It was at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2006 that James Weaver walked away from the sport. Finally, nine years later I got a chance to talk with him about it and some of the rest of his racing career. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. I still remember seeing him walk away, not realizing at the time that this would be the last time we’d see James step out of a race car.
As far as stepping away, James knew it was time for him to stop. “I was coming up on 52 years old and to be honest, I was losing some juice. I still had speed, that season I took pole position at both Mosport and Houston, but I also knew I was losing some situational awareness and my bandwidth was starting to shrink. It was simply the age things. I could tell that I was losing some peripheral vision and my reactions just weren’t what they were. I struggled with the decision, but I finally knew it was time. I told Rob (Dyson) before Petit Le Mans and that was that. I got out of the car after the Laguna race and walked away.”
Part of the decision for James though was his family, he’d pretty much missed his oldest daughter growing up and he didn’t want to have the same happen to his youngest. So now, besides his well-known hobby of gardening, James has become known for his adept skill at cleaning out horse stalls, as his youngest daughter is into competitive horse riding.
James started racing with Dyson Racing in 1987, after racing part of the 1986 season with the Bob Akin team. “I was called in to race with Akin at Riverside in 1986 because Jo Gartner had other commitments. That was my first race in America , which oddly enough was won by Rob Dyson and Price Cobb and was also the race in which Doc Bundy, Lyn St James and Chip Robinson had their horrific crash. I couldn’t get over how casually everybody reacted to that accident. That was as bad as pretty much any accident I’d been around before, but those at the track treated it like it was no big deal, which made we wonder if this scale of destruction was common place!.”
When Jo Gartner sadly perished at Le Mans that year, James had a ride with Akin for the rest of the season (seen below in the team’s Porsche at Portland). But when Akin decided to step away from racing, James was recommended to Rob Dyson and a long term relationship developed, one that went on for 20 seasons of racing.
It was during that time that James found a home away from home. Dyson Racing has had a history of loyalty to drivers and James is a prime example of that. To this day, James is revered by the team. Even though he hasn’t driven for the team for quite some time, he is still considered a part of the team and is quite often still at the races, at least when family and gardening commitments allow.
About his years with Dyson, James is still a bit surprised at how it all came together. In an article on www.dysonracing.com , James said, “it was a huge amount of fun. I should not really say this – it was like being paid to be on holiday. You are being paid to do your hobby. You stay in nice hotels and travel around the world doing what you absolutely love doing. You would cut off your arm to get in a racing car, and yet here you are getting paid to do it.”
James established a great rapport with the team as well as his fellow drivers. First off was Price Cobb (above with James and Rob Dyson), of whom he had tremendous respect. Then came the Three Musketeers, Andy Wallace, Butch Leitzinger and James. The camaraderie and long run that these three had with the team and each other was truly a special time in the sport. Unfortunately many of the really juicy stories are still subject to gag orders. That said, I’d have killed to be at any of the many lunch gatherings that James, Andy and MCC had through the years.
In the later years of his career, James and Butch made an interesting and very competitive pairing. From the outside, it seemed an odd pairing, but it was effective. In the practice sessions, it would usually be James driving throughout the sessions while Butch kept busy doing whatever he did to keep occupied. “Setting up the car was something I’d been doing for quite some time with the team. It just continued that way. Rob didn’t care how it was done, just as long as it was done. Butch would get in the car and scrub the race tires occasionally, but it was usually me carrying the load while he sat,” said James with a laugh.
“Actually it was quite impressive, Butch usually would just get into the car and within 3 laps he’d be right up to the limits. It was quite astonishing.” Rob took the view that it was more effective having one person follow the changes through on the car, but this wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t had Butch to make the whole thing gell. In the ALMS days of open cockpit cars, it was always pretty easy to tell who was driving the car, with James it was especially easy.
First there was the trademark helmet and then the orange gloves. “The helmet came along quite easily early on. I had no money, so I simply masked off the white stripes and shot the helmet in dark green.” The other noticeable feature of James in the car was the position of his head, it was always leaning forward. “Some of that forward tilt was an illusion, as I put a subtle rake on the striping to add to the look, but I was leaning forward. I made it my trademark and the striping added to it. Growing up, I’d seen Moss race with his arms straight and Rodriguez race with his head back, so I decided I needed to have my own style, so I went with it. Essentially what I did was find the edge of the slip stream going over the cockpit and then I just rest my head against it.”
As far as the orange gloves (above), they had a purpose too. “I liked the orange gloves. They really served a purpose as it made my hands visible so that I could communicate with the corner marshals. They have a tough and underappreciated job, and I liked to acknowledge them and show some appreciation towards them when I could. Plus it helped to keep them on your side. They’d sort of look out for you a bit more, just because of the attention. I’m pretty sure that personal attention caused them to turn a blind eye towards some possible punishable offences I’d committed on track.”
Before racing in IMSA in 1986, James didn’t have much experience with American tracks, but soon grew to enjoy racing on this side of the pond. He also grew to really enjoy some of the tracks here. “Mosport, Watkins Glen, Lime Rock, Sears Point and Road Atlanta, at least in the earlier configuration were some of the tracks I really enjoyed the most. I liked the challenge of racing on these circuits. They aren’t the sanitary European type tracks. They are fast and challenging – racing at these tracks and doing well brought forth a great sense of satisfaction.”
To James, the lack of run-off area didn’t bother him. It simply heightened the challenge of competing. As did racing in the more manual input cars. “Now the cars are full of driver assists. And the tires are so much better than they were, especially back in the 962 era. Back then, the grip was rather lacking in the slow corners. It wasn’t until the ground effect kicked in that the cars really stuck well. In some ways the 962 was an easy car to drive, but it took a lot to get the best out of it.”
As far as his favorites, he’d have to say that the Riley and Scott, as well as the Lola MG were his favorites. “They both were very enjoyable cars to race. The Riley was considered a high downforce car (for a non ground effect car) in it’s day, but it was only generating 1800 – 2000 lbs of downforce at 150mph. Just a few years later, the MG Lola was up around 2700 – 2800 while the big Lola we had in 2006 was up around 3200 – 3300 lbs. Just a few years difference, but the changes were significant.
“That big Lola (B06/10) had a tremendous upside. It was fast and very comfortable to drive. Plus the developments coming for 2007 would have been significant, as AER were looking at adding about 100 hp to the mid range of the power curve. It would have been impressive.” It didn’t happen though, as the team opted to return to Porsche with the RS Spyder for the next season.
One car that likely would make someone’s favorite list was the Spice Ferrari that Dyson raced in the early times of the WSC era in IMSA. Rob once stated “that car is best forgotten. It was a dust bin special. As Spice was in financial trouble at the time, I believe they swept the floor and picked up any bits they had left over to construct that car.” To James, that car “wasn’t all that bad, but because it was running a Ferrari V8, it was rather underpowered.”
The failure of that car did lead the team to the Riley and Scott Ford, of which the team had great success.
Through the years, James had some memorable races and a couple that were brought up in our conversation points to the skill required to compete at the top levels of the sport. The first was one that got away.
“I was racing one of our 962’s at San Antonio in 1990. I’d found that the edge of the track offered some fantastic grip when I was right up against the wall, so I ran that line consistently. Maybe a little too consistently though as I lost the rear wing end plate while leading the race. I’d been brushing the wall and the light contact with the wall gradually ground down the buttonhead screws holding the end plate in place.”
But the precision that James drove that car with became apparent when the endplate was recovered and it did not have a scratch on it. At least it was some consolation for not winning. But it was later that season that James won at Tampa in a race that he really had no chance to win. “I was running in second place late in the race, 2-300yds behind Geoff Brabham and his Nissan when it started to rain. All of a sudden I noticed Geoff get loose. He went off as he hit the sudden downpour first, but I had enough time to recognize that this section of track was wet, so I was able to back off enough to make it through and take that win.”
Probably his most infamous race may be Del Mar in 1990. “We were driving a 962 – a factory tubbed car, which of course was turbocharged. At that point we were running with side exhaust, which of course pointed right towards a sound meter that the organizers had put in place to monitor noise. They kept telling us we were the nosiest car on track, but there was no way.
“It was just an unfortunate result of the exhaust routing out of the car. The team did what it could to re-route it, but it was to no avail. Eventually they gave us the go-ahead to race. They knew what was going on and knew it wasn’t our problem. Unfortunately a local sheriff was around and he saw the meter and that we were above the limit. He started making noise that we should be black flagged, so eventually the black flag came out, pointed at me.
“I was confused what was going on and getting more and more frustrated by the lap. Eventually I’d had enough. I cut the corner and took out the microphone. Unfortunately, the mic was on a 100 yard cord, on a table manned by Admiral Rogers, a man who had seen action in the Navy, protecting the country. Well, hitting the mic at about 120 mph sent that thing flying.
Right towards the Admiral. Through all of the battles he’d been in, he later said this was the closest he’d even been to getting killed. Thankfully he saw the funny side of it, after some time had passed…” (the damage to the Porsche is shown left!)
James has been a class act throughout his career and has been a true friend to Dailysportscar through the years. To have the opportunity to catch up with James again at Rennsport was one of the highlights of the year. My thanks must go to both James and Brian Wagner for putting this all together. (below is the DSC Ed’s favourite picture of James – taken at Sebring in 2005)