Feature Article, Other Motorsports, Washington — July 22, 2014 at 4:47 pm

James and John Blackwell (issue 107)


IT-107 James Blackwell SCCA Argo JM16

By Steve Heeb

Two decades after WWII veteran Harold Blackwell stormed Utah Beach on D-Day, the Presbyterian minister was plenty happy riding motorcycles with son John. But son James had his sights on something different.

“James wanted something with four wheels,” John says of his younger sibling. “It always had to have a motor. The first thing he raced was my lawn mower.”

James says he was more interested in autocross that racing on the road course.

“We went to one race with my dad back in the late ’60s,” James says of watching the Trans Am races at Pacific Raceways. “After that it just kind of happened.”

By the mid-’70s, James had started racing a Formula C car at tracks in the Northwest.

After a few seasons in the “one-liter screamers” James kicked off a career in Formula Atlantics with a trip to England with the intent of purchasing an Argo JM-8.

Upon crossing the Pond, James and John learned that the JM-8 they sought had been purchased while they were actually in flight over the Atlantic.

“When we got off the plane someone else had made a deposit on it so it was no longer available,” James explains.

Having traveled so far, James and John went to the Argo factory to learn more about the cars. They met the designer Joe Marquart and learned that another Argo race car, an earlier JM-5, was available for purchase.

“The guy was selling illegal CB radios out of an old Quonset hut,” John says of the JM-5 owner. “He had a couple of cars and it didn’t look bad. We had to round up wood to build a crate for shipping it.”

When their Argo JM-5 was delivered it was the first Argo Atlantic car racing in America, and James piloted it to victory in its first outing, winning the 1981 SCCA National at Portland International Raceway.

Soon after, a second Argo – the JM-8 that James and John had gone to England intending to buy – arrived in the Northwest being fielded by the late Jim Burnett.

James raced the JM-5 in the SCCA Club Racing ranks from 1981 to 1985 before trading it to Alan Karlburg.

“That’s when we got the Argo JM-11 Atlantic car,” James says. “The JM-11 is a more modern car with ground effects similar to a Ralt RT4.”

Like the JM-5 and JM-8, both of which were one-off cars, the JM-11 also was powered by a 1600-cc Cosworth motor.

“We were running the Argo which wasn’t the leading equipment,” John says of their success in the West Coast Atlantic Racing Pro Series. “We were faster than we should have been as a home operation.”

“We really frustrated some drivers that had bigger budgets,” James agrees.

The WCAR Pro Series races had a field of 27 cars, and the Blackwells raced from Vancouver to Alberta, Colorado and all along the West Coast, including the Westwood course where James notched a top-5 finish in a flat-bottom car with less ground effects.

“Everybody misses Westwood when the trees lined the track,” John says. “It took a serious commitment to run there. I liked camping with the bears.”

“I took another fifth at a Phoenix street race when the Atlantics were the support group for the Formula I Grand Prix,” James says. “That was an incredibly hot day on the streets of Phoenix.”

In 1985, James wrecked the Atlantic car when he went off the straight going into turn one at Pacific Raceways.

“I buried the car up to the rear wing in the tire wall,” he recounts. “My top speed was 142 and they estimate I hit the wall at 65 mph. It completely tore the car up.”

James and John put the wrecked car in storage and reacquired the JM-5 to continue in Club racing. They also decided to turn the wrecked JM-11 into a full-bodied sports car for C Sport Racing competition.

After logging some seasons in CSR, they added a Toyota/Scion Reynard 93H in 2005.

“We parked the JM-5 when we got the Reynard,” John says.

The Reynard is a full carbon race car that they have fielded with success in the SCCA Club Racing Formula Atlantics division. Last year, James posted outstanding performances at Pacific Raceways and Portland Int’l Raceway en route to clinching the SCCA’s U.S. Majors Tour Western Conference championship.

In addition to his brother John, James thanks fellow racer Miles McDaniel for his support while they race at Pacific Raceways and Spokane.

“Miles has been on our crew forever,” James says. “And we’re his crew when he drives Sports 2000 and FF 2000.”

James is also quick to thank his wife Sheri.

“She puts up with all this,” he smiles.

While enjoying success with the Reynard, the tight-knit group set about investing in another Argo for their growing stable.

“We had our eye on it since Pat Murphy bought it in 1987,” James says of the 1984 Argo JM-16. “He had decided to put a Mazda motor in it but the project just sat.”

The idle race car, one of only eight JM-16s built, was very intriguing to James and John.

“The JM-16 was built as a true GTP car,” James explains. “But it was really noteworthy as a Camel Lites car.”

During a four-year span from 1984 to 1987, Don Bell and Jeff Kline had raced this JM-16 in 20 races at 15 tracks. In 1986, the car won the Miami Grand Prix, a Camel Lites only race.

In 2008, John made a deal to get the car they had been watching for more than a decade, though the project was far from ready for the track.

“Buying it was a lark,” John says. “It took a long time.”

“We bought it in late 2008 and in only nine months had it back on the race track,” James says of their hard work. “There was a massive amount of clean up and it was a challenge putting the car together.”

He says the original windshield was used as a mold to redevelop a new one that slips through the airstream a mere 40 inches off the track surface.

As far as power, James says only two or three of the eight JM-16s built were equipped with a Buick engine. He also thinks their car might have been the only example with a pull-rod front suspension.

James and John installed a Buick V6 but discovered that the heads had been ported too much.

“It took a lot of time trying to get the right combination for the car,” James says. “Camshaft and drive stuff.”

They raced the 2009 season, but spent 2010 working on the car. They were back on the track in 2011, but back to the bench in 2012, before getting the car squared away in 2013.

“We had the car on the track for three seasons and fought the engine trying to get one to last,” James says.

He notes that the project has required a great amount of research.

“I’m not an expert on the Buick V6,” he says. “Not yet.”

They also had many questions about the car’s history answered when they found the JM-16’s original race trailer, still adorned with posters and flyers from when it was being raced at Laguna Seca up until it raced at Del Mar in 1987.

The car had come a long way in that trailer, and James had come along way with his racing as well.

“When I started I would trail brake badly,” James says of his early days. “They asked me not to do that. One even said: ‘You’re not Jimmy Clark.’”

Clark, the Scottish driver who dominated sports car racing through the ’60s, was noted for an uncanny ability to adapt to whatever race car he was driving at the time.

“James is an older classic heel and toe driver,” John says. “His boots wear out in a unique fashion. He’s more patient on the course than before.”

“I’ve probably slowed down some now that I’m older,” James agrees. “I’m a little more risk averse. But I’m running with cars out there that are worth a lot of money. I’m not going to make any mistakes. It takes a lot of effort to find parts to keep these cars running.”

Finding the parts to keep the 3-liter Buick Stage II V6 in racing condition can be challenging enough without the prospect of rebuilding a damaged car.

James advises those considering building, racing and maintaining a vintage race car to choose the specific division they will compete in wisely.

“Get a car that there is someone else to run against,” he says of the variety of classes. “Competition is best. You’ll enjoy it more.”

As for the Blackwell’s future, John says they hope to compete in the open-wheel motorcycle-powered Formula 1000 division.

“That’s a young and competitive class,” he says.

But the Blackwells have three decades of experience overcoming hurdles and winning against the odds, from their under-funded Argo JM-5 to their engine-challenged JM-16.

“It’s been a life-long dream to drive a GT car,” James reflects. “Now I have the chance, but I’m about 30 years too late.”

But that hasn’t stopped him yet.

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