As I began this interview with Jack Wyatt, I knew it would be interesting for multiple reasons. Growing up with a father that was involved with drag racing made the stories not only interesting, but also connected my childhood to an example of what a childhood dream can ultimately achieve.
As I walked into Jack’s shop, Jack stepped away from prepping his nitro top fuel funny car for his upcoming race at Cordova, Ill. for the World Series of Drag Racing. Looking quite worn out, it’s apparent that Jack is very self-reliant to achieving his goals involving the sport he loves.
Running around his race shop was his beagle Buster, named after the long time NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) starter and the pictures of all his different funny cars over the decades. Even a first time visitor can tell it isn’t just a hobby for Jack, but a way of life.
With the internet available, anyone can search information on what a nitro funny car is, the specifications in which one is built, and what kind of horsepower one can produce. Such as the fact that one single cylinder in a nitro top fuel engine produces more horsepower than an entire NASCAR engine or the fact that if Jack sat in his funny car at idle at the Indy 500 starting line he would beat an Indy car to the first turn if he left from the standing start as the field sped by at top speed.
With a smile on his face, Jack sat down and immediately began sharing the stories five decades of pursuing his dream has provided him.
Jack fell in love with drag racing at a very young age. He remembers his first exposure to drag racing was back in 1966 when his late brother Darvin took him out east of Corydon on what now is old Highway 2 where the road was blocked off and people took turns racing each other at the drop of a flag.
Not too long after, his family moved into Corydon and by chance moved next to Benny Davis, which just happened to have one of the hopped up cars Jack witnessed out on Highway 2. While working on his go-cart at the age of 12, his new friend helped Jack weld up his go-cart frame.
Flash forward to 1969 when Jack accompanied Benny to the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Ind, otherwise known as “The Big Go”. It was at this time the impressive nature of what Indy is all about that Jack swore to himself that he would only bring a car he felt would be competitive in the respective field in which it ran.
On their way to Indy a random meeting with a guy late at night that owned a 1948 Anglia, which Jack immediately fell in love with, set the direction of Jack’s story to follow. The chance meeting ended up with telephone numbers being exchanged.
At the time Jack was still in his early teens and the idea of owning such a car was just not realistic. By the time Jack got back from Indy with Benny, the owner of the ’48 contacted Jack about purchasing the car. Although very interested, Jack explained that he didn’t have the money to purchase.
Low and behold the car was already sold to Jack as the purchase price of the car had already been paid. Owing Benny the difference of the Anglia’a purchase price, Jack was committed to working off his debt and there was no turning back.
Soon after Jack took ownership of the hot rod yet still being under the legal age and with the help of Chuck Reed, Andy Decker and Bill Cox, he had another individual driving and competing in his racecar.
For a length of time Jack was infamous in the drag racing circle under his alcohol funny car’s name of the White Devil. When asked of this Jack explained that the individual that painted the car, Bill Butterly, was left to paint his car as he saw fit and the name stuck.
A decision was made in the late ‘80s to pursue the nitro top fuel ranks after the alcohol funny car racing became too easy for anyone to “purchase turnkey chassis/engines”. So changes were made within the set up and at Union Grove, Wis. a couple of passes were made to see if it was possible.
Once again friends within the drag racing community stepped up, and not only was the idea of running nitro top fuel experimented with but the track owner, Broadway Bob, placed Jack in the top fuel show with no experience in the top fuel ranks.
At this time Jack, not only faced experienced opponents with no hesitation to his new set up by out-running, the well-funded Hawaiian Punch sponsored team driven by Johnny West, meeting another seasoned funny car by the name of Insanity in the finals.
Over the years the expense of running a nitro top fuel funny car has exceeded what most could justify without a major sponsor or deep pockets. When asked how he managed to stay competitive while racing as an independent, Jack explained he never really felt the pressure to spend the kind of money some of the teams spent.
He joked that although he has been “out dollared” over the years by more funded teams, the fact that his foot is hooked to his own wallet has kept his competitive desire more conservative.
To provide an idea on conservative top fuel racing versus many other teams; Jack travels with one chassis, one body, one race ready engine with two spare short blocks, three sets of cylinder heads, one spare supercharger and just enough clutch packs. Jack also maintains his pit with himself, his son Tyler Wyatt and usually two volunteer crewmembers.
Many other teams travel with two chassis, two bodies, two race ready engines with seven spare short blocks, twenty spare sets of cylinder heads, four spare superchargers and numerous sets of clutch packs. In addition to the driver, many teams will have a dedicated crew chief and up to seven paid crewmembers.
At this point the stories came faster than anyone could keep track and I was happy to just sit back taking it all in and listen.
So where does the story go from here? It depends on what one thinks success entails.
From a trip to Abu Dhabi were Jack was a crew member on a top fuel dragster in which he personally met the King of Malaysia or the trip to Australia where Jack loaded up his funny car, engines, support parts, etc. in separate containers and delivered to Australia for a match race U.S. versus Australia.
There have been opportunities to meet celebrities such as Tommy Lee of the hard rock band Motley Crue, or Johnny Knoxville of MTV’s Jackass fame, or musician Kid Rock another rock and roll legend or professional wrestlers such as the Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin or Bill Goldberg.
The fact that Jack’s son Tyler grew up at the track racing with his dad and has been able to experience many of the life experiences drag racing, literally all over the world and still races with him to this day, adds to Jack’s success.
Then there’s hot rod royalty such as spending time with Don Garlits or the fact that Tommy Ivo signed Jack’s first AA (alcohol) drag racing license.
Coming full circle, 46 years after attending the Indy U.S. Nationals with Benny, Jack stood in the winner’s circle as a crewmember on the Morgan Lucas driven top fuel dragster. As he was holding the trophy and basking in the excitement of the win he had one call to make. That call? To Benny Davis to say thank you.
The stories above don’t even provide a snapshot of the experiences in which Jack has lived. The list goes on and on. Many of the stories long since forgotten, are ones most car-guys would love to hear but these aren’t just stories. These are life experiences that a kid with a passion decided to pursue.
His long storied career is being celebrated with Jack being inducted into the Drag Racing Hall of Fame at the World Series of Drag Racing being held on Saturday, Aug. 24 in Cordova, IL.