Old time hero and legacy racer Jim McElreath has passed away, but leaves us with the memory of racing, dedication and hard work. Although McElreath has gone through some tough times with family, his career has been filled with highlights and wins. McElreath started his racing career in 1945 while being only 17 years old racing stock cars in Texas. Although doing well, his racing career didn’t kick off until the early ’60s when he was offered a chance to race at the Hoosier Hundred where he placed third, allowing him to begin in Indy Car.
The path leading to that chance wasn’t easy though. In 1960 McElreath convinced his friend and competitor Johnny Rutherford to get on the road and race. They ran supermodified’s in Indiana and Ohio, and any midget races they could get into. Later in the year, Jim finally got a ride on the International Motor Contest Association Circuit (IMCA) which further opened more opportunities for him.
With a racing span of over two decades, McElreath had a combined 178 starts, which included 15 in the Indianapolis 500. Plus, his 6th place finish at his first Indianapolis 500 race earned him Rookie Of The Year. Arguably, one of his most iconic wins was the inaugural California 500 race in Ontario, California in September of 1970 after beating competitor Art Pollard.
His career success wasn’t without some downfalls. His son and rising start James was on track to follow in his footsteps, but died in an accident during a sprint car race at Winchester in 1977 when he was only 23 years old after. After losing his son, McElreath recalled talking to his mother who asked if he would quit racing, but responded with, “No, I don’t think James would want me to quit.” His daughter Shirley Ann also died in a crash, but in a plane, and was over 20 years later in 2000 on Valentines day. Despite these difficult circumstances, Jim McElreath never lost site of his goals and kept to his path as a racer and mechanic.
Jim McElreath continued his racing career until August on 1995 when his wife Shirley suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair, when he quit racing for good to focus on taking care of her.
In 2002, McElreath was in inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall Of Fame. Ironically, it took him many years to get into the Hall even though he had been involved in its creation and development. “I was on the board before they built the thing and went around the country and had the meetings and all. When we broke ground on the building, I was there for that. I’ve just felt like I’ve been a part of it for a real long time and always had thoughts of being inducted into it and now that I am in, I’m just going to enjoy it very much. It’s going to be a big deal” recalls McElreath upon being inducted back in 2002.
During a video on Old Time Heroes Racer.com did about McElreath, Robin Miller had this to say, “When you think about all the great race drivers and all the great people you meet in racing, Jim is probably one of those guys that maybe if you didn’t grow up in the ’60s and ’70s you never heard of him but what you can appreciate is what an amazingly mental toughness this guy has to deal with all the things he’s had to deal with. Yeah, he was a hell of a race driver but better yet he is a hell of a man…” Words like this show us that Jim McElreath was more than just a race car driver, he was a dedicated family man and gave everything to his family and racing.
Even up to his death, McElreath continued to tinker in his shop with a collection of historic race cars, just south of Dallas. In that collection was a 1936 Ford that his son James had learned to drive on. “I’ve got seven cars and I’m eventually going to redo all seven of them.”
Jim McElreath was a born and bred racer that had the honor of running with other big dogs from back in the day, including Johnny Rutherford, Dave McDonald, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, and Bobby Marshman. McElreath will be remembered as a husband, father, mechanic, and racer. Jim McElreath was 89 years old.