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Woody: Please Remember “Suitcase”

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 1 2010
Former NASCAR crew chief Jake Elder died this week. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Former NASCAR crew chief Jake Elder died this week. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

Jake “Suitcase” Elder didn’t have any fancy degree in mechanical engineering or aerodynamics. They don’t teach quantum physics in the third grade, which is where Jake’s formal education petered out.

Some said Suitcase couldn’t read or write. I don’t know if that’s so. All I know is that Suitcase Elder was a heckuva crew chief whose cars tended to go fast.

I also know that the cars were a lot more fun to watch go ‘round back in the days when colorful characters like Jake were pulling the strings.

Elder died last week after a long, hard struggle with failing health. I’m told that a lot of drivers pitched in to help with the bills. I hope they did. They owed it to him.

Men like Suitcase Elder worked for pennies so that today’s superstars can make millions.

Without Suitcase Elder there would be no Chad Knaus – or at least no crew chief in Chad Knaus’ tax bracket.

I was amused during the off-season to read that Knaus was deliberating signing a new contract after presiding over Jimmie Johnson’s fourth championship.

I doubt that Suitcase Elder ever had a contract in his life. He operated on a handshake, with an understanding that if either side decided they didn’t like working together they could spit and move on.

Elder moved on a lot back then. When he got tired/riled, he packed up and went to work for somebody else. Hence his nickname “Suitcase.”

Somebody said Elder was cranky, demanding and hard to work with. So what? Who said stock car racing was a charm school? Battle-scarred old warriors like Suitcase, Smoky Yunick and Bud Moore didn’t wear roses in their lapels.

Elder went to work for Petty Enterprises in 1960. Along with Petty, other racing greats whose path he crossed included Dale Earnhardt, Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip.

Back in those days race teams didn’t have a platoon of technicians who’d left their jobs as rocket scientists to build stock cars. The old guys were shade-tree mechanics with a tool box and a pouch of Bull Durham in their shirt pocket. They couldn’t spell “aerodynamic” but they could pet a motor and make it purr.

Today there’s so much technology in racing that it’s hard to tell NASCAR from NASA.

Back in Jake’s day “high-tech” might mean climbing inside a car trunk with a flashlight while somebody outside chinked the cracks where the light shined through.

They were rough, tough and gruff. They had skinned knuckles, grease under their fingernails and a dirty shop rag in their hip pocket.

They built more than cars and motors – they built a sport.

One by one, as they pack their suitcases and move on for the final time, they deserve to be remembered.

– Larry Woody can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com

Larry Woody | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 1 2010
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