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Derek Daly in Ensign F1
Derek Daly in Ensign F1

Chuck Jones – Interview and Profile

Interview by Will Silk and photos from Chuck Jones

The name Chuck Jones is one that perhaps failed to capture the notoriety in racing that other car owners and managers have enjoyed in the past, but Chuck’s amazing story is one well worth telling. Chuck Jones was raised in Southern California in the 1940s and came of age in the immortal post war era of hot rods and specials. Jones set his sights on Formula 1 at a young age, and worked tirelessly to reach his goal; passing through the ranks of the USRRC, F5000, and finally on to Team Ensign in 1975. Recently we had the chance to talk with Chuck, now 80 years young and residing in Florida with his children and grand children close by.

The interview is what could only be described as a brief recap of a career that saw interaction with some of the world’s top racing drivers. Drivers like Ickx, Regazzoni, Piquet, and many other notable names were all helped along by Chuck at different points in their professional careers.

Sports Car Digest: How did you get interested in motor racing?

Chuck Jones: I grew up on a rather large cattle ranch in Southern California, and when cars came in I went bananas. I went to the library and took out a book called “Motor Racing with Mercedes Benz” by George Monkhouse which was about the 1937 Grand Prix season with Auto Union, Mercedes, Alfa and the others. That absolutely stuck under my skin. I met Monkhouse 20 some odd years ago and was able to tell him my little story which he enjoyed. In a strange kind of way I just had this dream of making it to Formula One, and it took me 25 or 30 years but I finally made it as Mo Nunn’s partner in Ensign. I entered my first drag race in 1950, at Santa Ana, and took home a trophy.

Growing up in Southern California in the ‘40s was almost like starting out at a football game 3 touchdowns ahead. The war surplus stores were there and things were unbelievably cheap. All you had to have was just a job and want to do something. I pinstriped cars; I was single with a good base at home. My family was well off, but yet I had to work, I mean we worked our tails off! But it was the right place to be at the right time.

SCD: You knew Ak Miller, how did that come about?

CJ: I helped Ak Miller in 1957 with the car that they took to the Mille Miglia and accompanied it and crewed it. I use to be the editor of Drag News back in the ‘50s though I’m not a journalist or a writer, it was just that Chet Herbert was my sponsor in drag racing and had bought Drag News and I had the time and lived near him. When I went to the Mille Miglia, I was given journalist credentials by Hot Rod magazine, and I still have the damn thing. I think I was their first overseas journalist and I still laugh at it. I was invited to Monte Carlo by the BRM Team and was introduced in a manner that I’ll never forget, treated very nicely, and met all the top drivers.

One of my first drag racing partners was a young guy up in Whittier by the name of Walt Sandoval, and he and I met at I think Long Beach, at Lyons Dragstrip. I was running a ’32 Coupe and Walt was running a C Altered and we met, liked each other, and decided to join forces. We then became national champions in C Altered and D Altered and held a number of records. Chet Herbert was my early sponsor and I ran a nasty lil’ Dodge which he liked and he ground me a wild roller tappet cam that was so severe, and I’m not lying to you, that every other run we had to pull the tappet covers and put in new push rods. Believe it or not, that after a few weeks I got so good at feeling the clearance, I didn’t have to use the 16 or 18 thousandth feeler gauge anymore, that’s how constant they went.

Sidewinder Dragster
The Sidewinder Dragster

I came up with the 1320 Challenge in Drag News where we highlighted whatever division or class it was that was setting a course record and Walt and I frankly held a number of those records over that time. Then Chrisman and I got together and I owned the Sidewinder dragster, a chain driven car, we literally ruled the West Coast over the years with just a big go-kart a a 440 cubic inch Chrysler and 6-71 blower. It was more commonly known as the Chrisman, Mallard, Reed, and Jones car. We could run a much shorter gear and had better traction than anybody else. That’s what it was all about anyway.

I wanted to be in road racing though; drag racing was a good way of staying involved [in motorsport].

SCD: Did you race in Europe in the late 1950s?

Ex-Briggs Cunningham Maserati 151 at Road America in 1963
Maserati 151 at Elkhart Lake in 1963

CJ: No, apparently there was another Chuck Jones that did, but I didn’t make it back to Europe for quite a few years. I joined up with Skip Hudson in the early 1960s and did some racing in North America. Skip was rather talented. He was Dan Gurney’s close friend, they grew up together at Riverside and went to the dry lakes together and started racing together. Skip had immense talent, and he and I first went together and bought one of the ex-Cunningham 151 Maseratis and we had a fair amount of success with it. For somebody that didn’t know anything about road racing at the time, I was learning on the curve.

We had a very good run at the 500 mile race in 1963 at Elkhart Lake. The car wasn’t really up to those of the other machines at the time that had come over, especially the Cunningham Jaguars. The only thing was that we had done some of the set up for one of the NASCAR drivers at Riverside and they left their quick fill fuel cans. We were the only ones at Elkhart Lake that had them and our pit stops were blisteringly quick. That helped make up time on the track. So we learned as we went.


SCD: Do you and Dan Gurney have some real estate in common?

CJ: My first real facility is the one Dan Gurney is in now. Dan and I had a partnership at one time and I sold him the property.

SCD: You later became involved in F5000, largely with Jerry Eisert, and worked with a number of talented drivers and some of the very best F5000 machinery ever to hit the track.

CJ: I ended up inheriting a negative estate, a lot of property and no money, from my Mom. I’m not complaining, but from the instant she died, bless her heart, I was well over a half a million dollars in debt. Now this was in 1963. It didn’t get any better for almost seven years, but I had a very good law firm that guided me, a young wife, two little kids; and we knew every free place in Southern California to go to. I’m telling you the truth!

I managed to get the first Lola T70 in the country and we finished 2nd or 3rd in the USRRC that year [1966]. Max Balchowsky, Skip and I; that was us. Managed to keep racing and ended up with this building that Gurney is now in. Had a nice little machine shop I managed to put together and some of my ex-drag racing friends came in to run the machine shop and we managed to stay alive, race, put food on the table, and keep bill collectors at bay by paying a little here and a little there. By 1969 we got it turned around and my wife and I and the two kids packed up and went to Europe where we rented a house in the south of Switzerland. We didn’t do anything but read books and magazines and look out the window for about a year and a half. That was Regazzoni’s home town and I knew who he was from that and two years later he was driving for me.

Lola T70 Spyder competing in USRRC
Lola T70 Spyder competing in USRRC
L-R: Chuck Jones, Jerry Eisert, Clay Regazzoni and John Wright at Kent Raceways in 1973
L-R: Chuck Jones, Jerry Eisert, Clay Regazzoni and John Wright at Kent Raceways in 1973

I met Andrew Marriot and Mike Doodson in 1973 when I wanted to put the best driver in my F5000 car. I had the first one with banana wings on a titanium perch. I went back to Watkins Glen in 1973 to see if I could do a deal, and the first guy I asked was Jackie Stewart. He would have been happy to come out but he promised his wife that they would go to Bermuda that following weekend. I talked to Fittapaldi, and he wanted to do it and Chapman wouldn’t let him. I talked with Hailwood and Ickx, I talked to Regazzoni and I liked him the instant I met him. Of course he ended up driving for me for a couple of races in F5000, and later on in F1. In fact his career was sadly finished in our car at Long Beach in 1980 when he was paralyzed. We were actually family friends as his son came to live with us for a while and is still very close.

What I wanted to do was build credentials towards Formula 1. I pretty much stayed with open wheel racing, a few Indy car entries, USRRC, Can Am. Interested in doing the kind of things that would get me into F1.

I made enough of a mark that I had drivers from 17 different countries drive for me over my career, a few Americans like Al Unser Sr. and Skip Hudson, but I tended to go for the best guys I could get. Not that I was so damn smart, I just knew how to pick the best guys that I could afford. And it worked reasonably well. I was never a Penske or anywhere near close to that, but I had some successes and a hell of a lot of fun.

SCD: You worked with Graham McRae in 1974, how did that come about?

CJ: I had been involved with an Australian driver, Kevin Bartlett in the late ‘60s. Jerry Eisert and I went to Indy with a car; it was Chevy powered and quite good. We had problems in qualifying that killed us there, and later at Fontana we used Kevin again and I liked him, I liked his attitude and his abilities and all that. So in 1972, when I came back to the States, we had been designing a car of our own to run in Can Am [Jerry Eisert and I]. Kevin Bartlett called from Australia and wanted to know if he could use our garage as he was coming up with a McLaren M10B to run in F5000 to see if he could sell it.

We said to come up and we picked him up at the airport got the car and took it and rebuilt it. To make a long story short, we went to the F5000 race in early ’72 at Laguna Seca. Graham McRae was there with his GM1 and he just blew everyone off except Kevin. Kevin ended up 3rd or 4th. We realized that Can Am was probably coming to its end, so we made a decision literally that evening and I packed up Kevin and sent him to England and we went F5000 racing [in the UK]. That’s what got me into it. He drove for me in ’72 and then for various reasons we decided to go our separate ways. I then tested Rocky Moran, who I liked very much and had been driving an older Surtees. Rocky was quick in the T300 that we were going to run for a couple of races till we got our new T330 for 1973.

The only problem was that Rocky was so big, he weighed 235 pounds and was 6’ 2”; he couldn’t get comfortable in the car and frankly we couldn’t use him in the early races. So I put Jerry Grant in the car and we had a fair weekend with some minor problems. But F5000 was really warming up into a tough series at that time.

In the meantime, Bobby Muir, another Australian called me and wanted to know if I’d be interested in getting together with him and running his T330. Bobby turned out to be very quick and raced well up until a point. At that point he’d end up somewhere off the course. So getting into the last races of the season, it was at Elkhart Lake, and I had purchased the car from him. He was running a hard second to Scheckter and literally in one of the final corners of the last lap he crashed. I told him that was it. I have to admit his honesty was there, and we still communicate all the time.

Lola T330 F5000 at Michigan International Speedway
Lola T330 F5000 at Michigan International Speedway

After that I went to Watkins Glen the following week to talk to some of the top line drivers as I mentioned earlier. I ended up getting Regazzoni and he drove for us in Seattle. I knew that there was a difference in drivers and we finished second or third overall in that race. On the strength of that finish, we were offered $35,000 dollars, which may not sound like much today, but in 1973 was a hell of a lot of money; to run at Brands Hatch in one of the mixed F5000/F1 races there. It didn’t work out well for us as we couldn’t get the car to sit down on the track. We missed the shock setting, and he just had to drive hard and I think he finished 8th or 9th, something like that.

The next year I connected with Graham McRae [1974], and we decided to match up together and I got another T330. In the interim we ran one of his chassis for a race or two. He was an interesting but sometimes difficult guy to race with. Basically he wanted the shop and the money. He wanted to run the whole operation, and I’m saying that with a big smile on my face. I was up to the arm wrestling match; I’ll put it that way. Frankly those were some of the things you deal with when you shoot to get top line drivers in your car.

I had earlier in the season told Skip Barber that he could drive the car, and Skip sent a couple of engines out. Then Graham appeared on the scene and I made the decision and had to call Skip and send the engines back. I think he’s finally forgiven me for that.

I was getting to be pretty hard nosed about a lot of things by that time. It’s not my basic nature, but in racing sometimes it better be. I went for what was the strongest driver/owner package. At Watkins Glen we finished 2nd or 3rd, we broke a valve spring. I’m an old hot rodder and Graham is a guy from down under in New Zealand, so we were both use to doing things on the spur of the moment in the middle of nowhere. In between morning warm up and the race, we changed the valve spring using air pressure without pulling the head. I think he finished 2nd or 3rd, he could really drive.

The last of that season [1974], Graham and I went our separate ways. I put Al Unser in my car for the last few races. Al had done very little road racing up till that point. I put him in the car and we raced very well together. That was the point that I really wanted to move into F1 and subsequently did.


SCD: Tell me about Formula 1.

Chuck Jones working in the Ensign F1 pits at Monaco in 1977
Chuck Jones working in the Ensign F1 pits at Monaco in 1977

CJ: In respect to F1, when I went looking for a team I could join, there were three available looking for partnerships; the March Team, Team Surtees, and Mo Nunn with Ensign. Providing Bernie and the boys would even let you in, it wasn’t that easy. He [Bernie] liked the fact that I was branching out and had used people like Regazzoni and some others and I was granted an entry. I decided to go with Mo Nunn. We just fit each other, better than I would have been certainly with March where I would’ve been somebody to run errands. Surtees was a bit different in terms of personalities; it was just different personalities there, nothing against them though.

I learned a lot more from Mo Nunn than he ever did from me. My strong point was finding sponsorship and a certain amount of organization. For some reason I could spot a driver and I had a good feel for drivers. Mike and Andrew would say to go off and look at this F3 race and take note to a certain driver. One I noticed when he was in F3 was Nelson Piquet. We tested him just before the German GP in ’78. Derek Daly was driving for us then, but he wouldn’t sign a long term contract. So we stood him down, and we tested Piquet at Silverstone and he did six laps which was enough for us to take him to Germany for the next race. I remember he had an upset stomach all weekend long, but it didn’t slow him down. We also had a German driver, Harald Ertl, in the second car who was competent and who had good sponsorship. But we were a small team that tried not to do money deals if we could help it. We were asked after the race if we were going to keep Piquet, and we said no because Derek wanted to come back. And we needed Derek as he had more experience, he had been F2 champion, and we needed points to stay in the top 10 which Derek got us later in the season. Bernie picked up Nelson, and two years later Nelson was runner up in the World Championship, and the year after that World Champion.

He [Nelson] gave me his wreath which I have in a nice case from his first World Championship, and after the race at the German GP that he drove for us, I took the steering wheel off the car, I knew he was going to be good!

Nelson Piquet Ensign F1
Nelson Piquet in the Ensign F1

SCD: You ran Danny Ongais in one of your cars during your time in F1 did you not?

CJ: He [Ongais] probably shouldn’t have been in Formula One, he just wasn’t comfortable in my opinion, but Bernie gave us quite a bit of money and said, “You’re going to love him.” I am not complaining about it, as I knew Danny for sometime, in fact his first F5000 car was our ex-Lola T300. I gave it to him in trade for the number 4 Eagle Formula 1 chassis that had been driven by everybody with Dan’s F1 engine. John Collins and I rebuilt it.

SCD: You also ran Brett Lunger.

Brett was living with us in California and we ran him for a one shot deal. Rather liked him; he’s an interesting guy by the way, his time in Vietnam and his approach to racing. He’s a very good guy.

SCD: Which did you enjoy more being involved with at the time, F5000 or F1?

CJ: Well, both. My goal was F1, it really was. Ever since I read that book by Monkhouse, even when I had some success in drag racing I wanted to get into road racing. Formula One was between a dream and a reality.

SCD: Have you been to any of the F5000 Revival Series events, and if so what are your thoughts and feelings on this series?

CJ: I have not seen one, but my intentions are to go as a couple of my cars are still running and I’ve had several people contact me about them. I have to be careful how I say this, but I’ve always had mixed feelings about how some cars are represented. I’ve owned a lot of different cars. I owned one of the five Ferraris built for the 1953 Mille Miglia and John Collins was working for me. We rebuilt it as precisely as we could, even to the tone of the paint. I always felt that the car should represent, as near as possible, exactly the way they came out of the factory.

We did that with a couple Maseratis, one was Sam Posey’s first race car he ever owned and he managed to blow it up by lunch time and it never ran again. He and I got to know each other rather well over the years and I ended up with the car and rebuilt it to its original condition.

My reservation about vintage racing is that quite often I know the real story of the car as opposed to what is presented and claimed to be. So, you know, I’ve always had a little bit of a jaundiced look.

I have been to some vintage races though and have enjoyed them, and I would love to go to the F5000 races just to see how hard knocking they really are here on this side of the Atlantic. In Europe, they go at it a little harder from the ones I’ve seen and there seems to be a different approach there to rebuilding cars. Having said all that, this whole thing of vintage racing is a Godsend to cars that would normally just waste away. The Regazzoni car is apparently someplace in Europe and I’d like to find out if it still exists and where it is. His son Gian Marie would like to own it if it’s findable I think.

SCD: What is one of the funnier stories that you recall from your days in F1?

CJ: We were in Spain with Regazzoni the week before the Grand Prix; I think it was ’77. And Morris [Mo Nunn] was just delighted to have him, as at the end of the ’76 season I mentioned that we should get him to drive our car. Mo said, “He’ll never come with us.” And I said, “Well, let me talk to him, he drove for me before and he might.” We were doing tire testing and we got to a point where Morris kept perfect records, he never missed a lap and Clay came in and seemed to be stuck on a 1:16.5. Morris said he wanted Clay to go out and do four laps after he had made a change and then bring it back in. So Clay goes out and is told to drive the car at the limit and he runs two laps and they’re both right at 1:16.5. The next two laps are something like 1:16.33. So Morris has a big smile on his face and Clay comes in and Clay shook his head and said, “No Morris.” Morris said look, here are the times you ran, two laps at 1:16.5 and the last two at 1:16.3. Clay said “Oh Morris, two for you and two for me.” That’s what you got in a guy like Regazzoni; they can just do things like that.

Clay Reggazoni in the Ensign F1
Clay Reggazoni in the Ensign F1
Derek Daly at the wheel of Ensign F1
Derek Daly at the wheel of Ensign F1

SCD: You had an encounter with James Hunt that was interesting.

CJ: James had a room, and I think it was in Spain as well, one or two years after the story I told you about Clay. His hotel room was 412 and my room was 312. I had just got back from dinner or where ever we had been and I noticed that the door to my room was open a crack. I walked into my room, and it was indeed my room, and Hunt’s in there with two women in bed, O.K. We knew each other, so I said, “I think you’re in my bed.” Hunt looks around and reaches over to the table next to the bed and tosses me the keys and says, “Here, you can have my room.” So I slept in his room that night.

SCD: Chuck, I’d like to thank you for taking time to talk with me today, and I would like to thank you for all the effort you put into your involvement in motorsports over the years, as you truly have some incredible accomplishments to be proud of.

CJ: Hey, I got to live my dream and I’m very thankful for it.

[Source: Will Silk; photo credit: Chuck Jones]