TOLEDO, OHIO - At 62 years young, ARCA RE/MAX Series veteran Jerry Churchill apparently isn't done. In fact, after a six year hiatus from RE/MAX Series competition, Churchill has announced his intention to return to the tour this year when the...
TOLEDO, OHIO - At 62 years young, ARCA RE/MAX Series veteran Jerry Churchill apparently isn't done.
In fact, after a six year hiatus from RE/MAX Series competition, Churchill has announced his intention to return to the tour this year when the series heads to the Watkins Glen Int'l road course for the July 7 Watkins Glen ARCA 150.
"I've said all along; if ARCA ever does a road course again, I'll be there," said the Dearborn, Michigan driver. "So we're preparing a Chevrolet for Watkins Glen, and from there, we'll think about the possibility of doing more. Truth be known, I'd like to run the entire schedule but I also know we can't come full-time without a sponsor, so that's what we're working on. But we know we're coming to The Glen."
Although the former ARCA RE/MAX Series winner has been off the tour more than six seasons, Churchill has been anything but absent from behind the wheel of racecar.
Churchill's latest motorsports adventure has taken him south of the border. To be more specific, to the southern tip of Mexico to the town of Tuxtla Gutierrez for the annual LaCarrera Pan Americana which is a 3300-kilometer trek across some ultra tough Mexican terrain with the goal of eventually landing at Nuevo Caredo, just across the border from Laredo, Texas. The event, which runs the full length of Mexico, is not for the weak at heart.
"It's the Mexican version of the Pan-American Highway race which they first ran in 1950," said Churchill. "Hershel Mcgriff won the inaugural event but it was discontinued in 1954. It was reactivated in 1988 and is annually sponsored by the Mexican Department of Tourism. You start at the southern tip of Mexico and cover 450 kilometers a day stopping at various speed sections along the way. It's always run in the last week in October after hurricane season, and for good reason. You have enough things to concern yourself with out there, and you don't need any storms bearing down on you."
A typical entry list for the Mexican road-race, one of the last of its kind, includes drivers from 15 countries who utilize cars built in the late 40s through 1965. "We run a '63 Chevy Impala. My long-time crew chief Joe Boyle, who also happens to be my son, built the car. We finished 5th in 2000 after driving it off a cliff in '99; so we really only had one year that we made the whole trip. It's a grueling ride; you have to average 85 -- 90 mph in between speed sections to stay up front."
If that wasn't enough, Churchill will also participate in the Michelin One Lap of America presented by Car & Driver this May. "It's a spin-off from the old Cannonball Run," said Churchill. "We've got a '97 Dodge Viper we race at pre-selected road courses over a one-week span. They take the least accumulated time during a pre-designated lap; we love it because we get to run on the finest road courses in the country, and have a ball doing it. But like the Mexican run, it's grueling because when you're not running the road courses, you're on the road to make the next event."
This year, it begins at Watkins Glen on Saturday, May 5 where the teams take times before heading out for a late-night ride to the Mid-Michigan Motorplex for day-two on Sunday. Churchill will finish up there before heading to Michigan Int'l Speedway to finish part two of the day's activities before packing it up for an all-night ride to Topeka, Kansas for his Monday, day-three test on the Heartland Park road course. From there, it's off to the Motorsports Ranch in Fort Worth, Texas on Tuesday for day-four before the crew heads off to Road Atlanta for day-five on Wednesday. On Thursday, the One Lap of America runs at Virginia Int'l Raceway for day-six before wrapping it up back at The Glen for a final ride on the 2.45-mile road course to complete the seven consecutive days of road race grind. In six previous attempts, Churchill finished five complete One Lap of Americas with a career-best finish of 12th in a field of more than a hundred.
Churchill's motorsports career began in the early 60s, and he won a track championship in '73 in Ridgetown, Ontario, but it's his career in ARCA RE/MAX Series competition he may be best noted for. In 132 career RE/MAX Series starts since 1970, the still-active racer tallied 24 top-five and 61 top-ten finishes including one victory at Kil-Kare Speedway in 1990. Interestingly enough, his one-and-only win at Kil-Kare did not come without controversy where Churchill's moment in the spotlight seemed to go from a dream to a nightmare. As it turned out, Churchill nudged veteran Mark Gibson in turn three of the last lap; Gibson went spinning off the track while Churchill crossed the finish line first. Now everything he had worked for -- acceptance, respect, friendship, seemed to disappear. Later he would wonder if it had really been there at all. "We won the race," Churchill said. "We just weren't real popular at that time. Contact is part of racing; I got in the corner a lot better than Mark did; it was the last lap, and we had been trying for 20 years."
A pole winner at Flat Rock in '89 and at Kil-Kare in '90, Churchill also has two top-ten point finishes of third in '89 and fifth in '88. In addition, Churchill sat outside pole at Atlanta and Talladega in '88, and had a career-best superspeedway finish of third at Talladega in '88.
Jerry Churchill was born 62 years ago in Detroit, but grew up across the river in Windsor, Ontario Canada. When he was 12, Churchill was introduced to racing - selling popcorn at the now defunct Dayus Raceway in Windsor. He was 23 when he bought his first racecar, a 1949 Hudson.
"I took it to Bluebird Speedway in Windsor," he remembered. "Everyone else was new and scared too. Chunks of sheet metal and steel flying every which-way; it's a wonder we weren't all killed." A week later he destroyed the car, and jumped into a '53 Mercury, driving for someone else. Churchill raced at Mt. Clemens Speedway in Michigan in the late 60s, running a limited stock twice a week.
By 1970, Churchill had moved from selling insurance to running a taxi-cab business, and had just enough money to head south. He stopped along the way to buy a former Grand National (now Winston Cup) car complete with motor for $3,500. Then he continued on to Daytona with the car and what little was left of his cash. John Marcum, ARCA's founder, knew Churchill was broke, so he took him to Firestone and bought him four used tires.
He ran the superspeedway and loved it, and in '71, he was back in the south at Talladega. That year Churchill even made a couple of Grand National races at Trenton and Winston-Salem. Still on a shoe-string, Churchill crowded into one small Columbia, South Carolina motel room with Richard Childress and Barry Dodson. It was all any of them could afford. "By the end of '71, things had pretty well bit the dust," Churchill remembers. "My wife said, 'Well, you went racing. You don't live here anymore.'" By '72, Jerry Churchill had hit bottom.
"I was broke, penniless," he said, remembering those bleak days. "I was living in a motel, had one old suit and an old pickup truck to my name; couple of shirts, couple pairs of pants. Then I went to work for a trucking company as salesman. Well, one thing led to another, and I kind of enjoyed the business. I liked it, and was pretty good at it." Churchill was on his way.
In '72, he met his soon-to-be wife Doris at a bowling alley where their sons were bowling. They were married on New Year's Eve in '75. In '77, he took $400, a desk and started his own trucking company. Today, Churchill Transportation is a 50 million dollar business with more than 300 trucks on the road. That motel room he once lived in would fit twice over in his private office today.
As previously documented, the 80s and 90s, business- and racing-wise, were good for Churchill. After six top-ten ARCA point finishes, Churchill in the Spring of '89, stunned the racing world at Talladega showing up with a Chrysler, a car that was featured on the cover of Stock Car Racing magazine.
It had been a decade since Mopar had won anything; the automaker that had at one time ruled racing in Petty blue, wanted to have a presence again.
"Chrysler had approached ARCA," Churchill said. "They wanted someone who had the resources to help finance a project. ARCA came to me, and I said yes thinking it would be a nice fit."
Fittingly, Churchill's return to ARCA RE/MAX Series competition this year will be coupled with ARCA's announcement, in conjunction with Chrysler, to approve the Intrepid body style for RE/MAX Series competition beginning April 20.
Although Churchill has been absent from the full-time racing scene for some time, the life-long thrill seeker has attempted to satisfy his hunger for adventure in a variety of ways. "We've flown airplanes, helicopters and bought boats to satisfy myself. But, I still say nothing beats the thrill of driving a race car; I love cars; I love to drive whether it's down the highway or on a race track, and I can't wait to get back in the seat at The Glen. Who knows, we may even have something for 'em there."