This story first appeared at Hagerty.com on 11 July 2016.
At first glance, Nate Jones is not the man one would expect to have changed North America’s racing landscape. Nor does he give off the vibe of someone who relaxes with the likes of Bernie Ecclestone and Frank Williams when he and his family are in Monaco for the Grand Prix. That Jones affected hiring practices at CalTech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory seems a bit far-fetched at first, too.
If there is more to Jones than meets the eye, the same is true for his shop. Nate Jones Tires is an open-air, pie-shaped affair of perhaps a quarter-acre that spills from beneath an awning across a crowded lot in Signal Hill, Calif. A dutiful oil derrick quietly seesaws in one corner of the space as Jones and his crew – which includes son Nate Jr. – weave between the maze of cars wedged into the space.
Nate Jones Tires has been a Long Beach institution since the early 1960s when, during a road trip to the Yukon Territory, Jones found himself so impressed by the Michelins running on his 1955 Chevrolet that he called back home to his friend and mentor, Mel Hamer (himself a legend in the world of brakes and wheel balance), and announced that he wanted to be a tire man.
Once back home in Long Beach, Jones rented a single bay in Hamer’s shop and set about steadily growing his business, eventually becoming Michelin’s exclusive racing tire distributor for the western United States for 25 years.
By 1966, Jones thought that perhaps the racing world might have an appetite for his wheel-balancing services, too, so he loaded up his equipment and made the 70 mile trek east to Riverside International Raceway, then West Coast racing’s epicenter. At the track gate, Jones announced himself and asked the guard if he could offer his services to the teams gathered for the following weekend’s Can-Am race.
The guard directed Jones inside and mentioned that he might want to talk with a fellow by the name of John Surtees, who, rumor had it, was displeased with his current wheel balancers.
After talking briefly with Surtees – at the time only a few years removed from winning world championships in both Formula 1 and in motorcycles – Jones was permitted to see how he might help the team’s Lola T70 race car. Surtees then hopped into the cockpit and headed out to test Jones’s work.
A couple laps later, Surtees came rolling back into the pits and directed a confused Jones to grab a helmet and climb into the bucket that passed for a passenger seat.
“You’ve really made a difference,” Surtees told Jones, “I want to talk with you.”
Jones was terrified. He had never been in a race car in his life and here he was about to take a hot lap with one of the fastest men on the planet. It was just as well that Jones was unaware of Surtees’s brutal, near-fatal crash in another T70 at Mosport (a Canadian racetrack about 55 miles northeast of Toronto) just a year before, a crash which, according to A.J. Baime in his book Go Like Hell, left one side of Surtees’s body four inches shorter than the other. Even in relative ignorance, Jones was sufficiently terrified.
“I knew I was a dead man when he hit top gear down the back straightaway,” recalls Jones. “I was certain we were just going to end up in San Diego because he couldn’t possibly navigate turn nine. There was no question that I was going to die.”
Back among columns of tires in the safety of the pits, however, Surtees pulled off his helmet, looked at Jones and said, “You’re hired.”
Jones spent the rest of that race season traveling to tracks across North America for Team Surtees, which ultimately won the Can-Am championship that year, thanks in part to Jones’s expertise, which knocked as much as three-quarters of a second off the Lola’s lap times.
In the early 1970s, now well established in the racing and Long Beach, Calif., business communities, Jones and several other investors teamed up to found the Long Beach Grand Prix. At the time, Long Beach was a down-on-its-luck harbor community, its downtown populated with dive bars and abandoned buildings, but Jones and his partners, inspired by the Monaco Grand Prix’s glittering seaside street course, saw potential.
Beginning as a Formula 5000 event in 1975, the Long Beach Grand Prix quickly became one of the premier races on the North American calendar, becoming a Formula 1 event in 1976 and then, in 1984, transitioning into a CART/Indy/Champ Car race. Over the past forty-plus years, everyone from Niki Lauda to Gilles Villeneuve to Dario Franchitti has rolled into the winner’s circle at Long Beach. Along the way, men with surnames like Andretti, Newman, Unser and Penske have become, to Nate Jones, simply Mario, Paul, Al and Roger.
Back at his tire shop in the late 1980s, however, Jones noticed a troubling shift in the people he was hiring. They were increasingly short of problem-solving skills, and showed a troubling aversion to getting their hands dirty. The same went for the younger volunteers who were working with Jones to restore the USS Iowa battleship in Richmond Harbor, in the San Francisco Bay Area.
These young people, Jones realized after talking with them, were among the first generation raised in what Jones calls the “two-dimensional world” of video games and the internet, and had not formed at a young age the neurological connections that come from working with one’s hands, from taking things apart and putting them back together just to see how they worked.
“They didn’t grow up getting this part of their brains dirty,” says Jones, hold up his hands. “Your hands are your brain, just not as mushy.”
This concern led Jones, in 1991, to establish Kids Motorsports Education (KME), a non-profit organization dedicated to using pinewood derby cars and a take-apart, gravity go-kart chassis as a way to develop real world applications for math, science, design, art and problem-solving for children.
As it turned out, the leadership at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was simultaneously facing its own similar challenges in finding qualified applicants. As chronicled by Dr. Stuart Brown in his book Play, JPL was hiring the top graduates from the best engineering schools like MIT, Stanford and Caltech, and yet found that while these young engineers were brilliant on matters of theoretical science, they lacked critical problem-solving skills.
It was fortuitous, then, that JPL’s top management crossed paths with Jones in the mid-1990s after reading of his efforts in a local newspaper. Jones and JPL began comparing notes and soon, those responsible for hiring at JPL were taking an interest in the childhood activities of their own applicants, discovering that those who had worked on cars or taken apart their bicycles were apt to mature into adults with the kind of problem-solving skills that JPL needed. From then on, JPL made a point of asking its applicants about their childhood activities during job interviews and, in many cases, giving an edge to gearhead applicants. In later years, SpaceX would adopt a similar step in its screening process.
Today, when Jones is not shaving tires or balancing wheels at his shop, he continues overseeing paddock operations each spring at the Long Beach Grand Prix, as he has for the past forty-plus years. His central passion, however, remains the revival of hands-on education for today’s children. He hopes that a new generation will discover the same self-worth and sense of belonging that Jones himself found in the 1950s as a young boy in Long Beach.