Southern Utah News Articles
Local treasure Travers sped his way into racing history
Few people can say they had a huge part in shaping car racing history. Kanab resident Jim Travers can – and has the ring to prove it! Travers was elected into the Indianapolis 500’s Racing Hall of Fame, during an honoring ceremony on May 27, 2010, in Indianapolis, during this year’s race week. One hundred fifty prestigious electors – including racers, journalists, car owners, etc. – voted Travers to be inducted based on the impact he and late partner Frank Coon (also honored) had in building the engines that helped drive the Indianapolis 500 to its current fame.
Several years ago, race car team owner Roger Penske sent his private jet to Kanab to pick up Travers for the Indianapolis 500. Penske, of Indianapolis 500 racing fame, honored Travers, who has made Penske and countless others millions of dollars through race car innovations. At the time, Travers was honored by TRACO Engineering during pre-500 race festivities for his work. Travers also was track-side with the Penske team on race day.
But Travers didn’t attend this year, the sprightly 90 year-old claims he’s too old, but sent a video message that was played during the honors ceremony. He was given a ring and medallion inscribed with his name and date of the honor.
While accolades now are flattering, Travers secured his place in auto racing history years ago. While racing cars and engines are different now, many of the basic designs are due to Travers’ and partner Coon’s auto brilliance.
Travers and Frank Coon were acquaintances in the pre-war Los Angeles hot rod scene, when young people spent their time working on cars and racing on dry lake beds to entertain themselves. They could build the cars, experiment, tweak the engines and run on the flat, dry areas with little or no hindrances.
It was there the two built a friendship, and gained talents and knowledge, that would later result in them becoming among some of the greatest racing mechanics in the history of the sport.
World War II put a halt to all the fun. Travers eventually became an Army Air Force chief and Coon joined the Navy and became a flight engineer, and they eventually lost touch.
But that didn¹t mean building cars ever was far from Travers’ mind. When the fighting had cooled down on Iwo Jima, he and (later racing friend) Swede Lindskog built a midget car out of various things, Japanese engine, Jeep rear end, and Navy bomb trailer tires.
Postwar, Travers still focused on cars. He had become involved in developing the first fuel injector system with Stu Hilborn. He had a short venture into the Hilborn-Travers fuel injection system that was hot for awhile, until a brief setback caused him to move on.
Travers later teamed up with money man Howard Keck. Keck needed another mechanic, and Travers immediately thought of Frank Coon, his old buddy from the California dry lake days. With Keck¹s money backing them, there were bigger races to win!
Travers and Coon were focused on the Indianapolis 500. With Bill Vukovich at the wheel, they won back-to-back 500’s in 1953-1954, and came close to winning in two others in 1952 and 1955.
In Open Wheel magazine, in a two-part series on Jim Travers, (December 1995-January-1996), the late Vukovich was quoted as having said, “They deserve as much credit as I do. They are two of the best mechanics.” Vukovich was famous during the hot mid-50’s racing era, and his success showcased the innovative, mechanical contributions of Travers and Coon.
The pair were simply without match – they designed the first roadster, were the first to bring scales to the speedway to aid in chassis setups, developed ram-tuned induction, and basically created the “extremely fast” pit stops that have become so important for the incredible speeds of today.
Travers, Coon and Vukovich were allowed out of their obligations to Keck, and began working on an entry for car owner Lindsey Hopkins.
Unfortunately, Vukovich became involved in a horrible crash involving four cars. His car ended upside down on fire and he died. Vukovich’s death stunned the racing world, and particularly his owners and mechanics.
Life took different directions after that, eventually ending up with the pair creating the Travers/Coon company of TRACO in 1957. Located in small 2100 square foot digs in Culver City, CA industrial section, the TRACO name would later become synonymous with some of the most powerful engines ever to propel a race car.
During its heyday, TRACO engines were acknowledged to be the best available. At one point, two-thirds of all cars racing were powered by Travers and Coons’ ideas. TRACO evolved to become one of the most important engine companies in the world. TRACO’S Drake-Offy powered Mark Donohue to an Indy win in 1972. While there were failures, the successes were many.
Coon and Travers in their early racing years as mechanics, as well as later at the helm of TRACO, had great success modifying engines for scores of famous drivers – including Vukovich, Mauri Rose, Jimmy Jackson, Mark Donohue, Al Unser Sr., Roger Penske, Bobby Unser, A.J. Foyt, and Bobby Allison.
The Vukovich Indy Streamliner, built for the late Bill Vukovich. was the creation of Jim Travers and Frank Coon. The sleek, exciting lipstick-red car may have very well have started a revolution at Indy, had it been finished for the 500 in time. Instead, the Streamliner has recently been appraised by a memorabilia auction house for $2.5 million, and it never even ran a lap!
“I enjoyed what I did,” said Travers, of his racing glory years. “It wasn’t exactly dull.”
But Travers said racing had its downside. “I went to many funerals. That’s a bitter pill. But nobody had a gun on us.” He specifically cited his close relationship with Mark Donohue, and how the racer’s death affected him profoundly.
After three decades of building TRACO, Travers retired first and eventually moved to Kanab. Coon retired later, and has since passed away.
Travers laughed about how people often perceived the life he had chosen. He said when asked what he did for a living, he’d tell them ‘car racing’. “That was impressive to a certain group, but most thought I was crazy. If you weren’t a cowboy or a sheep herder, you didn’t make an impression.”
The two California friends had left their mark on the racing world, most believe will never be paralleled. With their recent induction into the Indianapolis 500 Hall of Fame, they will become an honored part of racing history.
When asked about the remarkable honor, Kanab resident Travers, as he held his impressive ring and medallion for pictures, responded, “It doesn’t impress me really.”