He went from the anonymity of cutting hair in a little town in Illinois to a respected national stylist in a sprint car. His library consisted of Speed Sport, USAC News and Carl Hungness Indy 500 yearbooks, but nobody could read a dirt track better. He made it from motorcycle scrambles to the starting field at Indianapolis. Nobody talked slower or drove faster. And he finally figured out marriage on his third attempt and raised six great kids throughout the years.
Norman “Bubby” Jones, who died Sunday at the age of 78, was an old-school racer who should be remembered as one of the great sprint car drivers of all time and an endearing character that always gave you a helping hand as well as his unfiltered opinion.
“I was fortunate enough to go up and down the road with him and he won hundreds of races, but his greatest achievement was picking up two mph on the last day of qualifying at Indianapolis on his third and final attempt to make the show,” said Tim Coffeen, one of Jones’ best friends for the past 50 years who worked on sprinters and Indy cars for him.
“There are a lot of different adjectives to describe the guy, but the easiest way is that he was as honest as the day is long, and he didn’t always tell you what you wanted to hear but he wouldn’t lie to you. And there was no finer person.”
‘Ol Bub would have probably been happy as an 8-5 barber in Danville, Ill. that raced super modifieds and sprints on the weekends until 1971 when trucking honcho M.A. Brown offered him a ride on the outlaw circuit. He quit his day job and became a professional racer as well as a prolific winner, averaging 35-40 wins a season.
From Little Springfield to Eldora to Knoxville to West Memphis, Jones carved out a reputation as a smart, smooth and fierce competitor. He became friends and rivals with the great Jan Opperman as his success spread to Manzanita Speedway and Ascot Park.
“I always figured Bubby was the guy to beat if I was going to win,” said Opp back in the mid-70s.
The cruel irony of Jones’ career came in 1976. Opp had convinced him to start running USAC, and after winning his initial Silver Crown race at DuQuoin, Bub watched his pal get gravely injured in the Hoosier Hundred. When Jan tried to make his comeback in the spring of 1977 it was obvious he wasn’t ready, so he asked car owner Bobby Hillin to put Jones in his Longhorn cars – which also included the Indy 500.
A dirt specialist, Jones only had five previous pavement races when he got to the Speedway, and admitted that when the turbocharger kicked in the first time going down the backstretch at IMS he seriously thought about pulling in. But he bumped his way into the field, and stormed from 33rd to ninth in the race before his engine pitched.
Jones excelled in the Longhorn sprinter, racking up seven victories and also taking the prestigious Hut Hundred midget race.
“He had such a passion for race cars and not just driving them, but he was a big proponent of making the car do the work. His mechanical ability was second to none,” continued Coffeen. “Nobody knew more about tires, gears and suspension and how to make a car go fast.”
In 1979 he scored 11 wins for Don Siebert and Jim McQueen, but lost the USAC championship in the final race. Disillusioned by that and the reality that you needed money to get an Indy car ride, Jones packed up and headed west.
‘Ol Bub didn’t suffer fools and his hometown friend and longtime car owner Larry Henry once said that if he ever wrote an autobiography it should be titled: “Assholes, jerks and s*** boxes,” because that’s how he looked at racing and didn’t throw many compliments around.
From 1980-87 he became a master at Ascot Park’s famed half-mile and the California Racing Association – piling up 90 wins and two titles before “retiring” after ‘87. He returned briefly in 1990 and scored his final Ascot win in 1991 before taking over management of Perris Speedway.
Jones returned to Indianapolis in 2004 and worked for Tony Stewart’s team among others, sharing his knowledge with anyone smart enough to listen at Kokomo, Gas City, Bloomington, Putnamville, Paragon and Haubstadt. He built his own cars and they were always fast, but he began slowing down a few years ago with a myriad of health problems.
A cigarette and cup of coffee were his constant companions, along with a wry sense of humor. At a team lunch a couple years ago Lee Kunzman, Pancho Carter, Bill Vukovich, Merle Bettenhausen, Gary Irvin and Johnny Parsons were reminiscing about how much fun it was to race on the high-banked quarter mile of Little Springfield where Jones grew up and was a four-time champion. Asked how many races he won at Joe Shaheen’s famous bullring, Jones replied: “All of ‘em.”
He was a lover, not a fighter, and was knocked unconscious in his first and only bar fight at Champaign, Ill. by Bill Brown (the former Minnesota Viking). In between marriages, Jones was sweet-talking a woman one night and she suggested he come over and bring some coke, so he stopped at the 7-11 and got a six-pack. We laughed for days.
Third wife Patti was his rock and the best thing that ever happened to Jones and she gave him three daughters, Ashley, Jessica and Emily, to go along with his earlier children Gina, Davey and Tony. They cherished their old man like we all did.
There was only one ‘Ol Bub, and he certainly was an original in every way.