by Jack “Captain Jack” McClure
I’ve been racing most of my life and it all started because of a guy I knew in Mooresville North Carolina that sold moonshine. He was one of those good old boy bootleggers that sold some of the best moonshine that money could buy. The funny thing that was that he lived less than a block from the police department. One day, he asked me if I would start running moonshine for him. The guy that made the stuff lived about 20 miles out in the country. I would drive out to his place, park the car and go inside while he loaded the car; not much (about 3 or 4 gallons in pint and quart Mason fruit jars). I would drive back to his place, park the car in his garage, and he would unload it. I got into a few police chases in those days, but I never did get caught. I would out run them every time they came after me. I was real good at it and I loved to go fast. Still do!
You know, they still make moonshine down south and it’s still a thriving business. I never did touch the stuff, but those hillbillies would treat me really good every time I delivered a new batch of moonshine. They would always ask me if I was hungry and if I said I was, they would go out and kill a chicken just so I would get a fresh home cooked meal. “Them are my kind of people.”
At the time, there were a lot of guys that ran moonshine for a living that turned into racecar drivers. When I moved to Columbia, South Carolina, I started racing my 1939 Ford in what NASCAR called the Modified Sportsman Division. My license was signed by William Tuthill, Bill France’s partner and Secretary of NASCAR. I raced with some of the biggest names in Stock Car Racing, like Ralph Earnhart, Gale Yarborough, David Pearson, and Lee Petty. I remember a young Dale Earnhart hanging around with all of us drivers at the track when he was just a little boy. NASCAR was a big part of my life from 1953 to 1958, but every year racing kept on getting more expensive and I eventually walked away from it.
In 1959, I started racing Go Karts with West Bend motors on them and won four Championships. Once my name got out there as a leader in the sport, I opened up a store called Jack McClure Racing Products. We sold Go Karts and other racing equipment.
I decided to put two West Bend racing motors on my Go Kart and took it out to the Orangeburg Drag Strip. That thing would go 100mph in the Quarter mile and the promoter said he would give me twenty-five bucks and a trophy if I would race a Super Stock, and if I beat the Super Stock he would give me a hundred dollars. That was the first time I was paid to race another vehicle. Later on, I built a Kart with four West Bend engines. It was really fast and would easily go 125 mph in the quarter mile.
I was a little crazy back then. After I made the quarter mile run, I would go down the return road at 80 to a 100 mph; and then, to entertain the crowd, I would do a 360 degree spin and keep on going. The crowd would go nuts!
If four engines was good, I thought I’d add some more. I decided to put six West Bend engines on my Kart, thinking it would gain another 10 or 15 mph. But, the thing was so darn heavy that it wouldn’t go much faster than with four engines. It just handled terrible, so I went back to running the four engine Kart.
On the side of my trailer, I had a sign that said Fastest Damn Kart in town. That slogan got a lot of attention and one day a guy came up to me and said “What town are you talking about?” I replied “What town is this?”
One time, I was racing in Danville, Virginia, at the Danville Enduro Regional race. It was an International Kart Federation sponsored event, but the Civil Air Patrol had control of the raceway. Pete Berlt from Huntington, West Virginia, and his father were on my pit crew. Pete said: “I’ll give you the seconds you are ahead or behind on the blackboard as you past the pits.” After we lined up for the start and got the green flag, I took the lead on the first corner. The first time past the pits I knew I was in the lead. On the second lap’ Pete flashed the sign “10 seconds”, the fourth “29 seconds”’ and so on until I had built up a lead of 148 seconds. Then, I ran over a spark plug on the track and blew a tire.
After making one lap on a flat tire, I came into the pits. Pete was standing in front, signaling me where to stop, and Garner was getting ready to change the tire while Pete refueled the Kart. As Garner got ready to make the switch, he discovered that the wheel was stuck on the axle. It took him 108 seconds to knock it off and put another one on. I was losing ground. While Garner was changing the wheel, he inhaled so much of the alcohol and oil fumes from the exhaust that he passed out before he could get the axle nut tight. I thought that when he quit he was done, so off I roared with the nut still loose. I guess my lucky stars were shining, because the wheel stayed on and I won the race by a lap and a half.
One day I was reading a magazine and saw an advertisement for a company called Turbonique that sold rocket and turbine engines. I sent for an 8 mm film showing various applications of the rocket motors and it really sparked my interest, so I called Gene Middlebrooks, the owner of Turbonique. I told him I had the fastest Go Kart around, but I wanted to go faster. Gene said if I put a rocket on my Kart it would go faster. Gene also said that I would be the very first person to put one of his rocket engines on a Go Kart. So, in March of 1963, I took my Dart Grand Prix Kart down to Orlando, Florida. Gene installed a T-16 Rocket motor with 300 lbs. of thrust. It took him about three days to finish it.
I immediately took the Kart to a racetrack up in Georgia. It hadn’t been tested, so this was a new experience for both me and the Kart. There was a dimmer switch on the floor to start the rocket engine, and I didn’t know what to expect when I pressed that foot switch for the first time. There was a lot of fire and noise, but the Kart would only about a 100 mph during the first run, so the track promoter wasn’t too happy. He said “I hired you to go 125 mph!” He wasn’t going to pay me, so I took my four-engine, West Bend powered, Go Kart out of the trailer and ran 125mph. The crowd went nuts and the track promoter decided to pay me.
I needed the Rocket Go Kart to go faster if I wanted to make money with it, so that following February I went down to Florida to meet Gene again. He said I should try two Rocket Engines. We added another T-16 Rocket Engine to the Kart and took it out to an old metal shack in back of Gene’s place that had equipment set up to measure the thrust and fuel flow. When we first test fired it, Gene told me to go stand outside with a fire extinguisher in case there was a fire. As I was standing out there, I noticed there was a concrete and brick wall in front of the steel building. I started to wonder how safe these rockets were if you had to stand behind a brick wall.
This was the first time that two Turbonique T-16 engines were fired at the same time and there was a small fire after the engines shut down. I went back into the metal shack, looking for Gene. He wasn’t there, so I went outside and found him behind a railroad car. I asked him “Why are you hiding behind the railroad car?” A little shaken, he replied “Because I have a wife and two kids!”
I enjoyed many years of racing and defying the odds and eventually got a Kart to go over 225 mph in the quarter mile. I gave it up years ago to go charter fishing, but now, at 88 years old, I am back to racing my Kart again with the help of my good friend Ky Michaelson and others. I have decided, however, to keep my speed down to 200 mph in the quarter mile. I’m still fearless, but it scares everyone around me if I go too fast!