The race track has been many things to Dave Jamison. A nursery for each of his four kids. A playground for them, and the perfect site for family reunions. But recently, it became the ultimate Victory Lane, where the 75-year-old Sterling native celebrated his sound defeat of cancer.
Oh, and it's treated him pretty well as a field of competition. Jamison has competed in 59 of the 60 World Series of Drag Racing, and he's done his fair share of winning.
One month removed from leaving prostate cancer in his rearview, Jamison was presented with a Wally. The solid brass figurine of NHRA founder Wally Parks, along with its walnut base, stands 18 inches tall and checks in at 12 pounds. Jamison's bears the inscription: For Your Ever Enduring Dedication to the Love of Drag Racing.
Without warning, the race organizers at Cordova Dragway Park – the home of the World Series since 1956 – held up the race, allowing drag racing fixture Bill Pratt to approach Jamison at his rear-engine dragster and present him with the most elusive accolade a drag racer can be given.
"It was like my reward for going through that whole deal with cancer," said Dave, his face lighting up in his kitchen Tuesday afternoon nearly as brightly as it did in pictures his wife, Ann, provided SVM.
In one of the photos, longtime friends John Pedgraft and Jeff Wolf, who orchestrated the honor, are seen leaning on a fence. Dave can't confirm that more than those two and Pratt knew what was coming.
"That absolutely floored us," Ann said. "We had no idea."
Both of them cried. But then, dry eyes were scarce that afternoon.
"There aren't many people who could do what my dad did," Jamison's son, "Little" Dave, said. "I had such a feeling of pride. I was trying to maintain my composure. I felt like crying like everybody else. It was just such a great moment for me, that I was there. Those Wallys are really hard to come by."
The 70-year itch
Jamison's father, Lee, was a mechanic. Any good one tends to do a lot of work in his garage at home. So at the ripe age of 5, young Dave could be found under the hood, honing his skills and feeding his infatuation.
"Mechanical things were really interesting to me … how things worked in general," said Dave, who attended Sterling High School. "The easiest classes for me were the classes that pertained to doing something: physics, machine shop. It was like, 'You guys need to learn how to do that? I already know how.'"
He cut his teeth behind the wheel well before he could get his license at age 15. When his brother, Brad, went into the service, Dave drove his '47 Pontiac from the family house – where Dave and Ann still live – on East 2nd Street to the cemetery and back. He said he was keeping it "limbered up."
"Who went with you?" Ann asked.
"Nobody," Dave said.
"Nobody? You just got into the car and drove?" she pressed.
It was a different time.
Jamison "tried to compete" in his first World Series in Lawrenceville at age 15, and had to miss out the next year. He was broke.
Determined to not miss another, he delivered papers for the Gazette and worked full-time at a gas station while attending Sterling. The same year he graduated, he fathered his first child, Debbie. So he took a full-time gig as the assistant circulation manager. After his day shift, he worked 6 to 11 at the station as an assistant manager before loading bread trucks from 2 to 4 a.m.
"I actually made more than my father," Dave said. "But that was when you could get by with 4 hours of sleep."
Born with a silver wrench in their hand
"Little" Dave, also known over the years as Scotty and Junior, had a temporary crib that wouldn't quite meet modern standards.
"He went to the track the first time when he was 6 months old, and he laid in the back window," Dave said. "That was his little crib while we raced. All of the kids were like that."
Before you call Child Protective Services – it's too late, anyway – that package-tray crib was in the back of the tow car, not in any racing vehicles.
Jamison shared a lot of stories he preferred not appear in print.
"Kids today don't need any help doing things that they shouldn't," Dave said.
Junior is grateful for his upbringing.
"You look at stuff like that nowadays, and you wonder if that was child abuse," he said, laughing. "But it was such a different time back then. Society was just a little freer. I look back on my childhood, and the things that I did; there's no way you'd do that today. I'm glad I grew up when I did."
After all, he had family all over the Midwest. And as a weekend of racing drew near, the four siblings would pepper dad about where they were going and with whom they'd get to play.
"They knew everybody and would say, 'Where are we going this week?'" Dave said. "'We're going to Union Grove, Wisconsin.' 'Oh, wow, we'll get to see Joe!'
"It was like a big family."
"They're all really good people," Ann said. "Decent people. Honest people. You couldn't ask for better friends. You really couldn't."
Four on the floor
Dave and Debbie have helped in the bulk of their dad's races. But life has a way of getting in the way. For instance, Dave's career with Flambeau took him to North Carolina, and he and his wife, Kathy, now live in Twinsburg, Ohio.
Junior is a feared drag racer in his own right, his current dragster even faster than dad's. And for a while, his son, Josh, was winning plenty of junior dragster races, although his passion for guitar has taken over.
"But for a while, we had three generations going," Dave said. "That's pretty neat."
His other daughters, Terri and Mary, have had a hard time making it to a lot of races. But the whole gang was there for dad's 50th anniversary.
And Terri once hooked her hubby, Jeff Scanlan, with her speed-shifting prowess.
"She was such a gearhead," Ann said. "She could drive a 4-speed like nobody's business. He said he never saw a woman drive a 4-speed like that."
"He couldn't speed shift, and she taught him how," Dave said. "That was it."
"I think it was a week later that they were married," Ann said.
"No, no…that's not true," Dave interjected.
More years than not, Dave has been an integral member of the pit crew, and at the tender age of 8, Debbie would help carry out engine blocks.
"I always really liked being part of the pit crew," she said. "I always thought I was learning a craft. It helped me with the world, mechanically. As a girl, that's not something you would always be taught."
She would sit in the driver's seat as the dragster was guided back from a run. While she laments not being able to fulfill her dream of actually driving it, she's all too aware of the overwhelming amount of practice required to harness speeds of 200-plus mph and G-forces touching 4. Not to mention hitting negative-4 when the chute is pulled.
"My dad always knew it was my dream," Debbie said. "But I just never really had the time to learn it. It takes a lot of practice and dedication."
Making the team
John Beien lives down the street from Dave and Ann, and calls Dave Jamison "a father."
But they met as co-workers in the mid-'70s as mechanics at Bun Austin Chevrolet. About 15 years ago, Beien started working on Jamison. He wanted to join the crew.
"I had to talk him into it," Beien said. "He ran a real close-knit group. He could almost run it on his own. But he had close friends who helped him through the years, but I worked my way up to it. You've gotta earn your stripes."
Mission accomplished, says Ann.
"John Beien is a wonderful person, and there isn't anything he wouldn't do," she said.
"It really takes a team. Every member," Dave said.
Dan and Mike Banes round out the crew, along with Junior, when he can make it. While Jamison still builds his own engines and transmissions, he's relinquished a lot of the race-day work in order to focus.
But he admits he's guilty of micro-management.
"I think so," he said.
"I know so," Ann confirmed.
While other drivers relegate their wives to the grandstands, Ann is another integral part of the team. She logs all the races in the computer and tows him back after runs.
"They are such a great partnership," Beien said. "It's amazing, and they are excellent for each other."
The crew chief also appreciates the racer's reverence for safety.
"And I know when he can't do it anymore, he won't," Beien said.
Dave's contemporaries affectionately call him "The Legend," and some day it will be time to fade away. It just might not be any time soon.
Jamison has had some novel conversations while renewing his license.
For instance, the woman at the desk had a hard time believing he'd never gotten a speeding ticket.
"Getting a ticket is a rite of passage for men, right?" Dave said. "Nope. Nothing. I should've had one. Call it luck or whatever."
But in April, in renewing his NHRA license, Dave's physical unearthed something downright unlucky. He had to take a PSA – prostate-specific antigen – test, then had to have a biopsy. The results came back positive.
"We spent most of the summer fighting that," Dave said.
The battle log includes five trips to Peoria a week for 5 weeks, preceded by three appointments before treatment began, and then two more after.
Jamison chose Peoria because Debbie's husband, Dan, had his interstitial brachytherapy there and beat cancer way too early in his life.
The treatment involves 21 needles being injected into the prostate to administer radiation.
"I thought it would be painful, but the worst thing about the whole deal was the drive to Peoria on a two-lane road," Dave said.
Hold your laughter.
"He's serious," Ann said.
Despite Debbie living in Hudson, just 45 minutes away, Dave and Ann drove home every day, to check on the pets and, frankly, out of principle.
"He wanted to drive back and forth," Debbie said. "I tried my hardest to get him to come over. He wanted to make sure their animals were fed, and he wanted to be comfortable and not put me out."
He still can
Knowing how headstrong her husband was, Ann always believed he'd beat it. But there were moments of weakness.
"There were times when I thought, 'Is this really the way it's going to be? Is he really going to be OK?' Then I would go take a ride and cry, and then I'd come back," Ann said, her eyes welling with tears.
"See, I didn't know that," Dave said.
"I'd tell him I had to go somewhere," Ann said.
Further proof that the apple fell near the tree, Junior put on his best poker face.
"My dad is one of those kinds of guys who never complains about anything. If anything's not right, you're not going to hear about it," he said. "I kept tabs on him on the phone, but when I saw him in person, it was one of those shocking moments. It was for real, and it was hard to take. You have this image of people in your mind, and then you don't see them for a while."
In late July, Jamison was declared cancer-free. His first question of his doctor was whether he could race.
"He said he'd never had anybody ask him that before," Dave said. "I'd just gotten through with it, and the first thing I want to know about is racing. He said, 'You'll find out if you can or you can't.' He said I was fit enough."
Jamison's regular doctor agreed. The medical clearance turned Cordova into a family reunion unlike any other.
"It was really like a celebration," Dave said, his eyes becoming big as half-dollars. "Everybody knew what happened to me. Hearing them say, 'He's here! He's here!'…"
"It was really exciting, especially when he got the Wally," Ann said.
His family – immediate and extended – struggled to express what it meant to see the honor play out.
"It was just really amazing," Debbie said, then offering a few seconds of pause. "There was so much satisfaction and happiness for him, for him to get back in the car and feel good again. It's very reflective. He never compromised."
"I felt so happy for him, and it was an honor that he really deserved," Beien said. "He's not a guy to go out and beat his chest. He just does his thing. It was rewarding for me to see him get it. Everything came together, and for him to actually get out there and race, it couldn't have come together better."
Jamison says other drivers shrug off the adrenaline rush that comes with the lights coming down.
"Yeah, right. OK," he said. "To tell the truth, I think adrenaline plays a big part. And I get as much of a rush today as I ever have."
Since 1996, Jamison has driven the same dragster, although it's been refurbished several times, often to abide by NHRA standard revisions.
• Chassis: Commercially made rear-engine, although Jamison put it together
• Engine, transmission: Jamison builds the 550-cubic inch Chevy engines and the transmissons
• Tires: 225-inch base in rear, with 15-inch-wide rear slicks; 17-inch narrow tires in front
• Horsepower: Pulls 975, although Junior's pulls more than 2,000 – "That was his destiny, to pass dad," Dave said.
• Fuel injection: Manual
• Performance: Runs quarter-mile in 7 seconds at 180 mph
• Fuel mileage: Burns 3 gallons of methanol per quarter-mile – that's 1/12-mile per gallon