huff is by far the oldest – and, many claim, the most gentlemanly – of the drivers who compete at NASCAR’s Thunderhill Raceway in Kyle.

“Racing keeps you young,” Huff said. “It’s the need for speed.”

He’s heard of other elderly racers, but he’s never met any who are as old as he is.

“Most of them had better sense and went ahead and quit,” he joked.

Racing on and off since 1956, Huff in recent years has been competing in the Allison Legacy series in Kyle. On March 5, the first race of the 2011 season, Huff finished in third place – not bad for a septuagenarian who competes against drivers who are less than a third his age.

On Saturday, the second race of the season, Huff was hoping to finish even stronger. His wife Janette was there to help him.

Janette, 57, used to race, too. Now she serves as her husband’s spotter. While James is racing, the husband and wife communicate by headset, with Janette telling James when to slow down for a caution flag, for instance, or when to watch out because another car is about to pass him.

“That’s the one time I get to tell him what to do,” Janette said. “No, really, I tell him what to do all the time, but it makes a good joke.”

Janette last raced in 2008. She was a fierce driver, her husband said.

“She will pick a line and run it,” he said. “If you want to pass her, pick another line because she’s not moving.”

“If you want it, you better get around me,” Janette added. “We don’t cut no slack.”

Janette’s brother, Del Harris of Huntsville, is the third racer in the family. At one point all three relatives were competing against each other.

“When we’re all out there on the track together,” Harris said, “they call us the family feud. ‘Kinfolks’ stops when we enter that track.”

Harris attended Saturday’s races in Kyle to watch his brother-in-law. He would have competed, too, but his own car was undergoing repairs and wasn’t ready in time.

A loudspeaker boomed through the pit, instructing all the Allison drivers to report for their upcoming race. James put on his helmet over his gray hair and crawled back through the window of his car. Janette put on her headset and made her way to the bleachers, joining a crowd of more than 1,000 spectators.

From the start, James was in the pole position, leading the pack of five cars. Huff’s car, a Monte Carlo, hugged the turns and hogged the inside line. But one of the other racers, Kris Kerr, a teenager from San Antonio, was on the outside and breathing down his neck.

Before the race, Kerr had commended Huff for mentoring the younger racers and offering advice whenever asked.

“He really knows what he’s doing,” Kerr said. “He’s got a lot of experience.”

But now Kerr muscled around the old man, dropping Huff into second place. Two other cars wrecked, and the yellow caution lights came on to warn drivers to slow down.

“Caution! Caution!” officials told Janette and the other spotters, who then relayed the message to the drivers.

With a wave of the green flag, signaling for the race to resume, the other cars zoomed past Huff. He fell from second to last place, climbing back to fourth as the drivers entered their final lap.

Kerr was still in the lead, one turn away from the finish line. But just before he could claim his victory, the driver in second place rammed him from behind and spun him out of control. Kerr was unable to finish the race, and the driver who hit him was disqualified.

And like that, Huff was bumped from fourth to second.

“Well,” he said afterward, “I’ll take a second place any way I can get it.”

Janette leaned through the driver-side window and gave her husband a congratulatory kiss.

“Close finish there, baby,” she said. “Close finish.”

Once again, Huff crawled through the window of his race car. He was moving a little slower than he had been earlier in the day, and he was asked how long he planned to keep racing.

“I don’t know,” Huff replied. “I think I’m as competitive as I ever was. I still have the competitive spirit.

“I get to thinking every so often that my reflexes are slowing down. But I’ve told all the guys, when I get out there and start making mistakes – because I’m too darn old – y’all let me know and I’ll quit.”

But don’t expect “Gentleman” James to ease off the gas pedal any time soon. He still works five days a week at his business, Huff Metal Recycling in Houston.

“I would retire, but I have too many bad habits. And there sits one of them right there,” he said, pointing to his Monte Carlo. “Social Security will not support a race car.”

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