In the high-octane racing world of the National Hod Rod Association, James “Jim O.” Oberhofer was trying to find happiness on the fast lane, but found out that happiness came from people around him.
Jim O is NHRA Crew Chief and Vice President of Operations of Kalitta Motorsports and he was on top of the world when his life drastically changed a few years ago. His wife Tammy O. was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. It was that time when he discovered what it meant to be a man, a father and a true champion and to find the path to real happiness. Unfortunately, Tammy O. succumbed to cancer in 2013, but with brash humor mixed with poignancy, Jim O. put his life experiences into his book “Top Fuel for Life,” which came out last year.
Jim and I had the chance to talk about racing, his career, relationships and his book:
When you were little, you were taken to NHRA races by your dad and say you fell in love with it then. What was it that made you feel that way?
I just loved the sound, the speed, and the excitement that a Top Fuel Dragster or a Nitro Funny Car produced. There was nothing like it in the world to me, and there is still nothing that compares. I also loved the larger than life personalities in the sport. Just so many cool things all in one place!
You said you imagined yourself in racing since you were a kid. Once you realized you were living your dream, how did that make you feel?
When I was a kid growing up, I always imagined myself playing professional sports, or driving a Top Fuel Dragster or a Nitro Funny Car. While I’m not a driver, I do get to make decisions on how to make a Top Fuel Dragster go as quick and fast as possible on the racetrack. To say that I oversee a race car that makes over 11,000 horsepower, can run over 330 miles per hour in less than four seconds, and is louder than any rock concert on earth…is pretty exciting to say the least! I’m a grownup playing with fast, loud, and powerful cars.
“I’m a grownup playing with fast, loud, and powerful cars.”
Your book focuses on a lot of relationships. The first, after your dad, is Scott Kalitta — talk about the impact that he had on you and your life in racing.
Scott made a huge impact on me in so many ways. Scott was part of a generation of drag racers that were very important, but almost forgotten in the growth and success of the sport. Scott spent so much time and effort mentoring me to be not only a good race car mechanic, but a better person. When Scott became a husband and then later a father…his passion for both made me want to follow in his footsteps as a husband and a father.
Guys and cars are a relationship all its own — why is that? Why do cars hold such a special meaning to guys?
I think that relationship between guys and cars developed back when the first car was built. It was always a competitive fascination for a young man to try and build a faster, cooler, and nicer car then the next guy. Back in the old days before cell phones, computers, and all the gadgets we have at our disposal now…guys had their cars, which in many ways were an extension of their personality. I do also think that there are many ladies out there who have the same passion about cars as the guys.
True! Your book is a testament not only to your career but to your late wife, Tammy. What’s the most important thing that Tammy taught you?
Tammy taught me so many things in life, but I would have to say that the most important thing she taught me was how important simple happiness and unconditional love is in the grand scheme of life.
Why decide to write such a personal book?
I really wanted to share with people that I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, taken so many things for granted and lost sight on what was really important in life, and for me that was my family. I always thought that I couldn’t have happiness without first having success, but in reality having happiness first will almost always lead to success. I lost out on many great years and times with both my wife Tammy and my daughter Ashley, by being selfish and only thinking of myself. My biggest supporters and fans were Tammy and Ashley, and no matter how good or bad we did at the racetrack…they loved me the same!
What’s the most important thing your career taught you?
I have learned so many things during my drag racing career, but I would have to say that there are two important things I have learned. The first thing is that you never stop learning, and the second thing is that you have to be a good listener. The day that I feel I can’t learn anything anymore, or that I don’t want to listen to what anyone has to say, is the day I need to retire.
Do you still watch racing? Who do you enjoy watching and why?
I’ve always been a fan of drag racing, and I always will be. I do get to watch all of our Kalitta Motorsports race cars, along with other teams race cars at every NHRA National event, but it’s on a more competitive level of knowing what our teams are competing against. I do every now and then just go sit in the stands and watch the Top Fuel Dragsters or Funny Cars run. There is no bigger adrenaline rush that watching a race car go from a standing start to 330 plus miles per hour in less than 4 seconds. There is no other Motorsport in the world that can compare. I would say that I enjoy watching our Kalitta Motorsports drivers the best. Doug Kalitta, Alexis DeJoria, J.R. Todd, TJ Coughlin, and Shawn Langdon are like family to me, and it’s very exciting to see them do well out on the track.
Racing has changed a lot over the years. What are the biggest obstacles it still has to overcome?
Right now one of our biggest challenges in drag racing is trying to get the younger generation interested in cars and racing. With all of the technology that’s available to young people out there right now…the excitement of getting your drivers license or owning your first car just isn’t there anymore. Without the younger generation showing passion for cars, Motorsports as a whole will have a tough road ahead. I do feel that the National Hot Rod Association has done a very good job reaching out to young people, and showing them how cool it is to experience 11,000 horsepower 330 mph race cars. It seems like the young kids of today like extreme sports that are edgy, fast, and cool…and drag racing has all of that!
If someone else wanted a career in the racing industry, what advice would you give them?
The best advice I can give someone wanting to get in the drag racing industry is to be prepared for a roller coaster ride of emotions and a lot of hard work. Drag racing is a very challenging profession to work in, but it’s also very rewarding not only with the ability to win races, but also in the people you meet, and friendships you form along the way. If you are an honest person with integrity, you can go a long way in drag racing.
Thanks Jim! For more information on Jim, visit his website at http://topfuelforlife.com.
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