Life in the fast lane
Elburn shop owner changed the world of drag racing
By Harry Hitzeman
Posted Sunday, July 01, 2007
A long look at local newsmakers
When Jerry Clayton was 8, he’d use a step stool and tinker with tractor engines so they could have more power and pull a larger plow at his dad’s farm in downstate Jacksonville.
In his teens, like many of his friends, he’d work on his car to make it faster.
“It was just something we did,” recalled the Wayne Township man, now 66. “Then, you raced what you drove.”
When Clayton was in his early 20s, it was repairing engines as a mechanic for United Airlines. He later flew jets for the company.
By his 30s, he and racing partner Jim Keeling were lighting up the quarter-mile drag racing strips in California with their iconic “California Charger.”
Racing experts say it changed the face of drag racing and set the standard for other cars.
Today, Clayton and his son, Corey, take pride in infusing this expertise — not to mention horsepower — into cars from people across the suburbs at their Clayton Racing shop in Elburn.
“It’s an accomplishment for us that we made the total picture better, even though it’s not our car,” he says.
It seems like every car, engine and chassis scattered around their large garage and workshop has a tale to tell.
The newer model black Corvette in the corner is waiting on specialized parts for a twin turbo package.
The shell of a hot rod that Clayton hopes to turn into a ZZ Top-like roadster? That’s a project for his wife of 33 years, Robin.
Even the seemingly out of place 1989 Chrysler LeBaron has a history: It’s rare turbo-charged engine is being rebuilt.
“A lot of the engines we do are specialty,” Clayton said. “They’re cars that you see out and around that different enthusiasts have.”
But the car with the biggest story isn’t even at the shop.
A private collector in California owns the “California Charger” dragster. Despite its lore, he doesn’t want to sell it to any of the various drag racing museums.
So that’s where Clayton comes in.
Keeling and another guy worked to build the car in the late 1960s. But when Keeling’s partner got married and quit, Clayton bought out his half.
Together they worked to make the front-engine dragster something to be admired — and feared — on the track.
“A lot of people remember the car. The car had a reputation. It had all these lookers, but it was fast. It was the car to beat,” Clayton said. “If guys beat us, they couldn’t come back for the next round because they blew their (engine) up. They sacrificed their lambs.”
Clayton and Keeling eventually sold the Charger’s frame and body but not its engine to another team, which planned to race in a lesser class. It eventually wound up in private hands.
Clayton said the move was needed so he and Keeling could start racing in circuits where the engine is at the rear of the car behind the driver.
“We were moving up in racing,” he recalled. “We didn’t have any room for the car in the shop. In competition you have to keep moving ahead. It’s an evolutionary process.”
Setting the standard
Today, shows like A&E’s “Driving Force” give the masses a behind-the-scenes look and mainstream introduction to drag racing.
And some say it was Clayton and Keeling who helped pave the way.
“Jerry is modest, but he’s a hero to many people. He was one of the true pioneers who made the sport what it is today,” said Ron Colson, a retired racer and president and founder of Track Planning Associates, a race track consulting firm.
Decades ago, Colson traveled to the West Coast to race during Chicago winters.
Colson was impressed with the beauty of Clayton’s car, especially in an environment that puts so much stress and pressure on the machine.
“In the 1960s, the cars became works of art whereas before they were mechanical devices and form followed function,” Colson said.
“They just stood out from the crowd,” added the Oregon, Ill., resident. “As performers, they were outstanding. But as artists and maintaining the car, they set the highest standards the sport has ever seen. Most of our cars had some battle scars. Theirs never had a mark — it was fixed so fast.”
In addition to craftsmanship, the pit crew wore coordinated uniforms to help sell the Charger team.
“It was a show piece,” recalled Lou Novotny, an Ohio resident and dragster circuit director for the not-for-profit United Drag Racers Association. “The car was exceptionally nice. If you were in the pits or around the car (you would see) it was exceptionally well done.”
The dragster appeared on the cover of racing and mainstream magazines. Clayton’s got them preserved in a modest case at his shop, along with posters and paintings by others that have paid homage to the speedster.
Clayton also has a few unopened models of the Charger made by the Northbrook-based Revell.
Ed Sexton, Revell vice president of product development, said the company, then based in Venice, Calif., included 12 to 15 dragsters in its line in the 1970s.
Sales figures from the Charger’s initial release were not available, but the firm did a reissue of about 5,000 a couple years ago and they all sold out, Sexton said.
Today, units can be found on the eBay and other hobbyist Web sites.
While it seems like everything in Clayton’s life has been geared toward speed, he’s downshifted in recent years.
Clayton raced dragsters until the mid-1980s, but scaled back in part because landing sponsorships became more lucrative than winning purses.
“Back then, it was a couple of guys who built a car. The big sponsors have taken the personality of the teams out,” he said. “We didn’t throw money at things. We worked with things. You build a car and you stay with it.”
Clayton also won numerous contests in stock car racing with his sons Corey and Frank, now 30 and 23, in the 1990s.
In 1999, he opened Clayton Racing at 701 E. North St. in Elburn.
Most of their business is through word of mouth. There’s no such thing as a typical job, and there’s a rise in business every year when people start receiving their tax refunds.
Some recent requests have been from drivers who race at Sycamore Speedway.
Track officials changed the rules about what type of carburetors drivers can use; Clayton is one of the few people with the knowledge about modifying older ones.
Steve Clement, an Elburn resident who races at Sycamore Speedway, has had Clayton do all types of work on his car over the years.
“He’s down home,” Clement said of Clayton. “I can walk in here and it’s like being with family. He tells you the way it is and it’s done right.”