The Vasser Collection

A Lifetime Enthusiast

Norm DeWitt - September 20, 2012 10:00 AM


One of Jim Vasser’s creation was the subject of many stories and his work took its share of trophies.


Jim Vasser’s career in racing focused on drag racing and this Maverick was just one of his winners.


Jimmy Vasser in his latest project, a 1960 Corvette that was taken as a trade-in at the dealership.


This Corvette occupies a prominent spot in the Vasser showroom.


The sign for Jimmy Vasser Chevrolet in Napa, California.


Jimmy gets set for his last race in an IndyCar. It happened at Long Beach, California, in 2008.


In the Vasser collection, this ’57 T-bird has a prominent spot near his race cars.


There is plenty of Chevy muscle that can be found, though other types of cars are represented as well.


This is the tri-power 427 found in one of the Vasser Corvettes.


Jim Vasser stands with a great looking Rocket 88.


The interior of the Rocket 88 is just as good as the exterior. There are no shabby cars in this collection.

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Jimmy Vasser is known in racing circles for his achievements in formula car racing across a 25-year career.

However, his roots run deeper than most realize. His father, Jim Vasser, was a drag racer and hot rod builder from the 1960s. Together, they have amassed an enviable collection of ’60s muscle cars, along with a number of Jimmy’s most memorable racers.

Jim Vasser won “The World’s Biggest Trophy” in 1964 with his “California Touring” hot rod. “It’s for ‘America’s Most Beautiful Roadster’ award, or AMBR,” Jim Vasser said. “At that time, the Oakland Roadster show was the biggest deal. Now, they have it at the Pomona Fairplex and that nine-foot trophy is always there, and I always check to see that my name is on it. Steve Archer did my bodywork.”

Jimmy Vasser looks over the photos of his father’s AMBR winner, adding, “Look at that, it was before I ruined the paint. I was seven or eight and had been painting my bicycle and then was cleaning my hands with acetone. My hands felt like they were on fire. It burned so bad I went running by the thing shaking my hands on my way to the sink. So, then he two-toned it. I might have got a spanking for that one.”

Jim Vasser had his racing days, but they were on the dragstrip. “I had a gas supercharged car. I used to run with Jerry Ruth, the King of the Northwest. I remember that after I met him, I got my 409. I ordered it in June of 1961. I had the first 409 up in Washington/Oregon in 1962, and I ordered it red on red. Years later, I built what was probably the world’s best 409 but I overdid it. I put six speeds in it, a nine-inch rear end, everything you can imagine. We had it at the SEMA show in the DuPont booth about four years ago, and it won some award.

“That one got way out of control,” Jimmy remembered. “Dominator did it, it was a retro-mod. We were into that thing $250,000.”

Jim explained a photo on the wall. “It was the last race car that I ever built,” he said. “A Pro Stock Maverick with an overhead cam Ford.”

Jimmy started his racing early, growing up in the south bay town of Morgan Hill. “My dad got out of drag racing because he had a family and he couldn’t afford it. We started racing the quarter midget when I was about six. We won three national championships. It was serious racing.”

Tooling around Napa with Jimmy for a shakedown cruise in his 1960 Corvette, he fills in the details of this latest project. “It was a trade-in at the dealership in 1998. It was the wrong color … black. This (turquoise) was the original color, so we decided to put it back to that and about five years ago, we started working on it. We just got it done. It has two four-barrel carbs.”

Jim explained, “It had a 350 in it, but he still had the original block, so I was checking the block and was telling me how it originally came with the dual carburetors. I was like … ‘Oh, really?’ We took it to Dominator and took it off the frame, a combination of them and another shop. We built the engine for it.”

At Jim Vasser’s house, there is a garage complex with a number of muscle cars. One catches my eye, as I recall my grandmother having bought a 1960 Oldsmobile 88 brand new. She would slip out of our family home late on Saturday nights to drag race it against the local kids. As usual, the Vassers have taken things to the next level. “This is a ’57 Olds 88,” Jim said, “a high horsepower car. It’s got a 502 in it. It was one of the first things I did with these cars, when I built it in ’94. It has an Art Carr heavy-duty transmission where you can adjust the shift points, and it’s computerized. I drove it across the United States in ’97. Ferrari red and Porsche white, Shavers did the upholstery, and it’s made to look like a 50’s custom.”

Moving along into the Corvette section of the garage, there is a stunning black Sting Ray.

“This one is a ’67 Vette convertible, and is a survivor,” Jimmy said. “Everything is original down to the tires. Bias plys … you wouldn’t put tires like that on ’em these days. They don’t exactly ride and handle all that well, but for originality… and it has air conditioning and power windows, and a 350 horse 427. Everybody likes these ’67s, for lines and body style.” There is a stunning yellow 1968 T-top Corvette. “This is a ’68 427 tri-power. This one was a full rotisserie restoration, and actually, this one was a trade-in as well. It was red, but all the parts were there and all the numbers matched, so we decided to put it back to the original condition. We have a C1, a C2, a C3, and a C4.”

There is a Ford section as well. “The ’57 T-bird is just a beautiful car,” Jim said. “It’s a stocker, blueprinted and balanced.” In the garage next to the black ’57 Thunderbird are the race cars. The last open wheel car that Jimmy raced (the 2008 Long Beach Grand Prix) and an earlier Lola sit side by side. Above the Champ Cars on an overhead lift are the black Swift F Ford SCCA Runoffs car, and the Formula Atlantic Kraco car that Jimmy dominated Formula Atlantic with soon after. On the wall is a poster-sized cover of Sports Car magazine, with Jimmy leading the field in Formula Atlantic with that Kraco car.

Needless to say, memorabilia from Vasser’s 25 years of racing is scattered throughout the shop, given that his IndyCar/Champ Car career spans from 1992-2008. One photo is of the podium at Phoenix in ’93, that race being Jimmy’s first podium and Mario Andretti’s last win. There are firesuits and helmets on mannequins, including one as a tribute to the late Greg Moore, with one of his original Forsythe suits and helmets. The Vasser and Moore families remain in touch and still get together on occasion.

Almost surprisingly, there are no creative combinations of muscle cars with IndyCar engines. It happens, as in 1993 a mechanic at Dick Simon Racing would talk about his rod with a turbocharged Cosworth IndyCar engine, screaming down the street at 13,000 rpm. “I think there were also some using the old Oldsmobile IndyCar engines as hot rod motors, but they’re not good to run on the street,” Jimmy said.

There are newer muscle cars in the Vasser collection, such as their supercharged 620hp Camaro. “We increased the boost on the supercharger, they recommend no more than six pounds of boost, but this thing puts out over nine which changes the horsepower by a bunch,” Jim admitted. “It’s very quick. You need to know what you are doing. We were thinking about making some, but it’s such a small market.”

The “620hp VA$$ER” logo on the hood is hard to ignore. Over the years, the dollar signs became somewhat of a trademark. “I used to wear that logo on my helmet when we had the really big races,” Jimmy said. “Troy Lee did one for me for my last race (Long Beach ’08). I told him ‘Whatever you want to do, buddy.’ Another time, he did an Easy Rider Peter Fonda-type helmet for me, back when I was driving for (Bobby) Rahal.”

Jim sums up the purpose of the Vasser collection. “When my friends come down, they can pretty much pick what they want to drive, and that’s really important to me. I don’t want any trailer queens, I just enjoy the cars. Driving them up through Napa Valley is just special. Jimmy has a wonderful place with a vineyard up on the hill.”

KV Racing in IndyCar is a venture of Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven, each of whom now have their own personal winery. “I’ve got 45 acres with eight acres planted,” Jimmy said. “I was doing this before Kevin. We planted at the same time and have annual tasting competitions. It’s Walnut Creek versus Napa Valley … I mean, who you gonna go with?”

When the name is Vasser, the competition never ends.