© David Murray
When the No. 19 car finally rolled to a stop, its transmission mostly expensive scrap metal, Jim Pace checked his watch: almost straight-up 3 a.m. Pace was four miles from the pits, six time zones from home, and several light years removed from the teenager who used to race around on Mississippi summer nights.
Oh, Pace was still sitting by a roadside on this fine June 1996 night. Except this wasn't Paper Mill Road in Monticello, it was the Mulsanne Straight in Le Mans, France, at the world's greatest sports car race. Broken down and out of the race or not, Pace had to savor the moment.
"I'm kind of propped up on the rail by the backstraight. It's a clear night, the stars are out, the Ferraris, McLarens, Porsches, a couple of Dodge Vipers go screaming by at way over 200 miles per hour. I look at my car, with a big American flag on the side, on the window it says J. Pace. And I'm thinking, 'You know, this is all right!'"
Now, even when things go wrong, they still turn out all right for Pace. Thirteen years after graduating from Mississippi State, and nine years since exiting a promising career track in medicine for a much faster track, the Jackson resident has found his Victory Lane. Pace is part of the top team of big-league road racing, driving an Oldsmobile-powered Riley & Scott Mk3 for Doyle Racing. He has piloted a 550-horsepower, carbon-fiber, gasoline-filled bathtub-a 'World Sports Car'-to overall wins in the 24 Hours at Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the Texas 500, earning a place among the sports's ranking endurance racers.
A prize ride and two-thirds of road racing's 'triple crown' makes Pace the hot driver of '96. But this is no overnight success story.
"A lot of my peers are asking, how did I 'luck' into this," Pace said. "Well, there's years of hard work, driving the best you can with whatever car you're given, and constantly trying to put the best car you can under you."
Pace got the best car partly for an impressive 1995 season, and partly from pure persistence. Last year was his first full tour in WSC class, and he finished fifth in points despite driving eight different cars in 11 races. In fact, he went into the final race with a shot at the championship. "There were five guys in striking distance," he said, "from Italy, Spain, England, South Africa-and Jim Pace from south Mississippi, operating out of the back of a rental car."
The image was so striking that ESPN jumped on the story. "They said, 'I don't know where he comes from, but he's not going away!'"
He didn't, and he isn't. He's having too good a time in the big leagues after the years of grinding gears and climbing the ladder. Pace's obvious talent and tenacity, and a big favor done in 1994, led lead driver Wayne Taylor to ask if Pace was interested in a slot with Doyle. Pace would have said yes anyway, but the offer was especially attractive because Doyle had the best R&S chassis and Oldsmobile's hot new Aurora V-8 motor.
Then the team opted for a 'short' chassis fitted to smaller pilots. At 6'1" Pace came up, well, tall. "It would have been easy to tuck my tail, but I picked up the phone. I called the people I knew at Oldsmobile, I called the car builders, the guys who built the engines, the neighbors, everybody I knew!"
Pace actually knew he fitted a chassis built for the shorter Taylor, because Pace had helped the South African win the '94 title by qualifying a car and starting the final race for him. For once, the squeaky wheel really did get the grease, and persistence earned a spot on 1996's dream team.
"I flew up to Indianapolis, sat in the car and said look, no problem! The builder said yeah, he fits. The engine guy said well, he's never blown up one of my engines. The end result is everybody's talking about Jim Pace, where if I'd been on the list I might have just been another name."
Now Pace's name, with teammates Taylor and Scott Sharp, is in the record book after wins at Daytona and Sebring-the first all-American chassis and engine combination ever to sweep the Florida events.
In June, the Doyle team was racing for an unprecedented triple crown at Le Mans until a pinion gear called it a night with Pace at the wheel, 150 laps and 12 hours into an around-the-clock event.
"As I'm going by our pits, BOOM! Everything makes a big noise and gives that horrible, busted gearbox sound. And it's eight and a half miles back around, and a very long push."
He babied the crippled car as far as the backstraight, hoping the other 220 mph missiles could see his blinkers and not shove a rear fender through the cockpit. That's when Jim Pace found a comfortable spot on that French guardrail, to soak up the sounds, sights, and even smells of a race he had only known from an old movie. "Daytona is cool, and the hairpin at Sebring is full of history. But Le Mans-the goal posts have moved! I'm in a big, loud American V-8 with a big American flag flying over our pit. I'm thinking, this is a long way from Paper Mill Road."
It's been a long road, too, and not one Pace was supposed to take. The son of the town doctor, young Jim was to follow the same career path. But somewhere along the way, Pace traded in hospital scrubs for a fireproof suit, put away the stethoscope, and grabbed a steering wheel. That was in 1987, when Pace decided he just had to run at a different pace. Marcus Welby wanted to be Mario Andretti.
Photo courtesy of IMSA
"I'd have been a miserable doctor. The closer I got to the end of medical school, the further I got away from where I wanted to be."
Now, at 33, Pace is exactly where he wanted to be, riding high in the fast lane of a demanding, exotic craft. "There's simply nothing like making a good racing car respond to your every command," he explains.
"It's like you're in a zone. You're braking, shifting, the motor's sounding, you're scanning every gauge and feeling the car changing. And it feels so, so good when it all goes right. What I really like about road racing is, while you're doing the same thing over and over, each lap is different. You can always challenge yourself a little more to go faster and do a more consistent job."
The racer's father has to share blame for this turn of events. An armchair auto nut who read the car magazines and racing books, he exposed his boy to the bug early. Then one day the family stockbroker came by to show off a new Jaguar to Dr. Pace and a wide-eyed four-year-old.
"The three of us are packed in an E-Jaguar, and I thought it was the most awesome thing. From that point on, I was hooked on sports cars."
When he was old enough to swap Hot Wheels for big wheels, Pace enjoyed the usual teenage Chevrolet adventures, then drove up the highway to Mississippi State. Friends and family led him there, but it was the blue '70 Roadrunner parked at the Registrar's Office that sealed the deal.
College was fun, especially with a '65 Corvette convertible, "my pride and joy that needed as much time working on it as it spent on the road."
Pre-med was even more demanding. "When State beat Alabama in 1980, I was in the stack files studying comparative anatomy!" he said. Yet he also found a fraternity of motorheads, and they set up headquarters across the street from Judge Mac's Gulf Station.
Pace tried a dual life in medical school, playing at racing in Jackson sports car club events with the old gang from State. But he wanted more, and Dr. Pace gave his blessing. "He said if you're going to do it, don't go play but work hard and do well. So I called the Skip Barber Racing School in 1987."
Pace may not be a doctor, but his methodical approach to the art and science of racing does show a surgeon's preparation and precision. Instead of buying a ride and quickly burning out his energy and wallet, he went to a professional racing school and practiced in Barber-run series. And, Pace won: races, awards, Rookie of the Year, and a GTU (sort of AA-league) class victory in his first trip to Daytona in 1990, whipping the big factory teams.
"That got me an opportunity in Camel Lights in '91, and we had a class win at Sebring. That kept getting me more opportunities."
He won the 1994 GTU series in a Nissan, while also helping WSC teams as a hired hotshoe. Contacts and impressions made then have him in the hottest seat in the series now.
There have been potholes, but Pace has remained happily on track. He has three more WSC races this fall, and will even venture off-road, literally, in the Baja 100. Plans for 1997 aren't settled yet. He would listen to an offer from a NASCAR or Supertruck team, yet his heart follows the twists and turns of road racing.
"One of the things I love is that it's problem-solving. I mean, a race car is like Saturday night, 2 a.m. in the emergency room. You're getting hit with problem after problem after problem, and you have to very quickly choose the best solution and put it in place. And then run down to the next problem at 190 miles per hour."
Even when it seemed he would never get called up to the majors, Pace has never looked back.
"Since then, I've just enjoyed living! I've been fortunate enough to go to a lot of places, to meet a lot of really good, genuine people. It's not a bunch of hellions with no responsibilities to society. And we have a motorsports ministry, so I have a new church family of my peers."
It's a different road Pace has taken, certainly with a much higher speed limit, and still not an easy one to explain. He knows what to expect when people ask his line of work. "First, a 'You're what?'; then, 'Is that stock cars?'; and finally, 'How fast do you go?'"
As for the obvious risks of this profession, well, Pace finds Old Canton Road far more hazardous by day than a blind curve at Daytona at night. "I hate to drive, because you never get anywhere. Not to say I can't get to the airport in a hurry, but . . ."
Pace doesn't look farther down the career road than the next turn, but he's confident that other interests, other opportunites related to racing, will come along. And when not racing now, he teaches driving and racing at Skip Barber schools around the country. Which, in a way, brings his story full-circle.
"Now I'm seeing all these doctors and lawyers coming to the schools in their shiny new sports cars, they've got their careers and made their money, and now they want to drive and race their toys. All I can think is, 'How ironic, I was so close to being just like they are!'"
© David Murray