After finding a photo on the internet of Jeff Gordon and his 1985 Sprint car and seeing the write up on Roamin Angels’ website by Randy Kirkham about Jeff Gordon in April this year, I decided to try to contact Randy to possibly get some more photos of Jeff’s cars after seeing that he had crewed for him in the first days of his Sprint car racing. In doing so, I have been asked to share a story on the restoration of the two cars I own.
Hi, I am Darryl Claydon from New Zealand. I own a sprint car parts business down here called Fast Times Racing and have been involved in speedway for over 30 years. Speedway has been great for us and has got us to meet some great people and friends from all over the world. Along the way I was helping a friend out in his panel shop and noticed he had an old sprint car chassis sitting up on top of a room in the shop, I asked what that car up there and he told me it was the car that Jeff Gordon in 1986 won his first sprint car race at KC Raceway (now Atomic Speedway) when he was only 14 years old. I said I thought the car he raced down here was John Rae’s car. “That’s right'” he said, “but this is not that car. It was brought to New Zealand by Ian Easton but was not driven by Jeff. That was his second car which originally was owned by John Bickford (Jeff’s step father).”
A few years went by and I did my home work on the car, including talking to Ian Easton and found out it was definitely the car. Jeff had taken this car to Perth, Australia to race the World Series at Claremont Speedway in 1987. Ian had met John Bickford there and put a deal together to buy the car, but by then it had to go back to the USA . So after a few months, Ian Easton had gone to America with John Rae and recorded the trip on video. This video showed the guys working out of John Bickford’s work shop and also racing the car up in the USA. Ian had painted KZ7 on the wing as this was now 1987 and was the year that New Zealand had just won the America’s Cup with the boat KZ7. During the commentary with some of the races, the commentator can be heard saying this car was being loaded up and sent back to New Zealand.
The video even shows the car being stripped down at the shop and loaded into the back of a Chevy van that they had also bought, and then put into a shipping container and leaving John’s shop, even showing the number on the side of the container.
In 2013 I eventually purchased the car from my friend and asked John Rae if he could give me John Bickford’s contact email and phone number. He gave me the email and in a few weeks I heard from John Bickford, the email said ‘Darryl, what do you want to know about the car?’ Well pretty much everything as all I had was a chassis and tail tank, a pedal and head rest. John Bickford and I soon became good friends and his help and memory have been an unbelievable help. I have tried not to bother him too much but at times I have just needed his knowledge on something to continue with the restoration. He has sent me spare parts that he had kept for the car and even traced around the spare side boards he had for the top wing and marked every single rivet hole so we got it exact. John also sent me a piece of magnesium he still had which was left over from the engine plate for me to make another, and also the original shifter cable and left front rotor, and some fuel fittings as John had run the return line back into the main pick up, and made his own fittings.
As I say speedway gets you traveling and I live in the North Island of New Zealand but we go to race in the South island to do a few meetings each year. This is an eight hour drive to the bottom of the North Island followed by a 3-hour ferry crossing and further five hour drive. While racing down there I met a guy named Greg Hiddleston, Greg is a real character and has 50 acres of land with old 1930’s and 40’s cars, all in different stages of repair all over his property. He also builds sprint car engines and at one stage owned Jeff’s car. He had parted it out but could remember who he had sold everything to, so we managed to get back a lot of the original parts for the car – but this has taken seven years and believe it or not some parts were still being used on old race cars down south and I had to buy new ones and swap with the guys for the originals.
Greg said he had the rear axle, oil tank and front wheels somewhere, eventually after a few years he found them. The right front wheel was wedged in a tree and the rear axle was in overgrown grass with an old front fender thrown over top of it. He tracked down the original dry sump pump and front cover that John had made an adaptor plate for to fit the pump. Greg also got me the original oil pan, cylinder heads, and bird cages.
So with the 1986 car almost complete, just a few decals and some air brushing on the numbers to be done and I get a phone call. It is Peter Leversedge who also lives in the South Island not far from Greg. Peter had Jeff’s first car the 1985 Osborne and I knew he had it but did not want to sell it. John had sent Peter a message on Facebook suggesting him to sell the car to me as it was a big project and would he have the time and energy to do it. Peter decided to let the car go, so last November I drove all the way back to pick up the car as I did not want to ship it in case it went missing. We timed the trip to catch up with some racing down there and I had the 1985 chassis in the back of my Chev pick up. This generated some talk at the track and one of the guys down there called me during the next week and said ‘Was that Jeff’s first car I had?’. ‘Yes it was,’ I said. He told me his name was Brian Barclay and he had once owned Jeff’s 1986 car and still had the original Jones master cylinder. Wow! I had been talking to John and he could not remember what brand cylinder it was so another piece of the puzzle was solved, and it just bolted straight into the frame.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people that have helped along the way: John Bickford, John Rae, Ian Easton, Greg Hiddleston, Peter Leversedge, Brian Barclay, Roamin Angels, and Randy Kirkham.
Story by Darryl Claydon, Guest Contributor from New Zealand