Jungle, Force and all things Jersey

Written by J.K. Kelly on July 1st, 2019

Here are some pages that did not make it into my novel FUELIN’ AROUND.  For anyone wanting to know a bit about Jungle Jim and John Force’s thoughts on the legend that preceeded him read on. There’s also a few words that take you behind the scenes at what life as one of VP Racing Fuels original road warriors was like and how NJ race track owners Vinnie Napp and Joe Sway, legends in their own right, worked with me – one way or another.

When our VP distributor for Russia and the Balkans wanted to visit the US, they opted for New Jersey instead of Florida or Vegas. Good call. I will never forget the look on their faces when they followed us at night into Times Square for the first time. It was just as they had seen it on television and in the movies only live and in person and bigger and brighter than they imagined it could be. Just as they had taken me all over Moscow I returned the favor and showed them as much of the Big Apple as I could in such a short period of time. I had gone to school in Manhattan in the late 80’s and knew my way around. A quiet and respectful walk to Ground Zero, then to the Waldorf Astoria, Joe Louis’s bar, another bar and then another. Luckily I had Freddie Turza with me. He at least would make sure I was on the right side of the Jersey turnpike when we headed back to the hotel near Englishtown later that night.

For those unfamiliar with its history, that track is the site of a very special race. In 1975 a full grandstand and yours truly got to watch “Jungle Jim” Liberman win his first and only NHRA National Event – the NHRA Summernationals.

When I had first started taking photos for magazines, Jungle & Co. immediately caught my attention. He was quite the showman, especially when accompanied by the young beauty, “Jungle Pam.” She’d be out on the starting line helping to guide him as he backed his car into position to race. Jungle would get his race car from one end of the track to the other no matter what. Tires smoking, traction coming and going, engine coughing and threatening to explode. The crowd loved him and Pam was a real eye catcher to admire no matter what she was doing. Sadly, Jungle Jim was killed in a highway accident a few years later. I mentioned earlier that if you ever get the chance to get to an NHRA National Event you have to go for it. Go see John Force race and get his autograph in the pits. He’s the showman who, in my opinion, picked up where Jungle left off and he’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in racing.

Most of the drag racers reading will know of the track and it’s years of incredible racing and for those lucky enough to have known Vinnie Napp before his death in 2000 they know what a very smart businessman and promoter he was. He was also a great guy. Napp had a relationship with Jungle and would soon develop one with Force.

Asking Force about Liberman John said, “I raced against Jungle, and he was a one-man band. My car had won 13 national events in a season, and I lost to him. When people asked how I felt, I said, “I was honored to even be in the hunt with Jungle Jim.” Force went on, “It isn’t just about winning championships. Jungle Jim was a winner. I’m a driver, I’m a promoter – Jungle Jim was a one-man band. He built the chassis, he tuned the race car in the old days. A lot of people did, but it’s a different world, even for as long as I’ve been around. I didn’t start winning until I brought on the Austin Coils and the other great ones. Jungle Jim was old-school, he was the one I learned from. I raced with him in Edmonton, Canada. I raced with him on the East Coast in Englishtown. I told the story once that when Jungle was killed in that car crash, Vinnie Napp from Englishtown called me and said, “Don’t know nothing about you, but you do long burnouts, and I hear you can’t win a race. But you’re a showman, and I’ve lost Jungle Jim. You’re my replacement.”

“Man, I was walking on water. I went all the way to Englishtown, and I when I got there, I sat down in a room and asked about getting two motel rooms and a paycheck so I could get back to California,” Force continued. Napp replied, “I’m going to make you the next Jungle Jim.” I told him, “I don’t expect to be Jungle Jim,” and he almost started crying.

He said he embellished the story – which I do all the time. He said, “Nobody will replace Jungle Jim,” and he started crying. He said, “I told you that so I’d get a dummy like you here.” But I went on to race Crazy Eddie’s Nights of Thrills, and Vinnie Knapp and I became very close. No one will ever replace Elvis, no one will ever replace Mick Jagger or Willie Nelson. It doesn’t happen. And no one will ever replace Jungle. I hope somebody someday says that about me, but nobody wants to replace me. Who wants to be homely, crazy and stupid?”   That’s a lot to say in one breath but that’s the rapid-fire way Force talks. He’s won more NHRA Championships than I can recall and he’s 70 now and still driving over 300 mph. So go meet the man! He’s a living legend. Now back to Vinnie Napp.

We were sitting in his office at the track one afternoon and I asked him for the tenth time to switch his race fuel account from Sunoco to VP. He had three or four underground tanks with gas station style dispensers above ground and they pumped a lot of race fuel. You always have to ask questions and you always have to listen to what is said. Once Vinnie told me how few gallons of one particular product was being sold I was in. “Hell Vinnie, get that Maximal product out of that tank and put our C12 in there!”

He was moving something like 1,000 gallons of Max and I guaranteed that if he switched those blends out like I suggested he’d move at least 10,000 gallons of ours per year. I figured if I could get my foot in there and prove I was credible then I’d have a shot at the whole enchilada. By years end he had purchased over 13,000 gallons of C12 and I thought I would be in. Unfortunately Vinnie passed away but the track ownership remained within the family. I managed to maintain a very good relationship with the Napp’s who picked up the gauntlet after Vinnie passed and pushed to get more of their race fuel business. We bought signage and gave the track some other considerations and in return we got permission to bring our trackside fuel service trucks to the facility and sell fuel at special, high volume events but I just couldn’t secure their main fuel account.

Rumor has it that my competition at Sunoco saw the signage, saw their Maximal sales fall off and the VP C-12 sign on the one fuel dispenser. That was all it took. The Napps let me know they’d continue our relationship for signage and truck admittance on certain race dates but the high volume bulk business was now tied to Sunoco putting in a facility of some sort there. Big money. Damn it. Now I was pissed.

While all this fun and excitement was going on my kids were growing and now I had three of the little buggers. With the track only a ninety-minute ride from home, Glen Sides brought his young son with him to see the races and visit with me there. He surprised me and brought my son David with him. It was so much fun to have the little guy experience what his Daddy did when he wasn’t home. We got to spend the day together, as much as I could get away from working with customers and keeping the fire marshal happy. But as the day came to an end it killed me to hand him back to Glen and see them drive away. I may have been the Howard Stern of VP but just like with him, the road warrior/mad dog businessman was much different from the loving father at home. When I was single and on the road I was a guy telling jokes and raising hell when I wasn’t focused on making money. When the work switch was turned off, and in hindsight I wish I could have turned it off much more, I was Daddy. I adored those midgets as I would refer to them and now that they are grown and off living their own lives. I wish I had more time with them. Maybe it was Karma. Who knows?

But I can remember two friends who told me they were considering divorces. Their wives were unhappy for a variety of reasons and a change might be in order. I told them I loved being away from the woman I had grown apart from but the separation from the kids was nearly unbearable. I know divorce and broken families are so commonplace these days but if you are thinking of splitting up just be sure the lost time with your children is something you can bear. I know I did the right thing for me. If we had stayed together for the sake of the children I would have been miserable living in the same house with their mother. I had a very good friend who had a brother and a sister. He told me they knew all through their high school years that their parents were living in a very unhappy marriage. They also knew that the day the youngest sibling graduated high school their parents would file for divorce. What a sad environment to grow up in. But enough of that sad stuff, let’s get back to trying to kick a Goliath’s ass!

Still in New Jersey and located south of Englishtown is Atco Raceway. Jungle, Force and all the other famous nitro burning drag racers had raced there at one time or another. Steve Lesueur recalled a Jungle/Atco story that I got a kick out of.

“Jungle’s personality and Frank’s more straight laced “redneck” way of doing things would occasionally clash. One night at Atco, Jungle was the headliner for one of my father’s circuit races. Jungle was late as usual, and Frank was beginning to line up every one else for first round, swearing that he wasn’t going to pay Jungle, since he lived closer to the race track than anyone. Then here comes Jungle’s truck down the back fence line. Frank went to the pit gate and swung the gate at Jungle’s truck, telling Lieberman to “go home, he wasn’t getting paid tonight.” Frank went and started the other cars that were already in the staging lanes. As he finishing up, here comes a roar out of the pits and Jungle was driving up the staging lanes. He drove past Frank, did two burnouts, staged against his opponent and went down the track. Not even Frank Lesueur was getting in the way of Jungle putting on a show.” That was Jungle.

Back to the track itself, it had a large race car count whenever they put on an event and it was obvious the track sold a good deal of Sunoco race fuel. I wanted that account, now more than ever.

Year after year I’d pay track owner Joe Sway, Sr., a call. We’d catch up on whatever was going on in the world and then I’d make the sales pitch. He was tied to Sunoco and I just begged him, encouraged him, to give me a shot at the account when the contract was up for renewal. I told him a simple fact. If you switch to VP you will sell more race fuel. He assured me he would and we parted with a smile as always. Sales Lesson #29: Always ask when the contract expires. Mark it down ten places and then contact the account months before the expiration date.

So I followed my own advice and called Joe to see if he was ready to deal. “Sorry Jim but I just signed an extension with Sunoco.” Now they say you should be professional and also, never show emotion. After all, it’s just business right? Bullshit! “Joe,” I said, “you signed with them without even seeing what my offer was? You may have just thrown thousands of dollars away.” He offered his apologies and was very nice but I was “wound up” to say the least. I don’t like losing. “Do me one favor then. Tell me which business school you went to.” He was puzzled and asked why. “Because I want to make sure none of my kids go there!”

So that conversation ended rather quickly. My bad. But in the years to come we were given the chance to pitch and believe it or not, we secured the deal. Atco wanted a fuel station with tanks, pumps and we wanted signage and exclusive fuel sales. Projecting the number of gallons Atco would move we got the cost of the facility, equipment and installation, did the math and inflated the race fuel prices to cover the cost of the new fuel station. Once it was up and running, guess what happened? Atco’s race fuel sales increased dramatically. That was a long time ago but I can tell you two things. The relationship between Joe and myself grew and we made a lot of money together.

If you enjoyed reading this then give FUELIN’ AEOUND a try. It’s available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle by clicking here.  JK



"A truly riveting read from cover to cover." - Midwest Book Review

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