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Big Jim Dunn – Hero of the Little Guy
Think of all the highly funded, multi-car racing teams in NHRA history. Jim Dunn Racing is unlike any of them. Jim Dunn races without big sponsors, no fancy hospitality trailers and with little fanfare. He races because he loves it. It’s what he knows.
The way Big Jim explains it, “I got started at 15 when my dad gave me a cam and two carburetors for a ’39 Ford, about $50 worth of tools, and said, ‘there you go’. But I had to learn to put the parts on.”
That humble beginning set the tone for an amazing 66 years (and counting) of racing.
Dunn, 82, is the owner and tuner of the Circle K HEMI® engine-powered Dodge Charger R/T nitro funny car driven by John Hale. His Hall of Fame career has included wins as a driver, numerous national records, and ,of course, hard work, sweat and tears. Although he is the underdog at every race, he’s developed a dogged determination that has kept fans loyal to his efforts for decades.
Dunn is not known for an abundance of social outreach, and he doesn’t care what you think. If he had his way, which he always seems to get, racing would be about building motors and making car parts. He understands the fan and sponsor aspects just fine. But he’s happiest when building his own motors and he takes great pleasure in the mechanical part of the job.
“I still enjoy racing,” says Dunn. “But it’s not quite as fun because we used to make all our own parts. I still enjoy breaking parts,” he says with the slightest hint of a smile. “What I learned a long time ago is that when you race on a limited budget, just getting qualified is as good as a win.”
And there were plenty of wins in his career.
While racing, Dunn also worked for 30 years as a fireman in LA County, retiring at age 60 as a captain. The work allowed him to feed his family and enjoy his passion on weekends.
In his early days as a driver, Dunn drove a short wheelbase FIAT®, a ’49 split window VW bug that ran 122 mph, a front-engine fuel dragster and an A/Gas Anglia that produced wins at Pomona two years in a row. He has driven others along the way and each car he drove was more difficult to drive than the last.
Dunn gained early recognition in the ´60s and´70s racing against the likes of Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen and the other “stars” of the day. He utilized help from family and friends who volunteered to lend a hand.
In the late ´60s, Dunn hooked up with Joe Reath, a guy who could help him with parts. Soon after, the Dunn & Reath funny cars came to be feared. Dunn did pioneering work with the revolutionary and short-lived rear-engine funny cars of the early ´70s, most notably with the Dunn & Reath Barracuda powered by a 392 HEMI engine mounted near the rear wheels.
Diehard NHRA fans have seen the early ´70s cult classic Funny Car Summer, an hour-and-a-half film that documents a summer of racing with Jim Dunn. The film is a time capsule of amazing nostalgia, with insight into music, racing and life as it was in 1972. The rear-engine Barracuda is a co-star of the film. “Driving that car was scary,” Dunn recalled. “It did things without warning, for no reason at all.”
When his driving career finally ended at age 62, Dunn continued to campaign a Dodge funny car with a host of drivers. The list includes his son Mike Dunn, who would win four times in his father’s car, and then Japanese-born Kenji Okazaki (the first non-North American to win in NHRA), Frank Pedregon, Al Hofmann and others.
You’ll find Big Jim Dunn in the 27th spot on NHRA’s 50 Greatest Drivers list. When assessing that honor, in typical Dunn fashion, he said, “I guess that’s about right, I worked at fire station 27.”
Today, Dunn races with his wife, Diane, and his son Jon, with the driving handled by Hale. Very little else has changed over the past six decades. Sure, Big Jim overcame a cancer scare in 2014, but he’s basically the same guy. Working with a small budget, very little fanfare and just doing what he loves most.
What will be the legacy of Jim Dunn? “[I] won on a budget, raced for years, and enjoyed the trip.”