Getting to the Grid: From Outer Space to LeMans – Jim Cantrell

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Photos from the Jim Cantrell Collection

Like the humble beginnings of a LeMans 24 victor long before him, Jim Cantrell grew up on a chicken farm. He would go on to found Space-X with internet billionaire and Tesla founder, Elon Musk, then found his own rocket company, Vector Space — with a whole lot of interesting events in between.

“I started Vector Space to fund my future LeMans effort,” stated the rocket scientist and amateur race driver. Interestingly, rocket science still remains secondary to Cantrell, despite a high-profile career that has taken him all over the world to work on space programs. “I just like building things.”

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Jim Cantrell and Carroll Shelby have similar life paths. Both successful entrepreneurs who tinkered with cars and machinery back to their early days growing up on a chicken farm. In Cantrell’s case, in Yucaipa, near Riverside, California, about 10 miles from the legendary track.

“The house was on the top of a hill, and I would build ‘soapbox derby’ type cars to run down the driveway.” Cantrell was never satisfied with non-powered racers even at age ten, “I started adding lawn mower motors to them, then eventually began building go-karts, welding the frames myself.”

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“I would ride my bike all the way to the library and take out books on building go-karts … you could take out books like that then.” He looked at the different ways to connect the engine to the wheels and decided he wanted to build a belt-driven powertrain, and in the earliest models, mounting the engine on plywood.

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Walking into the local machine shop, he convinced the owner, Joe, to let him develop the sprocket and belt drive to motivate his first powered soap box racer. “I was just the kind of kid that could walk into a door and say, ‘Hey mister…’” The machine shop owner took a liking to the ambitious lad, and helped him with off the shelf parts that could apply to the young engineer’s concepts. The young Cantrell also modified air-conditioning pulleys that he would buy at the local hardware store, in trial and error experimentation for driving his karts. So began a life dedicated to building things. He never stopped tinkering — or walking through doors.

By the time he was sixteen, he was working as a mechanic at a local shop and had built his first Chevrolet Vega Dragster. His mom and dad divorced and he moved with his mom to the Silicon Valley area during High School, where he fell in with the local car guys. “We were taking (Datsun) 240Zs and dropping Chevy small blocks in them, and I ended up with my first (Jaguar) E-Type.”

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Cantrell attended Utah State for Mechanical Engineering, mainly because it was local to the semiconductor factory where his stepfather was transferred by his company. “I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to college.”

During his third year at Utah, he saw a poster in the engineering department offering a credited 500-level independent study course and combined contest, to help NASA design a rover for Mars. “The winner wins all this stuff…” chuckled Cantrell. “Just like walking into Joe’s machine shop years before, I walked into the classroom and met this guy named Dr. Redd, a retired Air Force Colonel who wanted to teach.” During Frank Redd’s career in the military, he oversaw the Space Shuttle program and had worked a deal for NASA to sponsor the class. “I said, ‘hi, I have all this experience building go-karts…’ and he said, ‘you’re in!’.”

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Ultimately after drawing up a number of designs for a Mars Rover and excelling in the class, Cantrell was asked to teach the class the following year as a graduate student. As a bonus, he was sent to the NASA Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena for a nine month project based job. While there, he got to work with Jim Burke, who was the Ranger Program Manager — NASA’s first mission to the moon in the 1960s. Just previous to this period, the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost and much of the project work for NASA was put on hold. This led to US and Russian engineers to begin collaborating on new cooperative space exploration projects including Mars “balloons” and rovers for a planned trip to Mars.


All the while, Cantrell continued to build racecars in his garage — mainly Chevy Vega dragsters. He was able to apply a number of his dragster fabrication ideas to the Mars rovers. “These guys were trying to design a payload that could drag along the surface under the balloon and not get stuck in holes. So Jim (Burke) and I came up with something called the ‘Mars Snake’. He and I put together a prototype made of dixie cups and showed that it couldn’t get stuck as we dragged it around the office. It was 50 feet long. So I went back to my shop and fabricated a prototype from sheet metal, riveting the whole thing together. We took it out to a field near Barstow and it didn’t get stuck anywhere.” They patented the design.

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In 1989, after finishing his master’s degree, Cantrell was hired by the French Space Agency. “So here I was, this kid with grease under his fingernails, working on the international Mars Mission. Things just happened! All I ever really wanted to do was race cars — it was the only thing that was certain I wanted to do in my life!”

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Over the years, Cantrell has collected and raced a significant number of cars.  Starting out in drag racing, he eventually developed a love of road racing. He has raced everything from Ferraris to VW Golfs and most everything in between. Most have had his hands all over them, building and restoring. He has built 10 racecars in the last five years. A recent Corvette C3 project was almost a complete new build. “I bought several Corvettes and parts from a guy who was selling his property, right across from Willow Springs in Rosamond. He had a Corvette racing car tub in the back, that had pigs living in it. He insisted I take that too. As I was leaving, he remembered he had the doors for the car too. They had the name and number on them. After some research I found the original owner/driver named Ted Jenks, who also happened to be the head of the Alumni Association at the Virginia Military Institute.”

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Jim emailed Ted Jenks, hoping this was the racer, pictures of the door — who responded in 15 minutes! Jenks provided all sorts of details to Cantrell, in including photographs and technical details. “We built it from the ground up from the pictures. It had a VIN number and all the parts. But in the end it was like a new build.”

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Needless to say, racing is expensive and requires significant investment, even in the lowest tiers. Cantrell kept moving and innovating — and never stopped building. In the process, he became the U.S.’ foremost expert on the Russian Space Industry, learning the languages of both Russian and French as he progressed.

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“You have to be prepared to be lucky,” advises Cantrell. “In a race, if a guy spins out in front of you and you are not prepared to pass him, and you bump into him, that’s your bad luck too. But the guys who are constantly lucky, are prepared for it.”

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Racing has gotten me through difficult turns in my life. It reminds me that this is my life and nobody owns it but me. -Jim Cantrell

In July 2001, he met Tesla, Space-X, PayPal founder, Elon Musk. “He called Me,” said Cantrell. In an excerpt from his upcoming autobiography he talks about the first phone conversation with Musk:

“The conversation that transpired over the next few minutes has, for me, become symbolic of a whole new generation of entrepreneurs and bright people who have the will, the ideas and the means to change the world as we know it. ‘My name is Elon Musk and I am an internet billionaire who wants to start a private space program. I got your phone number from a mutual friend, Bob Zubrin, who said that I should call you.’ I was not sure what to make of someone from Palo Alto with a strangely British accent and an even stranger message. Elon continued without much hesitation: ‘I am the founder of Zip2 and PayPal and believe that mankind has to become a multi-planetary species to survive and I want to do something with my money to show that this is possible’.”

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As an expert on the Russian Space Industry, Elon tasked Cantrell with helping him to buy rockets and launch apparatus in the former Soviet Union. For the trip, Jim brought colleague, Michael D. Griffin, who would become the NASA Administrator under President George W. Bush from 2005-2009. “We went over to buy the rockets and nobody would sell them to Elon. As a matter of fact, the chief designer at Machinistroye spit on Elon’s shoes as a sign of disrespect.”

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They went knocking on another door, “Kosmotras was a little more civilized because they had done business with (other treatied international concerns) and they referred to Elon as a ‘silly little boy that wasn’t serious’.”

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On the flight back, while Jim and Mike decompressed. In the seat ahead, Elon feverishly worked on a computer, and came up with the plan to build his own rockets. Musk had been considering some designs from “crazies like us, who instead of building racecars in their garage, were building rockets in their garage! That became Space-X. His goal always has been and always will be going to Mars. He is selling satellite launches to pay the bills for his goal — exactly like racing!”

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Cantrell nearly became the CEO of Tesla in the process, but a disagreement on the direction of the company ended in their total split. “We had words and he revoked my co-founder status from Space-X. He told me he was going to build the Model-S and I told him that it was a really dumb idea. ‘You have the crowd that will really resonate with your particular technology and Tesla Roadsters is what the Ferrari guys will buy.’ Of course he always thought much bigger than me.” Jim reflects, “What I learned from (Elon) was think really, really, really, really big! And don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

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After his time with Elon he went into consulting on ‘Space Warfare’ then worked with several companies, finding investors and getting funding. Along the way he picked several winners — including companies that were making micro-satellites. Ever changing and advancing technology had shrunk down the size of satellites. But one area that Cantrell noticed was underserved was the launch/delivery business. “The satellites were shrinking, so eventually should the rockets, and I decided to bet on these little micro-launchers as that is where the market would be.”

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As an entrepreneur, focus on the goal and endgame, is key. But how does Cantrell deal with bad days or setbacks? “The bad days suck. But I always let myself feel it. Because there is something to be learned from a bad day. I have developed enough faith in myself and that things will turn out ok, and never let it stop me. I have many more good days than bad days and it has to do with attitude. In racing, a champion knows his fate. He will keep it floored with his wheels in the dirt.”

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Consider racing has always been part of Cantrell’s modus operandi, “racing has gotten me through difficult turns in my life. It reminds me that this is my life and nobody owns it but me. I never think about death, but I will be sitting on the grid thinking, ‘this is the stupidest thing I have ever done.’ Then the engine starts and suddenly I am more alive than I have ever been. I believe it is that passion for living that creates the want of getting up each day. Racing sure is the only reason I stay healthy,” Cantrell chuckles again.

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This December, as in years past, Cantrell has put together a team to race a Porsche 944 at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. The car has been stripped and completely rebuilt from last year’s event. Obviously this could be called practice for his future desires to race at LeMans. Consider again, he could possibly become the second American chicken farmer to race it — and even win!

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On success and putting yourself on the path, Jim Cantrell offers his own advice: “Find your passion, find something you are good at in your passion. Never focus on the money. People who focus on money never get there. Focus on what you are good at, match it to demand, and the money just happens. Then you will be able to afford all the racecars you want,” he laughs.

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About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives in vintage road racing events and spends time with his wife and three daughters in Orange County, California.
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