Bailey and Litton met in the Top Fuel final at the last IHRA event held at the track
BRADENTON, Fla. (April 19, 2013) – Sun, sand and beautiful beaches, that is the life for former Top Fuel pilot Jim Bailey.
After decades behind the wheel of anything that would go fast, Bailey finally hung up his helmet and gloves for good just a few years back. Years of 300 mile-per-hour passes and hundreds of earth-shattering runs would finally be replaced with the much slower, much calmer joy of life at the beach.
Now was the time for rest and relaxation.
Jim Bailey's last career victory came at an IHRA divisional race in 2007
So in 2010, after nearly two decades of vacationing on the Gulf Coast and with dozens of threats that one day he would retire to the Bay area, Bailey finally did. Tired of the cold and dreary conditions in Ohio, Bailey packed up and headed south with his lovely new bride and planted his flag in the town of Bradenton, Ohio, far from his old drag racing stomping grounds.
But as they say, life always seems to find a way to catch up to you.
Bailey called it quits racing in the brutal existence of the world's fastest class in 2001, but he continued to race a beautiful '63 Dodge Max Wedge Stocker from time to time until he put racing behind him for good in the late 2000s. His last ever event win came at an IHRA Summit Pro-Am divisional race in 2007 in Martin, Michigan and since then the car has simply collected dust while Bailey soaked in the rays of Florida living.
Then, on one warm December evening, he got the call – the IHRA was coming back to town. After two national events held at the Bradenton facility in 1998 and 1999, the IHRA was finally returning with its new Nitro Jam series coupled with a Summit Pro-Am divisional race. After initially thinking it would be fun to visit with some of his old friends and watch from the grandstands, Bailey got the itch. That all too familiar feeling that plagues racers throughout their lives that keeps them coming back for more.
Bailey knew he wasn't going to be able to sit this one out.
Bailey's new ride is a beautiful '63 Dodge he races in Stock
"Once racing gets in your blood, is becomes part of who you are. It is like a habit that you can't break, you can't just walk away from it forever," Bailey said. "I knew as soon as I heard that the IHRA was coming to town I wasn't going to be able to just sit back and watch. It is almost as if, since I wasn't going out and drag racing anymore, drag racing came and found me."
At first, Bailey admits, he was only moderately excited. Sure he looked forward to rolling out his gorgeous ride and putting a few laps on her, but it had been several years since he last went down a racetrack and he knew there was a lot of work to be done. But as the event drew closer, he admits, the anticipation really began to consume him.
"Over the course of the last month I just got flat excited. Quite frankly I don't think the car can take any more wax at this point," Bailey said with a laugh. "It has been two years since I have been down a track and, quite frankly, I can't wait. You can be sure I will be buying into that test and tune and getting every lap I can get out of this thing this weekend."
While Bailey's road from retirement back to the racetrack is a nice tale, there is still another part to this story.
You see after years racing Top Fuel with the IHRA, racking up seven wins and finishing as high as second in the point standings on three separate occasions in the 90s, Bailey also has a little history at the track he now calls home. Of Bailey's seven career Top Fuel wins, one of those came at the last IHRA race held at Bradenton Motorsports Park in 1999. And his opponent in the final round that weekend? Bruce Litton.
Litton will also be racing at the Bradenton Nitro Jam presented by CarSafe, Metro PCS and Southern Ford Dealers this weekend, but unlike Bailey who will be racing in one of the sportsman classes, Litton is still powering down the track in a Top Fuel dragster nearly two decades later.
14 years since the last IHRA event in Bradenton and Bruce Litton is still racing Top Fuel
And while they won't be racing against one another, it will be a fun moment and a little déjà vu when the two drivers run into each other this weekend, 14 years since the last time IHRA visited Bradenton.
"I look forward to seeing Jim this weekend. As a lot of people know I have been blessed with an incredible memory and I can remember everything about that weekend in 1999," Litton said. "Jim and I had a pretty good weekend, but he had lane choice in the final and went with the left lane which was definitely the better lane. He had a good run in the fours and we didn't match it.
"Overall it should be a really fun weekend. We are very glad to back at Bradenton."
The numbers, in fact, were exactly as Litton remembered. Litton got off the line first, but ran into trouble early as Bailey crossed the finish line with a 4.788 second pass at 291.54 miles per hour. Litton rolled across with a 5.220 second pass at 207.46 miles per hour.
In that race famous crew chief Dick LaHaie was responsible for calling the shots on Bailey's car and Bailey specifically remembers getting into it with the legendary tuner as he was convinced the car was not going to come away a winner.
"I remember specifically that weekend the car was getting it at about 300 feet and it was quivering, really quivering, and I kept telling Dick it is going to smoke the tires," Bailey said. "As I kept going rounds Dick looked at me and said 'you drive, I will tune' and I shut my trap. Obviously it worked out as we ran some stout numbers and set the track record and let me tell you, Dick definitely threw that in my face."
While Bailey's last pass in a Top Fuel Dragster came at the IHRA World Finals in 2001, Bailey still fondly recalls his times blazing down the track in a nitro-fueled rail. And while those days are far behind him, with his Stocker providing him enough of a thrill these days, he very much looks forward to seeing some old friends this weekend, including the man he beat right here in Bradenton in 1999.
"It should be a fun race for nostalgia purposes," Bailey said. "I can't wait to see some old friends and of course seeing some of these new guys out here racing. It should be a great weekend and, let me tell you, I can't wait to get back out on that track."