- Associated Press - Sunday, October 1, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Jim Pace always wanted to be the fastest kid in Lawrence County, whether he was racing barefoot in somebody’s yard or riding bikes on gravel roads.

That need for speed eventually graduated to cars - and a career.

Pace, 56, has raced professionally all over the world, including France, where in 1996 he competed in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. It is a grueling race with a team of three drivers sharing time in each car.

“We had won the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring,” he says, referring to his co-drivers Wayne Taylor and Scott Sharp. “It was the first time in a long time that a team had won both races in the same year. So we were going for the ‘triple crown’ of endurance racing.”

Near midnight, about halfway through the race, Pace was driving when he noticed the car lose power.

“The rear end had burned up,” he says. “I pulled off on the side of the backstretch, got out my little tool kit and flashlight, shined down in there and saw a lot of shiny, chewed-up parts. I radioed the pit and told them we were done.

“And then I just leaned against the car and watched the cars fly past me in the middle of the night. It was so cool. And I kept thinking, ‘Boy, this is a long way from the dirt roads near Monticello.’ “

Leaving med school behind

To say he was born to race would be an understatement.

“My dad loved cars,” says Pace, who lives in Ridgeland. “By the time I was 4 or 5, I knew what two (carburetor) barrels did for a motor. And I liked cars that had stick shifts instead of automatic transmissions.”

He was 5 when he met Charlie Kemp, a Mississippian who raced cars professionally. He was home for a visit and cruising around Monticello in a 1962 Jaguar.

“(Kemp) had raced at Daytona and Sebring, and it was pretty cool to know somebody who was living their dream like that,” Pace says. “He took me and my dad for a ride on a bunch of backroads, and it was then and there that I fell in love with racing and cars. I knew what I wanted to do (for) the rest of my life.”

He went with his dad to the weekend races in Clinton in the early 1970s. They traveled to the 1982 Indianapolis 500. “Bigger than life,” he remembers.

But as one approaches adulthood, real life often tosses dreams aside.

Pace decided to become a doctor. He majored in pre-med at Mississippi State, then entered the University of Mississippi Medical School in 1983.

“It’s hard to explain but every day I felt like I was getting close to being somewhere I didn’t want to be,” he says. “I was working really hard for something I didn’t really want.

“So three years and three days into medical school, I went by the dean’s office and told him, ‘I won’t be back tomorrow.’ Inside, I had a tornado of emotions going all around. I kept wondering, ‘Am I being responsible?’

“But I didn’t want to wake up and be 40 years old and feel trapped. I was headed toward having a lovely wife with some lovely kids and a lovely mortgage. I could see myself asking, ‘How did I get here?’ “

He learned his craft at Skip Barber’s Racing School in Florida.

“Mr. Barber was a former racer, and he would rent people cars to drive,” he says. “That was a big deal because I didn’t have to buy my own. And it was great training because everybody (at the school) was driving the same car.”

Just one year out of medical school, in 1994, Pace won a championship series race for Nissan. He also won a race in Japan.

“It seemed like everything was falling into place,” he says. “But the next year, I was struggling to get hired. When I did, I was never in the same car two weeks in a row. Honestly, if I knew it was going to be that hard, I’m not sure I would’ve gone through it.”

His fortune took a U-turn in a Chevrolet he had never seen until hours before a race.

“I was set to race one day, and that morning the motor blew up,” Pace says. “The owner went over and bought a car off somebody’s trailer. The car was built by a man in Atlanta and the motor was built in San Antonio.

“I had to start at the back, and I was racing against factory Ferraris. But I kept moving past people, and I finished fifth that day.”

The racing team of Riley & Scott hired him as a full-time driver. That led to the victories at Daytona and Sebring, and to the experience at Le Mans.

It also led to racing in Russia during the 1990s.

“My mechanic was Russian and didn’t speak a word of English,” Pace says, chuckling. “I didn’t speak any Russian. So we communicated in the most basic ways.”

If something needed fixing, Pace would point to it. If he didn’t like the way the car sounded on the track, he would drive it to the pits and make the sound he was hearing with his mouth - like a 4-year-old with a toy car.

“That was a really enjoyable experience,” he says. “The Russians were very hospitable - and very curious about life in the U.S. The only thing they knew about us is what they had read or seen on TV.”

A dream career

Pace still races in about 12 to 14 vintage events each year.

“But mostly I help people get to live their dream, just as I have,” he says.

Racing companies hire him to test drive and inspect their cars. He teaches at racing schools in Florida during the winter and in upstate New York, Wisconsin and Canada during the summer.

“To make a living in the racing business, you have to wear a lot of hats and do a lot of traveling,” he says. “I work a lot of weekends and usually try to take off Monday and Tuesday. I’ll get back home to Ridgeland as much as I can on those days.

“But this is what I’ve always wanted to do. I can’t imagine my life if I hadn’t made the decision to do this,” he says.

Pace still struggles with the loss of his wife, Solange, in 2001 to breast cancer. “She was a beautiful person and lived every day to the fullest,” he says.

What is the fastest Pace has ever driven on a racetrack?

“In a Porsche, I’ve been up to 220, 221 miles per hour,” he says.

So what’s the encore to that?

He laughs. “To go 222.”

___

Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com


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