Drag Racing, Feature Article, Washington — June 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Jim Bruns and Nick Axtman (issue 96)


By Steve Heeb

When Bremerton Raceway rolls out its All Chevy Drags each year, the flock of Bowtie racers includes the pair of Camaros fielded by Jim Bruns and Nick Axtman.

“I bleed Chevrolet,” Jim laughs.

The veteran driver started drag racing with a blue ’57 Chevy in the Stock Eliminator ranks back in 1966.

“My older brothers were car nuts and we were all into car clubs,” the Silverdale driver says. “I like fast cars so I started to come out to the track. I had some early success, and once you get a taste of that you’re hooked.”

Jim would field another ’57 Chevy for more than a decade.

“That fuel-injected Bel Air was a street car and for drag racing,” he explains. “That one was my very favorite. I sold it to a friend and it can still be seen in the Bremerton area.”

Jim would field a few 55-57 Chevys and dabble in the modified gas ranks before he got the red ’69 Camaro that has been his steady racer.

“I’ve had this Camaro for 27 years,” Jim smiles.

Nick joined the sport 19 years ago when street racing lost its appeal.

“I got to thinking that I should go to a track – to a safe environment,” the Gig Harbor racer explains. “Organized racing teaches you a lot about how to drive. You become a better, more defensive driver on the street.”

Nick started racing his bronze ’69 El Camino at Renegade Raceway.

“I had no idea what I was doing but I had a great time and it was legal,” he laughs of his first experiences at the Yakima-area dragstrip. “It was all the stuff I really liked to do, but controlled and with accurate timing equipment. What better situation could there be.”

Nick also had a Camaro that he had bought from a Yakima car dealership in 1981.

Nick drove the Camaro to work and was surprised to learn that years earlier the company owner had bought that very car new for his daughter who was headed off to college.

Nick recalls the car at that point was a basic, stock Camaro with hubcaps, single exhaust and a 307 motor.

“After installing a high-performance motor, I decided it was a little too fast for the street,” he says. “I put a roll cage in it and started racing in the Sportsman class in 1992.”

Nick’s racing had yet to take off when another driver caught his attention.

“I was having fun but not wining a lot of rounds. But there was that red Camaro always going to the finals,” Nick says of noticing Jim’s success. “I told myself: That’s the guy I need to talk to.”

“He was hanging around me asking questions,” Jim says of first meeting the younger driver. “He modeled his car like mine and I basically schooled him through the beginning.”

“Jim helped me understand racing,” Nick says. “He gave me pointers until we won our first race.”

Actually, part of Nick’s Camaro may have been holding him back.

“He had a three-speed automatic that wasn’t very consistent,” Jim says. “I told him to get a two-speed Powerglide. He eventually put in one of my spares and the results were immediate.”

The seasoned veteran and the younger protégé formed a friendship at the track.

“Our personalities are about the same and we just clicked,” Jim says of  Nick. “He has picked up on some of my habits. We drive pretty much the same.”

Opening up to Nick at first was a bit of a breakthrough for Jim.

“In the old days when I really got serious I was very stand-offish and highly competitive,” Jim explains. “I did it like a job. I was a tough guy. I’ve since mellowed out but still love to win.”

With his Camaro now sporting a 415-cid smallblock for competition in Super Pro, Nick also likes to do what it takes to win.

“I lost a brake hose on the finish line during the first run of the day,” Nick says of an event in 1999, still unsure how he got the car stopped. “I had to rebuild the whole brake system. A lot of people would have just packed it in. I overcame the adversity and stayed the course. I went out and did seven rounds and won it.”

He stresses the importance of consistency in drag racing.

“You need to do the same thing every time exactly,” Nick advises. “Drag racing is an odd sport because in every other sport you can think of you always have a second chance at another life. In drag racing you need to focus and be consistent or you’re going home.”

Sometimes even going home can be an adventure, as was the case in 2004 when Jim and Nick headed to Las Vegas with friends Daryl Hemley and Bob Matthews.

“We almost lost one of the trailers on the way down there,” Jim says of his second trip to Las Vegas after winning the race the previous year. “Darryl blew up his motor at the race and on the way back his motorhome had a problem and we had to nurse it home.”

He says that if anything could go wrong on that trip it did.

“We almost crashed another trailer and it was pouring rain on us,” Jim continues. “Just about everything went wrong. We still laugh about that trip.”

Jim and Nick both consider Bremerton Raceway to be their home track, but between the two of them there has been plenty of laps run at dragstrips throughout the region including Seattle, Woodburn, Mission, Boise, Yakima and Medford.

Nick says he is always looking for ways to improve his racing.

“I practice on the Christmas tree religiously seven days a week,” he says of honing his reaction times. “One bad light and you’re going home.”

His dedication throughout the week has yielded results on race days.

“In my seasons at Bremerton I’ve been runner-up about six times,” he says. “I’m always in the top-8 in points.”

Jim’s success throughout his career has built a bit of a reputation.

“People kind of fear this car because it has been around so long,” Jim says of his trusty red Camaro. “Not that it wins all the time, but people know they have to step up when they’re racing me. And they do. But I always give them a good race.”

“Jim is a smart man and takes pride in his cars,” says his wife Andrea. “Those two are almost like father and son. They respect each other and come to each other with questions. They’re both hard workers.”

Prior to Bremerton’s All-Chevy Drags June 4, Jim and Nick both enrolled in a racing clinic with veteran Scotty Richardson.

“I took the school to see if I could improve my racing,” Nick says.

In addition to dedication and effort, Nick considers math skills to be a big factor in the sport.

“Drag racing is such a mathematical process,” he explains. “Everything is numbers. You need to be good at math to do well at racing.”

Jim only agrees so far.

“You have to understand weather and track conditions, then use math to help you adjust,” Jim says. “But I figure winning is one third having a good car; one third being a good, consistent driver; and one third luck. It just has to be your day.”

He says the modern equipment has helped improve the current generation of drivers.

“It’s made racing really competitive,” he says of the technology involved in racing. “If you can go six rounds in a race, you’ve really done something.”

However, Jim says he relies on his vast experience more than any computer analysis.

“I trust my memory and I know the car,” he says. “You have to believe in your car. I do. I believe it is going to take me to the win.”

Jim also credits help and support along the way from friends like Dave Barcelon, Don Sefton, Gerry Devenpeck.

“I developed a lot of friendships in the late ’70s through bracket racing,” Jim reflects. “I’ve been racing about 38 seasons since I started in 1966. With a few years in the Army in there too.”

“He was thinking about retiring but I talked him into staying,” Andrea says of Jim’s career that dates back to before many of the racers were born.

“I just keep coming back each year,” Jim says.

Nick thanks sponsors Manke Lumber, KC’s Auto Repair, Mark Dalton’s Motorgraphics and Truck Town, as well as Dave McLean, for their support in helping him achieve success at the dragstrip.

“In last year’s Bracket Finals I went eight rounds among 50 cars and made it to the semifinals in the Race of Champions,” he says. “I went 13 rounds in all, more than anyone else from Team Bremerton.”

Both Nick and Jim also enjoy the specialty events on Bremerton’s schedule where the constant quest for season points is put aside.

“This is always a fun day for us Chevy guys,” Jim says of the All Chevy Drags. “I’ve won a couple of them. But it takes the pressure off us because we are racing for fun and not for points.”

“It’s an event that families can go to,” Andrea says. “And it keeps the kids out of trouble.”

“The Chevy show is geared more to everybody,” Jim adds. “People want to race their cars and have fun. Specialty races are good for that.”

Of course there also is a Buick-Olds-Pontiac event for the other GM marques and an All Ford Drags on Bremerton’s schedule.

“The Bremerton crew has expanded their events for a broader range of people,” Jim says of the Handler’s club and especially promoters Gordon and Barbara Howell. “They’ve put a lot of their lives into this track. And they take a lot of guff from the drivers.”

He confesses that he’s given the Howell’s an earful on an occasion or two.

“I’ve learned to stay competitive but still enjoy the sport more,” Jim says.

Enjoying drag racing is what keeps that pair of Camaros coming back to Bremerton Raceway, be it for specialty events like the All Chevy Drags, or a down-right battle for the 2011 Super Pro title.

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