One of the worst natural disasters in American history couldn’t keep James McPherson Jr. from the racetrack.
The longtime resident of New Orleans was one of the victims when the Category 5 Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The storm surge caused multiple failures of the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain, and left a huge portion of the city underwater. McPherson’s house was among the areas flooded, and he remembers Katrina as leaving behind 13 feet of water and a desolate area in its aftermath.
Besides the house, it also flooded his racecar. But, McPherson was determined not to let the storm beat him, and he was back on track literally just weeks later.
“The car went under water,” explained McPherson, the current Hot Rod points leader in the IHRA Summit Sportsman National Championship. “We took it in, cleaned it off and we were ready for racing in October. The flood was in August, and I had some kids come in and help me clean out all the gunk. It smelled real nasty, but I started changing all the parts and took the motor out. Once we cleaned it all up, I was ready for racing.”
His wife, Peggy, whom McPherson says puts her heart and soul into drag racing, added, “The first time he took it down the track and popped the wheels, when it came down, the Katrina crud was bouncing on the track. It came from underneath the wheel wells. Even five years ago, we were cleaning it down and blowing all the water out, and we were still getting the Katrina crud from underneath the spoiler. With it all being riveted together, you don’t pull it apart when you’re cleaning it.”
Even without the flood and the smell, McPherson had gotten plenty of grief about the car, a 1971 Ford Pinto. Anyone who knows the 67-year-old retired contractor, knows he has never been a Ford fan.
“I’m a Chevrolet guy, but I bought the car from a guy because I knew he did a good job on the casting,” he said. “I’ve loved it, although the guys had been teasing me about driving a Ford, knowing how much I’m a Chevrolet guy. It’s got a Chevrolet motor in it, but I had to change rides when my current car, a Vega, became available.”
McPherson is so much a “Bowtie” guy that he raced the Pinto as a Chevy to win a “Ford vs. Chevy” competition in Mississippi. The race organizers kept trying to put him in the Ford lane, but he refused and put a big Bowtie logo on the windshield.
There is no confusion with his current car, a 1971 Vega panel station wagon which has a Reher Morrison motor. But, McPherson has changed much of the inside of the engine with a different camshaft and other parts.
He suffered through electrical problems at the season-opening race in Immokalee. But, he got everything figured out and started winning rounds the next race at Palm Beach. No matter what the result, McPherson enjoys competing in the IHRA Summit Sportsman National Championship.
“I’ve been all over the Southeast, the Northeast, and you’ve got guys that don’t know you come up and introduce themselves,” he said. “No matter where you’re at, I’m always like, ‘Look how nice all these people are.’ The sport of racing brings people together. You’re not really beating the guy in the other lane as much as you’re beating your clock and moving on to the next round if you win.”