Jim Downing was one of the racers at the first SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Riverside International Raceway in 1964. In fact, he scored the first Runoffs pole in history, in Formula Vee. Fifty years later, he’s still racing at the Runoffs in a Mazda rotary-powered Peach Day-02 C Sports Racing car. But in between he had one heck of a professional racing career, racing prototypes and winning races for Mazda from the West Coast to Daytona and Le Mans.
“I was really lucky in the early days to hook up with Mazda,” he says of his start with the manufacturer and in professional racing. “I watched them when they came out initially. Pete Harrison, who was a fairly famous Club Racer and then did a lot of pro racing, got mad at IMSA in 1973 because they added about 400 pounds to his car. He was an Atlanta guy and he sold me the car. That was the big turning point in my career. I bought that RX-2, went IMSA racing in the RS series, and Mazda picked me up from there.”
Downing continued to race in the Radial Sedan series for a few years – and won a championship – with the RX-2 then an RX-3. He then moved to the GTU category with a RX-3 and later an RX-7. Then came GTO and Camel Lights, where he won three championships, first with an Argo chassis and then one of his own design and manufacture, the Kudzu DG-1.
“We had a number of high spots. Probably one to stand out was Daytona in 2001 when our four-rotor Kudzu won the prototype class in the 24 Hour after Rob Dyson’s engine blew up Sunday morning. I was next in line and managed to get through.”
Even with his numerous successes on track, he may be best known as one of the developers of the HANS device, the first head-and-neck restraint system that is credited with saving many lives. After Patrick Jacquemart was killed in an IMSA race at Mid-Ohio due to a basal skull fracture, Downing turned to his brother-in-law, Dr. Robert Hubbard, a biomechanical crash engineer, to find a way to prevent such an injury. The result was the HANS device, for which Downing has been recognized with awards from the SCCA and the Road Racing Driver’s Club.
Even at age 71, Downing isn’t slowing down. He got out of professional racing when the FIA implemented crash testing of prototype tubs. “The FIA implemented rules that made it almost prohibitive for a small manufacturer to stay in the business of building prototype cars, and that’s what we did. I’m not a kid anymore, but I was looking for something fun to do that was still a prototype. [The C Sports Racing car] is basically the same as the Camel Lights cars that I drove and built. It looked attractive, so I came back six years ago and am having a good time.”
While the technology has changed much in the time that Downing was away from Club Racing, much hasn’t.
“They’ve made huge inroads in safety; I’m glad to see I was a small part of that. But it was a bunch of guys who liked to go road racing, and it’s still a bunch of guys who like to go road racing. It’s all gotten a little more sophisticated as times have changed – mostly in electronics and tires. I was complaining about $25 Goodyear Blue Streak Specials as being too expensive, and now it’s $500 for that same tire. Other than that, it’s just a bunch of guys who like to go racing. I don’t even think of it as change, other than gradual change over the years.”