Obituary: Motor-racing star Jim Russell − three times national champion and a man who beat Stirling Moss
PUBLISHED: 18:46 18 April 2019 | UPDATED: 23:07 19 April 2019
Born above a Norfolk fish shop, Jim was a Formula Three star, nurtured F1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi and ran a horse stud in Suffolk. He ‘will be remembered as a legend’
In the 1970s, when I was a child, we took the Daily and Sunday Express (and the local papers, naturally). Near the sports pages would often be an advert for the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School. To a 12-year-old it spelled glamour. We could all, it seemed, dream of being the next Jackie Stewart or James Hunt. Even the name of the track it used sounded exotic. Not that I had the foggiest where Snetterton was…
Advancing years brought more awareness. I learned the former airfield circuit was next to the A11, north-east of Thetford, and I started to hear the story of the man.
In a nutshell, Jim Russell:
* Came from Norfolk
* Ran a car business
* Got into motor-racing in his 30s
* Was soon a challenger in the Formula 3 class
* Beat Stirling Moss in a big race at Brands Hatch in 1954
* Won the national Formula 3 championship in 1955, 1956 and 1957
* Launched his racing school – initially at Snetterton. Others opened later, including in America and Canada. Among the stars-to-be it helped was Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi. He was trained at the Jim Russell Racing School and later joined its Formula Three team. Fittipaldi would win the F1 crown in 1972 and 1974
* 1957: Jim drove a Formula 1 car for first time, in a non-championship race at Goodwood. Came 5th
* 1959: Badly hurt in crash at Le Mans 24-hour race
* 1961: Comes third in some Formula Junior races. Retires from racing a couple of weeks before turning 41, after beating host of young pretenders to win the British Racing Drivers' Club Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone
* Helped with classic late-1966 Formula 1 film Grand Prix, starring James “Rockford Files” Garner
Jim died recently, a couple of months shy of his 99th birthday. He'd had, we can see, a very full life.
First impressions? “I didn't like him at all! But I got to like him. A lot,” laughs wife Jenny.
That first meeting in 1960 involved afternoon tea at the Maids Head Hotel in Tombland, Norwich, with one of her best friends – a fellow nurse. Jim was there as well. He and Jenny married in 1962, in Bury St Edmunds.
His family was rooted in Downham Market. Jim, who had four brothers and a sister, was born above his parents' fish and chip shop in the town at the end of May in 1920. His names were officially Herbert James, but no-one called him that. His wife would call him Jimmy; to most people, he was Jim.
His first job (as a teenager, perhaps) was selling ices. “His first mode of transport, really, was selling ice-cream from a bicycle!”
Jenny says Jim left Downham Market at 19 and went to live with a brother in Ipswich. Fred lived on Bishop's Hill. She thinks his in-laws ran a pub – possibly the Mulberry Tree at the bottom of Woodbridge Road.
Jenny doesn't think Jim worked in the pub. “He was always proud he worked in Limmer & Pipe, a restaurant in the Buttermarket.”
He joined the RAF and was away four years – “out in the desert most of the time”. Africa, then Italy, apparently. He worked his way up to flight sergeant and worked on the maintenance of aircraft, rather than having to take to the air in risky skies – “much to his disgust, I think”.
Jim was always interested in things mechanical. Returning to England, he co-started a secondhand car business at Royston.
A couple of years later he went back to Downham Market, had a little shed and sold cars. The London Road enterprise grew over the years into a busy Vauxhall main dealer.
It was in 1952 that Jim went to the Snetterton circuit with a friend, watched a race, liked the look of it and decided to have a go. He was 32 years old and, says the British Racing Drivers' Club in a tribute, “he lost no time acquiring a new Formula 3 Cooper-JAP Mk VI (T18). For the following year this first Cooper was replaced by a Mk VII (T28) fitted with a more potent Manx Norton engine and Jim was soon running at the front of the major Formula 3 races…
“By 1954 Jim could beat anyone, including the great Stirling Moss in the Daily Telegraph Trophy at Brands Hatch, one of the major Formula 3 races of the year which Jim won three years in succession.”
A photograph of that triumph hangs in the study at the Russell home.
He took the national Formula 3 championship in 1955 to 1957, enjoying a run of victories in 1956 that wasn't broken until mid-August. The following year, he only once finished lower than second. (He was third!)
It wasn't until 1959 that Jim left Formula 3, having won 64 races between 1952 and 1958. He secured a Formula 2 Cooper-Climax T45.
Ian Titchmarsh writes in his BRDC tribute: “Now 38 years old, Jim was immediately mixing it with Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren and other Grand Prix drivers of the day.
“Because of business pressures, Jim rarely raced outside the UK but in 1958 he visited the notorious banked AVUS track in Berlin, where he beat Jack Brabham, a feat which he repeated at Montlhery, near Paris, a fortnight later. In total Jim won 11 Formula 2 races.”
At the beginning of the 1959 season Jim was reportedly in peak form. He took the BRDC British Empire Trophy at Oulton Park in Cheshire, at the wheel of the F2 Cooper T45, and a sports car race in his Cooper Monaco, despite heavy rain. At the start of May he won the F2 class of the BRDC Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone.
“A few weeks later, disaster struck during the Le Mans 24 Hours when, as darkness descended, an unsighted Jim, unable to avoid a car which had spun and stopped across the road at the notorious White House corner, crashed very heavily.
“The Cooper caught fire and Jim sustained third-degree burns to his arms, a broken leg, broken wrists and broken ribs. In the days before air ambulances,” says Ian Titchmarsh, “it was fortunate that Jim's brother Peter was able to arrange for a private plane to fly to France and bring Jim back to Norwich, where he began a lengthy recovery.”
With his racing school running nicely, Jim was tempted into the cockpit of a new Lotus Type 20 for the 1961 season.
He claimed third in his first outing, at Snetterton, and did the same at Aintree.
“Then, in the FJ (Formula Junior) race supporting the BRDC Daily Express International Trophy, a couple of weeks shy of his 41st birthday, Jim convincingly defeated all the young chargers in a classic Silverstone slipstreamer. Having proved his point, Jim retired from racing.”
The other side of the fence
The Jim Russell Racing Drivers School had opened at Snetterton in the early summer of 1957 and, says Ian Titchmarsh, “really established the template on which most other racing drivers' schools came to be based”.
In 1959, a newsreel explained how a little over a pound a week would pay for tuition. Pupils would attend a full day of learning, once a month for a year. Those that passed could then enter club events.
After six successful tests, they could compete in international races, using school-sponsored cars.
Other Jim Russell schools launched: at Magny Cours in France, Canada, Laguna Seca in California, and Silverstone, Mallory Park and Donington Park in the UK.
In 1966 Jim was closely involved with director John Frankenheimer's film Grand Prix, starring James Garner. Using his school's Formula Junior chassis, he was charged with supplying 20 Formula 1 replicas.
And then there was Emerson
After the young Brazilian stepped onto European soil in 1969, with the dream of becoming Formula 1 world champion, “he was pointed towards Jim, who took Emerson Fittipaldi under his wing and guided him rapidly through Formula Ford into Formula 3, so that by the end of that first season he was the British F3 champion.
“Emerson was the first of many young Brazilians who made their way to the JRRDS (the racing school) over the following years – a tradition which was maintained by Jim's brother-in-law Ralph Firman, who set up his Van Diemen company in 1973, having been Emerson's mechanic four years earlier.”
Emerson Fittipaldi went on to win the F1 world championship and the Indianapolis 500 twice each.
“He was a dear,” says Jenny. “We'd see him (later) when we used to go to the grands prix.”
Other drivers in whose careers the school played a part include Jacques Villeneuve (another F1 world champion, later), Derek Bell, Danny Sullivan and Tiff Needell.
Jenny and her children missed Jim's days of glory on the track. She became part of his life only after that awful 1959 Le Mans accident in which he was badly burned. “I didn't actually nurse him, as some people say.”
Motor-racing became part of her life, though not full-on. “The only time I got to see him race was when he was running the school and wanted to show the pupils what it was all about.”
Referring to that initial meeting at the Norwich hotel, when she found Jim rather sure of himself, Jenny reflects: “He was quite a shy man, actually, in some ways, and I think maybe he found it difficult. He was quite famous locally at that time, so I was probably a bit bowled over, too, I suppose.”
Jenny was born in Harkstead, on the Shotley peninsula south of Ipswich and close to the River Stour. She went to Ipswich High School for Girls, lived at the village of Stutton (near Brantham), and did a 10-month course at the Chantry convalescent home in Ipswich before training as a nurse.
Nursing took her to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, and then to the burns and plastics unit at West Norwich Hospital.
By the time she and Jim married in 1962 he'd bought Bardwell Manor, near Bury St Edmunds. It would be the family home for 40-odd years.
They had a stud farm, and owned a stallion. But the influx of vast wealth from abroad meant they couldn't really afford to compete in the sport of kings.
The couple had three children – Amanda, Robert and James – and there are five grandchildren.
Jenny says her husband didn't greatly miss active involvement in motor-racing. The school still took up a lot of his energies and there was the stud farm. “Then we had several horses in training. That was a fun time. We didn't have a lot of luck with them – we had one winner!” The garage in Downham Market also remained.
The making of the film Grand Prix was fun, too. “That took up the whole of 1966. We did go out to Monaco to stay. I had two tiddlers then.”
The actors playing grand prix stars were all taught to drive properly. “Yves Montand was my favourite.”
Did Jim reminisce much about his own, authentic, glory days? “Oh yes, he loved talking about himself!” she laughs. “He brought a book out. He loved going through all that.”
A daughter's view
“We always went away at Easter, somewhere warm and sunny, and we had a holiday home in Norfolk, at Heacham, near Hunstanton, right on the water. We'd break up from school and have the whole of the summer holidays up there,” remembers Amanda.
“Dad decided to go out one day and buy a speedboat. He was quite spontaneous in that respect. Somebody else was out and he thought 'Oooh'. He also had a little four-seater Cessna he'd learned to fly – quite late on.
“When you think about it, we were very lucky. So holidays were fun, with dad always being around.
“He was the best story-teller. He had some great tales from the racing days. My brother posted something on Facebook and lots of the comments were about how good he was at telling stories. He'd hold court.”
Amanda doesn't think he taught his children to drive on the roads – “Mum did all the teaching-us-to-drive” – but the three siblings did complete the racing drivers' course.
“My younger brother Robert and myself did the last-ever course at Snetterton before it moved to Donington (in about 1994/5). James had done it previously. The course was great fun.
“The school used to run races during the year, for pupils only, and both boys did that for two or three years up at Donington.”
As the world settled into its new millennium, the Russells were wondering if Bardwell Manor was too big. It needed a lot of work doing on it, too. They decided to downsize – and left in 2002 to move east to a village on the other side of the A143.
Jim wasn't very well then – colon cancer taking its toll – but he got over it and made a full recovery, says Jenny.
The Downham Market garage closed in 2006 and was demolished the following year. A housing estate now occupies the site, on the London Road/Park Lane corner, and the name Russell Gardens reflects its heritage. The family still owns land opposite, which is rented out.
Jim for many years did attend racing events. Trips to British Grand Prix practice days were a highlight.
He came from a time that lacked flameproof overalls and high-tech helmets. What did he think of the modern era? “He still loved it. But in the last two or three years he lost interest – as in most things. Age, illness, bit of dementia…” says Jenny.
So what was Jim like?
“He was great. He was a man's man. It had bumps, but mostly we had a great marriage.”
And his character? “He liked to do it his way. He loved to sing. He had a good voice. He had lots of party pieces and everybody was quite used to it! He liked the crooners: Perry Como, Jim Reeves.”
The chequered flag falls
Jim's death followed a fall at home and subsequent hip replacement surgery.
The 500 Owners Association Ltd said he'd been a regular at its events over the years, often presenting trophies. He'd visited Snetterton until deteriorating health brought a halt.
The group's name, by the way, reflects the post-war period, when financially-stretched enthusiasts went racing with cheaper 500cc motorbike engines in their cars. This became the new Formula 3 class in 1950.
The association says: “Jim Russell was one of the 500cc F3 greats and… he will be missed by us all.”
Jim was a life member of the British Racing Drivers' Club. He'd been elected in 1954 and was one of its oldest members.
The BRDC said: “To several generations of racing driver, the name of Jim Russell and the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School will never be forgotten. In his own way, Jim was, and will always be remembered as, a legend.”
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Eastern Daily Press. Click the link in the orange box above for details.