As he sat, strapped into a Rondeau prototype amidst the starting grid at Le Mans, forty-year-old Jack Griffin had but one thought: “What the hell have I gotten myself into now?”
It was June 1984 and Jack, who, as recently as eighteen months earlier, had never even sat in a race car, much less driven one, now found himself preparing to run against the likes of David Hobbs, John Morton, and Klaus Ludwig. He had never intended to be here, certainly never aspired to it as a young tennis player growing up in South Texas, but here he was, a commercial real estate broker from suburban Dallas who had come to Circuit de La Sarthe simply to enjoy the spectacle but now found himself about to drive against the fastest racers in the world.
Jack sat in his car staring up at that Dutray clock with a mix of anticipation and uncut terror.
He had traveled to Le Mans at the invitation of a friend, M.L. Speer, who was a race car-driving fellow Texan with a knack for recruiting Jack into one harebrained scheme after another. Take, for instance, their meeting at the 1983 24 Hours of Daytona. M.L. had invited Jack down to watch him run the race, but by the time the weekend was over, M.L. had persuaded Jack not only to take up racing but to drive a Porsche 914 in the GTU class in the upcoming 12 Hours of Sebring.
Trouble was, Jack lacked a racing license because Jack had never before set foot in a race car.
And so, off to the Bondurant driving school in Sonoma, California, he went. As the dozen other drivers in that first class introduced themselves, Jack began to realize that his entrée into racing was far from typical. For the other drivers, this weekend getaway to Bondurant had been a gift from a wife or simply a brief taste of adrenaline, a source of bragging rights at the Monday morning sales meeting. Certainly none of them had designs on testing their mettle on ground as hallowed as Sebring.
Jack’s turn at self-introduction came around.
“I’m, uh, here because I’m driving the 12 Hours of Sebring next week,” said Jack to a circle of raised eyebrows, “and I’ve never actually been in a race car before.”
Once Jack convinced the Bondurant instructors that he was neither joking nor delusional, they buckled him into a Nissan 280ZX and did their best to explain lines and apexes and braking, and to teach Jack how to use them. With four days of track time to his name, Jack headed home to Dallas that Sunday evening. A week later, in his first race–professional, amateur, anything–he lined up at Sebring.
Jack quickly realized that he was out of his depth (he put the 914 into a wall after 15 laps at Sebring) but he persisted and managed to run in five races in his first eighteen months.
In June 1984, Jack flew to France to cheer on M.L., who was set to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As they strolled the pre-race pits, Jack and M.L. ran into a Belgian friend who was pushing a rumor that a French team, Bussi, had a car in need of a driver. If M.L. or Jack knew of a driver looking for a ride, said the Belgian, go talk to the folks at Bussi. M.L. and Jack did just that.
This being a time before embellishment and exaggeration (“Jack here’s been racing, to wins, for years!”) were subject to a Google search, M.L. finagled Jack into the driver’s seat of the Bussi Rondeau prototype, a Cosworth-powered variation of the car that had won overall at Le Mans in 1980. As he scrambled to get his FIA racing license upgraded to Grade B (one level below Formula One’s Grade A), Jack considered backing out, knowing that prudence frowned upon greenhorns screaming down the Mulsanne Straight at 215 miles per hour.
“In the end, I decided to go through with it,” says Jack. “I just didn’t want to be that guy who later goes around telling everyone that he could’ve raced at Le Mans.”
A blown engine in the ninth hour prevented Jack from finishing his first run at Le Mans, but Bussi was impressed enough by what they saw to bring him back to drive the Rondeau again in 1985. In that second race, Jack’s car ran for four hours before suspension troubles sidelined the car. For those few hours on the track, though, Jack had a chance to run with–and learn from–the best.
“I’d just try to get behind Derek Bell or Hans-Joachim Stuck or Jacky Ickx through the corners, do exactly what they were doing, and that was pretty darn scary,” says Jack. “I was just a real estate developer and a tennis player and then suddenly, at age forty, I’m driving at Le Mans. I didn’t really believe it was me. It was an out-of-body experience. It was an unwise decision, really.”
In total, Jack ran seventeen races over three years, in multiple classes and in a variety of cars. In addition to Sebring and Le Mans, he also raced at Daytona, Riverside, Mosport, and Road America, to name a few. He twice finished third in class at Sebring. Eventually, however, Jack took stock of his racing ambitions and decided that he had badgered fate long enough.
“I had three young kids, and I’d seen several people get killed. Besides, I was never a front-runner, and I certainly wasn’t going to be on TV unless the fastest car passed me,” says Jack. “I’d done everything I could imagine and I’d never been hurt, so I figured it was a good time to stop.”
Jack’s foray into racing did yield one title, however: he defeated all comers in the 1985 tennis tournament at Le Mans.
“So, hey,” says Jack, “at least I can honestly say that I won at Le Mans.”
This article originally appeared on Petrolicious on 25 June 2014.