Hall of Fame crew chief Jake Elder, who would go nose-to-nose with anyone in the sport, helped make Dale Earnhardt a championship driver (Photo: RacingOne/Getty Images)
By Mike Mulhern
Legendary Jake 'Suitcase' Elder, perhaps the classic 'old school' crew chief, and the man who helped make Dale Earnhardt the legend he too became, has just passed on, at 74.
But didja hear the one about Jake and Mario Andretti and that 1967 Daytona 500.....or the one about Jake and that poker game with Herb Nab and Tim Brewer....or the day at Talladega when Bill Elliott hit 209 mph and Jake promptly announced he was planning to be the first man to hit 2-0-10....
Or the morning Jake got chased by a bear on the way to Pocono....
Didja know that that first NASCAR stocker Darrell Waltrip ran, back in 1972, was Andretti's '67 winner?
Back in Jake Elder's prime, racing was a lot simpler, and the NASCAR world was a lot smaller, and engineers not only weren't welcomed but weren't interested.
His computer was a ball of string. Literally.
That was Jake's favorite showstopper line.
Suitcase Jake...because he seldom stayed at any team for any period of time.
Elder began his career as a welder and fabricator for Richard Petty, and he was crew chief for David Pearson at Holman-Moody's in the 1968 and 1969 championship seasons.
The 1971 Detroit pullout from NASCAR closed down Holman-Moody and most of the day's other stock car teams, but when Darrell Waltrip arrived on the scene in 1972, he hired Elder to run his fledgling operation.
Then in 1979 team owner Rod Osterlund made the magical pairing of little known but wild-driving Dale Earnhardt with Elder. They not only won races that rookie season, but the next year Earnhardt went on to win the Winston Cup championship....though Elder only stuck around through early summer before deciding to move on to yet another challenge.
Elder's magic touch finally seemed to run dry in 1991, when Robert Yates decided he needed someone else to work with driver Davie Allison and brought in Larry McReynolds.
And Elder slowly faded away from the stock car scene.
The last few years he'd been fighting lingering illness and found himself laid up in bed way too much. This week it all finally ran out.
Junior Johnson, who raced against Elder during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s and 80s said "Jake was what you'd call a self-made innovator. He was one of the unbelievable people.
"You couldn't outrun the rascal because he had more commonsense than most people.
"I'd put him in front of 99 percent of the crew chiefs I've seen in racing.
"When he won the championship with Earnhardt, he only had about six people working on the that team. He could do it all himself. He was very, very gifted. That championship run with Earnhardt was one of the most amazing I've ever seen."
Elder was at times seen as a miracle worker, a journeyman troubleshooter: "He was the guy you would call when you needed some help," Rusty Wallace recalled. "If your old car wasn't running right and you were confused, you'd call Jake and say 'Hey, come bail me out?'
"He came over once with his tool box, which was filled with so much doggone prehistoric stuff it was unreal. He'd pull a ball of string out to set the toe-in."
But it was much his forceful optimistic personality as his old-school talents that would turn things around: "He just gave a driver that confidence...The car might not be that good but if you had Jake working for you, you had the confidence.
"And if Jake made a change, you weren't hardly about to tell him it wasn't better."
Petty said Jake Elder's chassis techniques were sometimes just off the cuff: "He'd put something on the car and say 'okay, now it's right. You go drive it. And don't come back complaining to me, because I got the car fixed. You just go learn how to drive it.' "
"Jake is a classic," former crew chief Tim Brewer said. "I met him many, many years ago...and I remember the first I met him we were all playing poker at Darlington, 1974 maybe. Jake, Banjo Matthews, Herb Nab, Richard Childress....and I figured out right quick what that game was all about....
"The next track at the track, Jake got in Pearson's race car and backed it right into one of those poles......Man, his veins were sticking out, and I figure he was the meanest man in the world.
"Now I'd know Jake's reputation long before. He was a super guy. Didn't have much education, but he could read a race track better than most people."
Brewer, now an ESPN analyst, and his wife Susan were long close friends with Elder and his wife Debby. "We'd hang around the lake on the boat drinking beer...."
And poker: it kept Elder and Brewer out late one night, perhaps too late, and when Brewer dropped Elder at his house, Elder turned to him and said 'Brewer, this might be bad. I don't know if that woman is half-wolf or what, but when she starts growling....'"
Then Debby came down with cancer, which she fought for 15 years.
"Debby was feeling down one day, so Susan carried her over to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem," Brewer said. "And then we went on down to the beach for the weekend. But Sunday morning we got a call from Debby's mom that Debby had passed away.
"At the funeral home Jake and David Pearson and I were standing in front of the casket, and Jake said 'Well, the Good Lord let me down...I asked Him to take me before he took Deb...."
Brewer went by to see Elder at the Statesville hospital the day after the Daytona 500. Elder wasn't having a good day, and Helen Moore, Elder's sister, who has taken care of him the past five years, told Brewer 'He's just a little ornery today.' And I joked 'Jake's been ornery ever since the day I met him.'"
And the even sadder part of this story is that not only did Elder die this week, but Moore's son was killed in an auto crash.
Brewer, who has been a frequent visitor to Elder's place the past few years and has watched him decline, says simply "Jake's in a better place now. That was no quality of life.
"The Jake Elder I know and remember is as strong as a horse, and never took nothing off nobody. And he could figure an old race car as good as any engineer.
"And he'd put a 'Huh!?' on you in a heartbeat.
"He'd grab his driver by the collar of his driving suit to make a point – 'Let me tell you something...' -- and that used to make Earnhardt so mad....
"Jake and and old Earnhardt were quite a team. When they'd roll into a track, Earnhardt driving and Jake turning those wrenches, let me tell you you have your hands full trying to beat those two gunslingers."
And that was back when Brewer had some power players on his own side, car owner Junior Johnson and driver Cale Yarborough.
Elder's fractured linguistics was also legendary:
"He told once at the track 'Brewer, if you want to win, you got to cycle 'em out.'
"I thought about that for a moment and said 'Jake, you mean you've got to 'psych' them out. If you just cycle them out, that means you're going to shoot 'em, and then you'll just have to go get more people.'
"And he came right back 'Some of these guys need to get shot anyway.'"
Elder didn't usually bother trying to keep his emotions in check, but frequently it was hard to judge just when Elder was cracking humor, trying to rile some one up.
It was a more laidback era....back before teams boasted hundreds of crewmen. "When you didn't have to worry about who was going to pack the wheel bearings, or build the gears or drive the truck or load the trailer...because you were the only dude standing there," Brewer said. "It took all the guesswork out of things.
"It was all good. I remember coming out of Riverside, stopping in Las Vegas. They used to have a 76 service station on the corner near Circus Circus where we all stayed here; I'd fill the truck up, and have enough left over for an ice cream and a dime to throw over my shoulder. And then we head straight on up to Michigan.
"I've left Vegas broke, and I've left Vegas with a lot of money.
"I'd like to see Jake again out here gambling with us....
"And I'd like to see him sit down with some of these engineers and drivers in a 'debriefing.' I don't know if they'd need to go in there with a football helmet or a baseball bat. Because Jake would put one of those 'Huhs!?' on them...."
Elder's fellow racers held a benefit a year ago, to help pay some of Elder's medical bills.
"And the two most standup guys at that thing were Richard Petty and (crew chief) Dale Inman," Brewer said. "It was a cold, rainy Saturday, just miserable weather, and those two stood there working for us.
"When Richard first walked in that room, he yelled at Jake: 'Hey, Jake. Get up out of that bed and come help me on my race car.'
"And Jake shot right back 'I'm too sick to work on it, and you're too old to drive it.'
"He's one of the guys who gave his heart and soul and life to NASCAR. He was one of the best. He'd go toe-to-toe with anyone.
"It's sad to see Jake go out like that. But he's in a better place."
[Note: You can use Twitter as an easy headline service for mikemulhern.net stories, with our instant Tweets to your mobile as soon as our newest NASCAR story is filed. And mikemulhern.net is mobile-friendly for viewing. You can also use the orange RSS feed button as a quickie headline service on your laptop or home computer for mikemulhern.net stories, by creating a Live Bookmark RSS feed on your web browser's toolbar. Or you can create a Google Alert for mikemulhernnet.]