Jim Hughes Businessman/Racer
I attended several races this season to do research for a story on Jim Hughes’ S/G ‘Vette. Even though his racer is an impressive piece of machinery, I came away more impressed with Jim than with his ride.
He’s a big bear of a guy, the kind of person you’d want to marry your sister, coach your kid’s little league team, be your next door neighbor, or make/sell you transmission parts for your race car.
No matter how busy, he greeted those who came into his pit area with a smile and a firm handshake, be they customers, fellow racers or just fans. Cynics out there might say that he’s a businessman, so that’s how he should act. Yes, he is a good businessman, but it goes far beyond that. On many occasions racers using a competitor’s products approached Jim with questions, and he was quick with advice. Jim’s adamant in declaring, “I’m there to race, but the customers always come first.”
It was the same way in the staging lanes. He and Hughes Performance Motorsports Director Kevin Kleineweber were engaged in constant conversation with fellow racers (read: S/G competitors), plenty of handshaking, back slapping and laughter, and once again, help and encouragement.
Last year’s U.S. Nationals helps to further illustrate the kind of guy Jim is. His son’s the captain of his high school football team. Their big homecoming game was played on the Friday of the most important race of the year, but Jim wasn’t about to miss that game. So he reconnected with sportsman ace turned Top Fuel shoe Shawn Langdon and offered him the seat in the ‘Vette. Langdon, having history with Jim, jumped at the chance. The move was fortuitous for both, as Langdon captured the Indy S/G crown in Big Red, his nickname for Jim’s ‘Vette. Jim flew back to Indy from Phoenix and was on hand for the victory. By the way, his son’s team also won the football game!
Now about Big Red: It’s the third in a series of C5 Corvette-bodied S/G cars built for Jim by Don Davis Race Cars out of El Paso, Texas. The initial version built in 1994 was the first C5 ‘Vette-bodied racer to see the track.
Jim had owned several of Don’s fabled S/G ’27 roadsters, so he was the natural choice when Jim needed a new car—in a hurry. At Sonoma, Jim’s right-hand man, Kevin Kleineweber, totaled the Hughes Performance ’65 S/G Chevelle. Although he had to be airlifted from the track, he lived to tell the tale. Jim had been planning on a new racer, but now he needed it by Indy. He liked the looks of the then-new C5 Corvette, so that’s what he commissioned Don to build. Not only was it done on time, but it also won Best Engineered at Indy. Each of the three versions has been masterfully engineered and is structurally solid. The balance is exceptional, with no chassis preload, and it’s very stable at all speeds. Additionally, Don’s cars are able to utilize all of the increased horsepower today’s engine builders are producing.
Recently, Don and Jim have taken their relationship to a much higher level. Don sold his business, but the new owners weren’t having much success and were about ready to throw in the towel. Jim didn’t want to see his friend’s legacy end in such a manner, so he bought the business and brought Don back into the operation. You can expect to hear much more from the reinvigorated Don Davis Race Cars, including in this magazine.
Another of Jim’s long-term business relationships that’s continuing to bear fruit is with Tracy Dennis and his Sunset Racecraft Racing Engines, in scenic Lubbock, Texas. Jim has relied upon Dennis to supply his horsepower demands for the past eight years. Obviously, Tracy and his company have been up to the task, assisting Jim in netting multiple national events wins during this period, and even his 2002 Super Comp NHRA World Championship.
None of Jim’s racing exploits would have been possible if he didn’t put stock in that old adage, race on Sunday, sell on Monday.
Jim’s family business, Hughes Performance, which manufactures racing transmissions and all parts therein, especially torque converters, is the launch pad for his racing operation. The Corvette serves as a rolling research and development laboratory for the company.
When I say “family business” I mean just that. Jim’s father, William Hughes, started the business in 1971, manufacturing OEM torque converters. Jim built the first racing converter for his own use in 1977. Soon his fellow racers began asking Jim to build converters for them, and the performance business took off from there. The company employs 30 in its 28,000-sq-ft facility in Phoenix.
The main reason Jim is able to attend the races as he does is because he knows the operation is in good hands, especially those of his brother Jeff who runs the Transmission Department, sister Jan the office manager and Hughes’ General Manager, Tony Cane. Before Jim’s father passed away, he acknowledged that shifting the company’s focus to the performance industry was the right move, which meant a great deal to him.
For this coming season, Jim’s going to step up his NHRA national event attendance to 10. He finished ninth nationally last season, and he’s looking to score higher this year, perhaps another World Championship. Additionally, he’ll make six to eight divisional races, plus Good Guys and Super Chevy. We’re talking a total of 35 to 40 races. Regarding this rather arduous schedule, Jim is adamant in noting, “I couldn’t do it without Kevin Kleineweber!”
So, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to cross paths with Jim, whether you’re in the market for race car parts or just want to say hey, you’ll be glad you did. Indeed, if legendary baseball manager Leo “The Lip” Durocher were around today and met Jim Hughes, he would need to amend his famous quote regarding nice guys and the level of their success.
Text by Pete Ward
Images by James Drew and Pete Ward