Jim Kerr: Prime Minister And Sage Advisor To The Speed Merchants
Jimmy Kerr (left) was honored with induction into the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame last October, during ceremonies in Henderson, NC. Presenting his induction award is “Jersey John” Anzelmo, ECDTHOF board member and long time drag racing figure. Kerr continues his involvement in the speed equipment industry with his manufacturer’s rep firm and involvement in SEMA.
Story by Jim Hill
All those highly coveted go-fast goodies readily available from the myriad sources in today’s high performance automotive aftermarket don’t just magically fall off the back of a UPS truck. Each item winds its way through a distribution system designed to keep a steady stream of parts moving from its manufacturing source to the end-user, the racer, engine builder or performance enthusiast. That’s where people such as Jim Kerr step from behind the scenes onto the field.
For five decades, Jim Kerr and Jim Kerr & Associates, Manufacturer Representatives, has provided critical manufacturer to distributor services for the makers of racing and performance products. “Jimmy” Kerr has managed to achieve this while maintaining a high-ground position on honesty, ethics and loyal service. Kerr is regarded by many as the “dean” of speed products reps. He’s also well known for sharing his considerable knowledge and experience in the industry with newcomers. Jim Kerr’s generosity in sharing his knowledge has been extended to many manufacturers and even to individuals who became his competitors. His insight and amazing number of contacts within the industry has made him one of those mentioned whenever the business side of motorsports products is discussed and a legitimate opinion needed.
Jim Kerr earned his way into the industry first as a drag racer, in the mid 50’s, running a Cadillac powered ’40 Ford at the Allentown (PA) Airport and Newark Airport strips. Jim learned in first-person the skills of building engines, chassis and tuning for racing. Kerr’s “day job” was at Budd Company, Philadelphia, where he learned to weld together OE auto chassis. He began working part-time at George Hurst’s garage, working on engine swaps and handling mail order sales fulfillment of engine swap components, the genesis of what would become Hurst Performance. Jim Kerr’s association with speed industry pioneer George Hurst afforded him entry into the circle of many of the founding fathers of the speed business.
While at George Hurst’s shop he also worked on floor shifter conversions and went with Hurst’s crew to the 1960 NHRA Nationals, at Detroit Dragway. The Hurst crew bolted a pair of Hurst’s new three-speed shifters to the tailgate of a pick-up truck, and sold hundreds of the new shifters with the crude yet effective demonstration display. By the ’61 Nationals Kerr was working for Hurst full-time, and the Hurst crew had grown up into a semi-trailer at the Nationals, the event’s first time at the brand new Indianapolis Raceway Park facilities. The well-equipped, well-stocked Hurst trailer made seemingly impossible repairs on the spot for racers, all at no charge. That led to the Hurst Performance Clinic program, and eventually to Kerr’s role as the Hurst Shifty Doctor. Jim’s role as one of the earliest Hurst Shifty Doctors led to several more notable “docs”, including Jack Watson, Ed Beyer and Howard Maseles. The “clinic” also gained Hurst wide publicity in the various publications that covered the event, including Hot Rod Magazine.
Jim also learned first-hand how George Hurst’s promotional genius gained his company an amazing amount of free publicity, product promotion and consumer brand recognition.
“George would write up magazine tech stories and hand them to editors, who edited the content to suit themselves, then printed the story along with the photos supplied by Hurst”, Jim remembered. Hurst got the free publicity, the magazine got a well written, free story with photos, and the reader got valuable how-to information, a winner for all involved.
It was during that time Kerr, through George Hurst, became acquainted with “Big Bill” France, founder of NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway. The Hurst crew was at the NASCAR drag races in February, held at Spruce Creek Airport. Managing the event was Ed Otto, a partner of Bill France and the man who became known as the man in charge of NASCAR’s drag racing program. Kerr and the Hurst Performance crew worked the pits at the speedway in the daytime and the drags at night during the week-long winter series.
Although NASCAR quit drag racing in the 1970’s, Bill France, Sr., Wally Parks, Ed Otto and Ernie Schorb (ECDTHOF member) concocted a week-long drag race event during Speedweek, and beginning with the first Winter Nationals, February 1960. That was jointly hosted by NASCAR and NHRA, for that one year only.
The 1960 Winter Nationals actually came about due to pressure from local Daytona Beach officials and law enforcement. The problem of nighttime hell-raising, street racing and general lawlessness by spectators and even some drivers forced the event’s formation, as a nightly diversion. The Daytona Beach coppers cracked down, hard, on the miscreants, and pointed them in the direction of the nightly drags, at Flagler-Bunnell Airport.
NASCAR went on to form its Drag Race Division, and Wally Parks’ NHRA hosted the next Winternationals (by then NHRA trademarked as one word) at Pomona, California. Since then both organizations have managed to succeed in ways their founders likely never guessed possible.
For Jim Kerr, the itch to get heavily involved grew. Deep down he harbored a burning obsession with the thundering, nitro burning, Top Fuel dragsters. Jim somehow acquired a Top Fuel dragster from S&S Speed, in Falls Church, VA, and a partner in the car, John Goode. The project was short lived due to budget constraints, but Kerr remembered that one highlight was running an Atco Dragway match race with Connie Swingle driving. Oddly, Swingle’s own employer, Don Garlits, was their match race opponent. Swingle was Garlits’ main chassis fabricator and welder, and also drove Garlits’ second team car at events and match races. Swingle put forth his best effort but Garlits won anyway. Kerr and Goode later ran the car at the Nationals, losing the BB/FD class to Dick Jesse’s Pontiac Funny Car, “Mr. Unswitchable”. Jim remembered that this brief encounter introduced him to an entirely new segment of racers including Ed Pink, Jimmy Nix and Joe Schubeck among many others of the nitro fraternity.
In 1967 Kerr decided to pool his experience working with various manufacturers by forming an organization that would represent speed equipment manufacturers. This firm was designed to serve manufacturers by convincing the rapidly growing speed warehouse distribution network to stock and distribute their products. Prior to then, speed equipment had been marketed mainly direct to the customer, or through speed shop retailers. The industry had outgrown its single-step distribution, which brought about the first speed WD’s and a multi-stepped distribution system. This was a practice similar to that of the automotive replacement parts industry. Kerr’s first clients included most of the “blue chip” industry names such as Mr. Gasket, Lakewood, Hooker, Casler, Cure-Ride and Eelco. He later added Edelbrock, Crane Cams, Moroso, and Flowmaster.
Jimmy Kerr became a SEMA member in 1968, and has been a volunteer in many SEMA industry projects. He was inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame in 1996, alongside Stu Hilborn and Dick Van Cleve.
As part of his rep services Kerr & Associates helped his clients create timely product catalogs, price sheets and programs to grow their businesses. He also assisted in establishing consistent pricing and distributor discount tables, attended sales seminars, trade shows and the various events that feed sales of speed products.
Jim Kerr & Associates covered territories across the northeastern U.S., which became one of the performance industry’s most fertile territories. Jim’s work in establishing and building sales for the major warehouse distributors of the day, and current speed WD’s went hand-in-hand with the growth of his manufacturer clients.
From building hot rods, drag racing, designing and fabricating new speed products, creating the new role of manufacturer reps and growing the speed and performance automotive industry, Jimmy Kerr has done it all.
The East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame is proud to welcome Jim Kerr as a member of the 2015 class of inductees.