R.I.P. Walt James
R.I.P. Walt James
Walt Mother's Day, May 13, 1923 - September 9, 2009
Walt as Grand Marshal the the Wagsdash
Walt doing signatures
Walt at the legends
Waalt at the Legends
Walt with daughter Vickie
Walt in the pits
Walt from the old days
Here is a press release on his life:
Racing legend Walt James passed away on September 9, 2009, at the age of 86. He was a decorated World War II veteran, flying 26 missions as Lead Bombardier/Navigator, based in England. He served three years active duty and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal of Honor. He remained in the Reserves where he retired in May of 1983 with the rank of Lt.Colonel.
After the war Walt and his brother Joe joined other daring young men at Ash Can Derby, where they would race their street cars on an ill-kept sandy oval or went to the Dry Lakes (now part of Edwards AFB) and ran speed trials. He became a charter member of the newly formed California Roadster Assn where he raced roadsters against such future greats as Jack McGrath, the Rathman brothers,Troy Ruttman and Pat Flaherty. Walt also raced sprints with other big racing names and stocks with the likes of Parnelli Jones. In 1950 he was voted into thePresidency of the CRA, a job he cherished for 21 years. The CRA flourished in California, Arizona and Nevada. In 1969 Walt had an idea which he was able to interest Terry VanGorder in. Terry was the Vice President at Newhall Land and Farming in charge of Recreation. “Walt was the founder, architect, builder and General Manager of the newly formed Indian Dunes Motorcycle Park,” says VanGorder. He transformed 600 + acres of unincorporated land along the Santa Clarita River into a premier motorcycle facility which opened June of 1970 and remained in operation until 1985. He had wanted a place where families could spend an entire day of fun. There were two main race tracks, the International and Shadow Glen, a mini-bike track, and if you got tired of riding on a track, you could spend hours out on the trails. He added a tenth mile dirt oval for Speedway bikes, then enlarged and paved it for Three Quarter and Micro Midgets. The Dunes was a second home to many kids and hosted racing from several different clubs like CRC, CMC, and AMRA (now NMA). The World Minis began its history at the Dunes, running there from 1972 to 1976. It was the starting ground for many young motocross riders many of who went on to become top riders in the industry like Donny Hansen, Johnny O’Mara, Kyle Lewis, Eric Kehole, Larry Brooks, Jeff Ward, Jim “Hollywood” Holly, John Desoto, and many, many others.
In 1982 Walt and a group of buddies resurrected the Western Racing Assn, a sprint car club that had folded in the mid 50s. It was to be a group of older sprint cars and midgets to show off the ingenuity of the early days of racing or, as he liked to say, the Senile Racing Group. He’d say, “We’re just a bunch of old blind guys who still love to go fast.” Also about 1981, Bill Huth owner of the Willow Springs Raceway, encouraged Walt to build a track for WRA and in 1982 the track was open for business. A very surprised Walt got to the track to find it had been named WALT JAMES STADIUM. Every year since on Thanksgiving weekend Walt and Dottie have hosted the WALT JAMES VINTAGE GATHERING. Bill Huth has said he will still have the 17th annual Walt James racing weekend this Thanksgiving.
Walt never met a person he didn’t have a smile for or a helping hand. He touched thousands of people’s lives and will never be forgotten. But his joy was always family, with wife Dottie by his side at racing events, watching son Lee racing sprint cars as a top contender with the World of Outlaws, and all his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He had a twinkle in his eyes seeing grandsons Brent, Tanner, and Caden race motocross, and was amazed at the kinds of tracks that are built nowadays and how the motorcycles had progressed. He did always comment that they didn’t need to be grading the track during motos, that the guys should have had the rough lines that were at Indian Dunes and then they wouldn’t be complaining so much.
He is survived by his wife Dottie, son Lee James, wife Lori, grandson Jeff (wife Cindy and their six children) granddaughter Lindy; daughter Vicki James; and daughter Wendy Lovgren, husband Bobby, and grandsons Brent, Tanner, and Caden.
Here is one by Tim Kennedy:
OBITUARY -------- WALT JAMES – 86 (5/13/23 Mother's Day – 9/9/09 at 9 am) LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Walt James, known as Mr. CRA for leading the California Roadster Assn./California Racing Assn. sprint car sanctioning body, passed away peacefully September 9 at home in Acton, California. He was 86. He was hospitalized at the Veteran Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles for two months with debilitating back pain and had two surgeries to connect four vertebrae to relieve back pain shortly before he succumbed. Walt will be remembered for his quick smile, fascinating racing stories, helping hand for all, and respected leadership in racing over the decades. He worked for the best interests of racers and was a gentleman, family-man, competitor, and racing pioneer with a wealth of knowledge that he shared freely. Walt was president of CRA for 21 years from 1950-1970. He then worked as founder, architect, builder and general manager of the new Indian Dunes Motorcycle Park in Castaic, north of Los Angeles for Newhall Land and Farming. He ran the 600+ acres facility—a motorcycle recreational/motocross park--from June 1970 until 1985. The jovial, popular leader also served as president of the Western Racing Assn. vintage racing car club for four years. Walt and fellow racers in 1982 revived the WRA sanctioning body name which had been been inactive since the mid-1950s. He was still active in WRA and drove his vintage No. 15 CAE-built, non-wing sprint car in recent years at WRA speedway events. Walt was an inductee into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993 and later the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame. He was a nominating and selection panel member for both groups. Walt and his family organized the annual CRA Reunion luncheons held each January at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park. Walt served as the emcee each year, introduced guests and the honoree, and told interesting stories about many of them from his active memory. Walt and his younger brother Joe, a 1951-52 Indianapolis 500 driver who started 16th and finished 13th in 1952, were born in Mississippi. They raced roadsters in Southern California after their World War II military service. Walt raced CRA roadsters, which served as a springboard for many drivers to the Indy 500, until the mid-1950s. A serious car crash on a country road near Fresno in 1950 claimed the life of famed Novi engine designer/builder Bud Winfield and hospitalized Walt for months with leg fractures and rib injuries. The crash possibly cost him a 1951 Indy 500 ride. Walt was elected to the CRA presidency in absentia while he was hospitalized after others declined the job. Joe lost his life in November,1952 after a racing crash on the San Jose mile dirt track. Walt entered the war as an enlisted man and served three years as lead bombardier/navigator on B-17 bombers, flying 26 missions out of England. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal of Honor. Walt left military service as a Captain and remained active in the Air Force Reserve. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War and achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel before retiring in May, 1983. Walt designed, consulted on or built various racing tracks such as Gardena Bowl (Western Speedway), Whiteman Stadium in Pacoima, Santa Maria Speedway, Indian Dunes tenth- mile oval, Willow Springs Raceway dirt oval in Rosemond, a track named Walt James Stadium by track ownership. The track named in his honor hosted an annual open on-track event over the Thanksgiving Day weekend where anyone may run. Willow Springs owner Bill Huth said that 17th annual tradition will continue. Graveside services with full military honors will be held Friday, September 25 at 10:00 am at Riverside National Cemetery, 22495 Van Buren Blvd. in Riverside. The cemetery is located just west of the 215 Freeway and March Air Force Base where Walt served on active duty. His final resting place is northwest of Perris Auto Speedway, where Walt was honored at the September 19 USAC-CRA sprint car race with a parade lap in his honor and monetary awards to leaders of laps 15 and 24, car numbers Walt used. A celebration of Walt's active and distinguished life will be held in the future when plans are formalized by WRA associates and his family. He is survived by wife Dottie, son Lee, a winning CRA sprint car and World of Outlaws sprint car driver in the 1970s, daughters Vicki and Wendy daughter-in-law Lori, son-in-law Bobby Lovgren, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His younger sister Annabelle Allen, of Florida, also survives. In lieu of flowers or cards, the James family requested that donations be made in Walt's20honor to one of the following organizations: the Castaic Lions Club, where Walt was a member for 40 years, “c/o Lion Walt James Memorial Scholarship Fund”, P. O. Box 312, Castaic, Calif. 91384; to the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, P. O. Box 3661, Princeton , N. J. 08543-3661, or to Road 2 Recovery (for downed motocross riders), 23623 N. Scottsdale Rd, Suite D-3420, Scottsdale, Ariz. 85255. By Tim Kennedy
And one more by his wife Dottie:
Walt had driven all types of race cars starting with the dry lakes, roadsters, jalopies, early and late model stock cars, a few midgets - most anything with four wheels. Racing interests could have well started in the mid-thirties when he and his brother Joe challenged the other kids on the gravel back roads of Saucier, Mississippi near Gulfport . He rode to California at 16 with an Uncle, following the lean depression years, for a job paying 25 cents an hour. There he lived with his Uncle, Aunt and cousins who had a gas station in Van Nuys where the Red Car made its turn about. Everyone wanted to get gas where the blonde curly-haired kid had such a unique southern accent. He met up with guys racing 'bob-tail' cars from Jeffreys Bam which sparked his interest, he also discovered and started running street drags in typical teen style.
The next year - after Walt's glowing reports of great weather, etc, - his dad, his Aunt Sis - who moved in to help take care of the kids after her sister's death - (Walt's mother had died in the big flu epidemic when he was 10), younger brother Joe and baby sister Anna Belle joined him in California. The James clan moved into a new house on two-laned Victory Blvd in Van Nuys in 1940. When Walt entered Van Nuys High School the gym classes were full so they put him in a modem dance class - Walt walked right on out the door and enrolled at North Hollywood High using his Aunt's address.
When World War II started, Walt enlisted in the Army Air Corp hoping to become a hero fighter pilot. But he was so ambidextrous, they put him through bombardier/navigational training and while still a teenager, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant and sent to England where he became a lead bombardier over Germany with the 398th Bomb Squadron of the 8th Air Force. As the war was nearing the end, Walt was promoted to Captain with various medals to show for his time - the Air Medal of Honor with several Oak Leaf Clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross to name the main ones. In all, he flew 26 missions.
Walt remained in the active Air Force Reserves until retirement as a Lieutenant Colonel- not without some interesting incidents, i.e., being called back in during the late 1950s, but Bombardiers were no longer used and his current job of running a racing association didn't help them at all, so they put him in charge of WAF (Women's Air Force) picnics at March Air Force Base until they could get rid of him which was just in the nick of time as he had a race in Phoenix over the next weekend. Then, while living on a chicken ranch in the city of Winnetka, (in the district of the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles) he got a call to go to Edwards Air Force Base for a physical, he asked "when", they said "immediately". Off he went thinking he'd be an hour or so and would head back home. When he arrived, they started at his head and by the time they got to his fingernails he was running out of patience - he asked how long this physical was going to take - they said probably a couple weeks. After he caught his breath he started asking questions, seems they were giving him an astronaut physical. Needless to say, he was soon en route home as he was much past the age requirement. After the war Walt got involved with all types of racing including many dry lake runs but mostly at San Bernardino 's "Ash Can Derby" where a 16-year-old named Troy Ruttman was winning everything. Then he joined the newly formed roadster club where he and his brother Joe had to sit out the first race. Seems their Franklin center steering they had been running at San Bernardino was ahead of its time - by the end of the first season CRA was requiring it. In CRA Walt and Joe raced with the likes of future racing heros Troy Ruttman, Andy Linden, Manuel Ayulo, Jack McGrath, Pat Flaherty, the Rathman Bros and many others that went on to national fame. Walt was trying to find his own way to Indianapolis in October 01'1950 with Bud Winfield (of No vi fame) when he, Bud and two other fellows were in an auto accident on the way home from Joe's race at Clovis, CA. Walt says "two fools met at an intersection and I was riding in the back seat with one of them". Unfortunately Winfield was in the front passenger seat and bore the brunt of the collision - he was DOA at the hospital. Walt had been thrown from the car, had both legs crushed at the hips, chest crushed, punctured lungs and head injury. The General Hospital was suggesting amputation of both legs. Joe, whose truck was featured that month in Hot Rod Magazine, had already made it back to Van Nuys before the police could catch up with him and in the meantime Walt was drifting in and out of consciousness and at some point told them he was a veteran and the next thing he remembered he was heading across town in a big shiny limo-like ambulance. Doctors at the Fresno Veterans Hospital were responsible for Walt walking again.
With the experience Walt had received as a DJ on the hospital's own radio station, he lost his boyish shyness and much of his accent. With the California Roadster Association in what seemed to be it’s final days at the time looking for a new president, and no one wanting the job, Walt was elected while still 200 miles away in traction at the hospital in November of 1950, Walt figured he wasn't going to lose anything but some time that he had plenty of, and postage stamps - he used the V A phone and got some tentative replies and CRA certainly wasn't going to lose anything because of his inexperience – remember, everyone else at the meeting had turned down the position. Thus started a main stream letter writing and phone call campaign that topped everything else and the rest, as they say, is history. After eighteen months of pins in both legs from hip to knee and needing the aid of crutches, guys lifted him into a roadster at Carrell Speedway February of 1952.
Brother Joe did go on to Indianapolis where he ran for two years before a fatal Champ car accident in November 1952 at the San Jose Fairgrounds. To this day a race at Salem , Indiana is held in Joe's honor and when his good friend also lost his life it became the JOE JAMES/PAT O'CONNOR Memorial which closes out the Midwest sprint car season. Joe was posthumously awarded the AAA 1952 Sprint Car Championship.
Walt's family decided to return to Mississippi after the war leaving Walt and Joe to 'batch' at the Van Nuys house. Walt had driven several roadsters for Sunset Auto Supply over the years and enjoyed being invited to their home for meals, often with Betty and Harold Miller (whose sister he was dating). He later married the daughter of the owner of Sunset Auto - no doubt expecting the same kind of home cooked meals.
Walt had always wanted an airplane but time and finances would never allow it. When he was building Whiteman Stadium (located at the far end of Whiteman Airport , he kept seeing an old Luscombe circa about 1946. In asking about it, he found out the tie-down fees were way in arrears and he could buy it for those fees - he was elated with his new purchase. While Walt had many flying hours as lead bombardier on B-1 7’s, things were pretty different with a small two-man plane and he was always "going to" take the necessary lessons. In the meantime, he'd go by and polish it up in a spot or two every few days. Finally he got an acquaintance to take him up kind of forgetting the plane had been sitting for years and there might be bird nests plugging vital items - that was his story then. At any rate he and his friend were unable to get back to the airport and at an after work rush hour, San Fernando Rd was pretty busy so they set the plane down in the Pacoima Wash (a tributary of the Los Angeles River) and things were going well until they hit a big clump of brush and dumped it over. Then the story changed that they ran out of fuel but the bottom line was both guys were okay - Walt, with his experience of getting shot down several times over Germany , simply braced both feet on the dash and both hands overhead. A passing motorcyclist hearing they were in trouble followed them and made sure they were alright and Walt had him go to nearby Village Christian School where son Lee was at football practice. The whole team came out to help with the plane.
In 1970 Walt retired from the CRA to build and manage Indian Dunes Motorcycle Park in the Valencia/Castaic area on Highway 126. It became internationally recognized for the two-wheel wonders and also a unique and therefore favorite setting for many movie and TV shows - Walt's favorite was BAA BAA BIA CK SHEEP - the story of 'Pappy' Boyington's renegade (and heroic) fighter pilot group. Walt was able to meet 'Pappy' Boyington who personally signed his book about the Black Sheep for Walt. Walt had also become good friends with Robert Conrad (who starred as Boyington) as well as Andy Griffith, Steve McQueen, John Wayne's son and grandsons, Paul Newman, Dick Van Dyke (whose screen and real life personas were identical- i.e. his "tripping" incidents always made people catch their breath as he would go down the stairs from the Dunes office) and a new-comer, a teen age beauty - Cheryl Stoepplemoor was often a trophy girl. You may know her better as the now famous Cheryl Ladd. Heather Locklear was also present weekly with her racing boyfriend.
Indian Dunes was closed sometime in the late 1980s to make way for the new town of 70,000 to be known as Newhall Ranch - it never happened. In 1982 Walt and several of his racing buddies reactivated the Western Racing Assn which had been a big sprint car club of the 1930s, 40s and folded in the mid 50s. Walt was the first president, a post he held for four happy years. Then he decided he wanted his own sprint car and be able to travel since - with the closing of Indian Dunes - he was retired by Newhall Land and Farming and by the Air Force after 30 years. He joined every vintage club from coast to coast and British Columbia and truly enjoyed life. He was very proud to have been inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993. Walt was a real racer and liked nothing more than to swap stories with other old-timers - each one bigger and better! He eagerly looked forward to talking to folks after the events - heck, Walt just looked forward to talking!! And racing was always FUN. Way too much racing history was left undocumented with his passing - and today's drivers, while very talented and fast, have missed out on the sheer strength and raw courage it took to man-handle a machine through the dusty turns with no power steering.
Walt had served as a Cub Scout leader, a Junior High Boys baseball coach, head of the highest respected racing club in the Nation, architect and builder of an equally respected Motorcycle Park, former President and loyal member of the Castaic Lions Club (which touched him very deeply with the presentation of an inscribed brick in the Veterans Memorial Plaza in Newhall), former President and just as loyal member of his vintage racing club (Western Racing Assn), and of course, the honor all the gang at Willow Springs bestowed on him by naming their oval stadium after him. He built or assisted in building untold number of race tracks in California . His brain was picked (as the saying goes) from many other tracks outside of the state as well. He was known of in other countries and had a life well lived. He truly believed in God, the Bible - still said his childhood prayer each night - his family, his country (often questioning the decisions made, but still believing) - and that there was good in mankind -- again, a life well lived.