Memories of Suitcase Jake Elder
When news came that one of the most memorable Southern characters had passed from this world, I found myself musing back on the color, interest, and myriad conflict he brought to the world around him.
He was not boring. Not ever. And that, my friend, is the boldest mark of a fabulous character, Southern or not.
Actually, I read his obituary in Sports Illustrated and found myself pleased, smiling indeed, that the magazine had recognized the magnitude of his being by awarding him a lengthy column that ran down the entire page. No brief mention for the life that had belonged to Jake Elder. He deserved more than that and that’s what he got.
If you’re an avid stock car racing fan, you know the name. Immediately to mind has come also the names of legends Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt, for you know that Elder’s genius as a crew chief was lethal when combined with the driving geniuses of Waltrip and Earnhardt.
Together, Elder helped those men rewrite the history books of NASCAR racing. Elder directed both men to their first NASCAR Cup victories and was even there to oversee Darrell’s last victory in the Southern 500 in Darlington in 1992.
Not that he stayed with Darrell for all those years. Goodness, no. He probably had two or three hundred jobs during the almost 20 years between those two wins.
We called him “Suitcase Jake,” a moniker that he wore as casually and as unconcerned as the billed cap that he often pushed back from his forehead. He was, as in the words of that famous Southern rock band the Allman Brothers, a “rambling man.”
He rambled mightily. From one team to another. Six months with one team was known as an eternity in the life of Jake Elder. If you made him mad, if you riled him, which was mindlessly easy to do, he’d simply pack his suitcase, roll his toolbox out the door and head to the next garage. There was always an open door beckoning to Elder, for his brilliance was as welcomed as a thirsty cornfield welcomes rain on a hot, summer day.
I remember once while I was working in the sport, that one team announced Jake’s arrival to their garage stall by putting a suitcase on the back of the race car. Across the suitcase were emblazoned the words: “Suitcase Jake is Here.”
One day I was looking for him and approached one of the crew members on his team. “Oh, Jake’s done gone.”
“When did that happen?” I asked.
“’Bout an hour ago.”
He hadn’t gone far, it turned out. Just about three stalls down the garage where he had parked his tool box and suitcase. For the moment.
Jake was ornery; eloquence of word or gesture was never his forte. Born in the backwoods South, Elder could neither read nor write. He was what has been called “country dumb.” That’s not a dig, mind you. It’s a mighty compliment. His lack of education often teased folks into underestimating him. But he was nothing short of brilliance. He understood a race car in a way that was nothing short of genius.
When I heard that this unforgettable Southern character was gone, I called race car driver Kenny Schrader, remembering that he and Elder had worked together (again) briefly.
“Give me a great Jake Elder story,” I said. Schrader didn’t hesitate. Immediately, he recounted a time in Talladega during qualifying when cars were running (in the old days before restriction plates) 207 (two-oh-seven) mph and 208 (two-oh-eight) mph. Then Bill Elliott hit the track and shattered all speed records by going over 210 mph.
Jake came running up and said, “That son-of-a-gun just went two-oh-ten!”
I threw back my head and laughed deeply. Then the laughter melted away. Characters like that just don’t pass this way very often. How sad.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Flirting” and “The Town That Came A-Courtin’.” Her newest book is “What Southern Women Know about Faith.” She lives near Gainesville, Ga. Sign up for her weekly newsletter at www.rondarich.com.]