EDITOR’S NOTE: Tim Coffeen’s racing life has taken him from Indiana bullrings, where he watched, worked on, and briefly drove sprint cars, to every Indy car venue of consequence during his decades as a mechanic.
Coffeen turned wrenches for stars like Mario and Michael Andretti, Gary Bettenhausen, Gordon Johncock and Cristiano da Matta, and is certainly the only mechanic ever to have worked with both Jan Opperman and Nigel Mansell.
Helping make all of that possible was his working relationship and personal friendship with National Sprint Car Hall of Fame driver Bubby Jones, who died in January.
I picked up race-car fever in 1960. Having grown up three blocks from the Indiana State Fairgrounds, I fell in love with the championship dirt cars that ran there every September in the Hoosier Hundred.
The men who drove those machines also competed across town at Indianapolis Motor Speedway each May.
Before I was a teenager, I knew I wanted to be a racer. I figured the best way to pursue that was to start hanging around the Indiana bullrings, and there were many — Paragon, Bloomington, Kokomo, Haubstadt and Lawrenceburg. Indiana also had an abundance of sprint car driving talent, including Bob Kinser, Dick Gaines, Sheldon Kinser, Rex Mitchell, Larry Miller, Butch Wilkerson and Mike Johnson.
Not many outsiders towed in to challenge the Hoosier drivers and teams. One of the few that did was Norman “Bubby” Jones, from Danville, Ill. Right away, I noticed that Jones possessed a super-smooth driving style; he was aggressive, yet he hardly ever crashed. Bubby was all business. He rarely left his own pit and was constantly measuring tires, checking air pressures and adjusting his chassis.When he wasn’t working on his car, he was studying the track surface.
At Paragon, a veteran mechanic told me, “That Jones boy is a deadly-serious racer. He runs hard but drives clean, he knows chassis setup and he don’t miss a trick. And the longer the race, the better he goes.”
Bubby had been averaging 35 to 40 wins per season, so I had a real interest in him. But, man, he was hard to get acquainted with. Even after I’d been on the scene a few years, the most I could pry out of him was a simple “hello,” or, if I congratulated him on another win, a “thank you.”
In 1973, I quit college, took the money I’d saved from a construction job and bought a ’64 VW micro bus. Wanderlust had taken hold and I needed a place to live on the road. I headed for central Pennsylvania to check out the legendary sprint car racers and tracks. It was my great fortune to meet Jan Opperman one night at Williams Grove Speedway. He invited me to come to Bogar’s Speed Shop, in Beavertown, where his Fred Aden-owned Maxwell was housed during a USAC tour of Pennsylvania.
When Jan found out I was from Indiana, he immediately started talking about Bubby. It was obvious that he had an enormous respect for Jones’s abilities.
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