Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson’s Panama Run

Jim "Jet" Neilson with one of the rocket cars he stores in Panama. He's struggling with Panama officials to stage an event to run another of his jet cars in Panama City.
Jim “Jet” Neilson with one of the rocket cars he stores in Panama. He’s struggling with Panama officials to stage an event to run another of his jet cars in Panama City. Photo/courtesy of Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson

PANAMA CITY, Panama — Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson is an American race car driver, born in California and raised in Hawaii, whose living and reputation is entirely based on a tool box of risky virtues. He designs, builds, and drives jet cars so powerful and fast that the main attraction of a Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson event — aiming a jet on wheels down a long straightaway — concludes in less time than it takes to sneeze.

Plainly, Jim Jet is comfortable moving more quickly than most men. “24-7 and fast,” he told me last week. “We go that way all day, every day.”

One of the delights in reporting from nations outside the U.S. is meeting genuine characters. The Maltese entrepreneur who opened a pizza restaurant in Urumqi, a far west desert city in China. The English plumber growing organic vegetables near Barcelona. The Canadian artist building solar plants in Qatar.

Which brings us to Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson and his often frustrating, but soon to be successful sojourn in Panama. About six years ago, when he was 56-years-old, Jim joined the growing crowd of American baby boomers who saw in Panama’s fabulously warm winter weather, and Panama City’s chic and affordable lifestyle, an opportunity to spend time in a developing Central American tropical paradise.

Jim "Jet" Neilson aboard the Mirna in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider
Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson aboard the Mirna in Panama City. Photo/Keith Schneider


A Fast Drive in Panama

Not nearly ready to put his jet cars or his career on blocks, he proposed what he thought was a can’t miss opportunity for attracting more attention to Panama. He told Panamanian authorities that for a fair sum he would pilot one of his cars on a city boulevard at speeds approaching 350 miles per hour, faster than any car had ever been driven in Central America. Since 1986, when he started driving jet cars, similar jet car runs on highways and drag strips had attracted huge crowds.

In one run on a Las Vegas highway to open a new hotel Neilson reached a top speed of 391 miles per hour, the world record for driving on pavement.

That’s not fast. It’s dare to be dead nuts. It’s also the sort of daredevil event that people love to watch. Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel, the motorcycle racer, became an American icon staging the same sort of events, featuring speed, guts, and a real question of whether the main actor would be alive when it ended.

The Panamanian authorities haven’t been nearly as enthusiastic about a jet car event as Jet Neilson hoped. Permits took years to be granted. Details haven’t been easy to work out. Expenses have become draining.

A Strong and Likely Start
Jim Neilson was born in Van Nuys, California in 1953 and as a child moved with his family to Hawaii with his father Lorenzo Neilson, a fishing captain in Kona, and Verla Neilson, who worked in Hawaiian real estate. He’s the oldest son, and second oldest child in a family of two girls and three boys.

His racing career was influenced by an early moment that produced a small safety measure for the sport. “I was five years old,” he remembers. “My Mom and Dad took me to a quarter midget racetrack at a large shopping mall in Southern California.

“A good friend’s son was racing there. So they asked my Mom if it was okay to put me in the car and just idle around in the pits. He would be standing on the rear axle. My Mom said okay.

“Quarter midgets start by pushing on the pedal. They are a live start and quick acceleration. Well! When they got me started he said, ‘Just give it a little gas.’

“I floored it and never lifted my foot off the pedal. I shot across the parking lot full throttle, in heavy traffic, on a Sunday. I hit the median curb and high-centered it still at full throttle until they ran over and shut me off.

“My Mom said she was horrified. She told me when I was older that she did not know how I weaved through traffic without getting hit. After that weekend they changed the rule nationally. No driving in the pits! It was kind of funny the way my Mom used to tell the story,” Jim says, laughing.

Crashes That Didn’t Kill

Then his face darkens. His mother died in 2012. “This will be the only record run that my mom will not be at,” he says. “She was always there to support me fully even though she hated me racing.”

Jim 'Jet' Neilson's jet car that could set the Central American speed record on pavement in Panama City in the spring.
Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson’s jet car that could set the Central American speed record on pavement in Panama City in the spring. Photo/courtesy of Jim ‘Jet’ Neilson

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Gabrielle Gray Shifts Over to Weave A New Story in American Bluegrass Music

Gabrielle Gray, an icon in American bluegrass music and founder of the ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY., today turned over command of the International Bluegrass Music Museum to Carly Smith (r), who serves as interim director pending appointment of a new executive director. Photo/Keith Schneider
Gabrielle Gray, an icon in American bluegrass music and founder of the ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY., today turned over command of the International Bluegrass Music Museum to Carly Smith (r), who serves as interim director pending appointment of a new executive director. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — There was a big change today in American bluegrass music here in this Ohio River city, which over the last decade has established itself as a global center of the quintessential American music born in western Kentucky. The board of trustees of the International Bluegrass Music Museum announced that Gabrielle M. Gray,  the museum’s chief executive, ends her exceptional 12-year tenure as the museum’s capable and creative leader and steps down as executive director overseeing all museum campus operations.

Gabrielle retains her position as executive producer of ROMP, the signature bluegrass music festival she founded in 2004.  Gray also remains the museum’s grant writer. These two sources of income — ROMP proceeds and grant awards — produce most of the museum’s annual revenue, making it possible for the museum to preserve, exhibit, catalog and archive the artifacts and collections of bluegrass music internationally, as well as host many ambitious programs and events throughout the year.

Carly Smith, a staff member since May 2011 and the museum’s capable assistant director since 2014, steps into a new role as interim director. The museum’s board, chaired by Peter Salovey, the president of Yale University, is conducting a nationwide search for a new executive director. The new director is expected to be in place in the spring or summer of 2015.

Gabrielle Gray, great woman of Kentucky, will continue to lead ROMP, the bluegrass festival she founded in 2004 in Owensboro, KY. Photo/Keith Schneider
Gabrielle Gray, great woman of Kentucky, will continue to lead ROMP, the bluegrass festival she founded in 2004 in Owensboro, KY. Photo/Keith Schneider

The announcement was greeted as big news in this river city of 58,000 residents, in large part because Gabrielle, her staff, her board, and city and Daviess county officials collaborated over the last decade to establish bluegrass music as an economic and cultural priority. The city is working with the museum to build a $15.5 million Bluegrass Music Center on a choice downtown lot along the Ohio that was formerly the site of a state office building. The ROMP festival, held annually over the last weekend of June, now attracts the finest bands in bluegrass and over 20,000 attendees annually. In other words, bluegrass is as important to Owensboro as the blues are to Memphis and Chicago, country music is to Nashville, jazz is to New Orleans, and rock and roll is to Cleveland.

Ron Payne, Owensboro’s progressive Republican mayor, who’s led a $250 million downtown redevelopment campaign that includes the new Bluegrass Music Center, commended Gabrielle’s tenure. “I’m tickled to death that Gabrielle is going to stay on and help us with ROMP,” Payne told the Messenger-Inquirer, the city’s daily newspaper. “She’s done an outstanding job. Bluegrass is where it is today, partly because of the work she’s done.”
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White Plains High School 40th Reunion

Patsi Takahashi and Annie Wilson organized a Saturday afternoon lunch. Very cool. Photo/Keith Schneider
Patsi Takahashi and Annie Wilson organized a Saturday afternoon lunch. Very cool. Photo/Keith Schneider

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — “So who’d you see?” my mother asked. We’d just sipped from our drinks – hers a nice white wine, mine an imported German beer — at a fine restaurant on 84th and Madison.

“A lot of people you know,” I said. Recalling names by neighborhood I diligently listed all of the fun, accomplished, and at times trouble making friends that she knew back in the day. “Eddie Weil and Lisa Schwatertzenberg. They’re married. Michael Shames, Jeff Zucker, Mindy Litt, Nancy London, Patsi Takashi. Ann Wilson, Carol Hubbard, Mindy Kaufman, Andy Feinman, Jayne Stogel, John Herzfeld, Peppi Murphy, Gail Bruesewitz, Chris Renino, Al Renino, Bill Wolfram, Amy Stichman.

“And your favorites, Mom,” I said laughing. “Bobby Fargo, Bobby Monahan, Geoff Keenan.”

“Oh my,” she said. “All those people?”

Indeed, all those people she knew. A number from the time we were five and six years old. And so many more people who attended that she wouldn’t recognize. White Plains baby boomers gathered to connect again. And as I explained the allegiances, the desire to convene, the joy of the hugs, the love, the mirth and energy in the room at our 40th high school reunion, I found reasons for Saturday evening’s delight.

Here they are. Let me know what you think.

— Right at the very top of the list is Jayne Stogel Hynes. For decades now Jayne has organized the reunions and provided stylish staging for these events. What Jayne is doing is a gift to our class and to those who attend. In the process she’s part of each of our lives, providing dimensions of community and trust that are unique and extraordinarily valuable. Jayne has played a huge role in deepening lifelong friendships. It’s a selfless, transcendent act of consistency, loyalty, and love. Thank you Jayne.

— We came up during an America that no longer exists. Like virtually all of my friends, my life was a model of family and community stability. Parents didn’t split up. Parents almost never died. Parents expected a lot of their children, and children delivered. Families prospered and almost nobody moved away. In my Highlands neighborhood houses were full of children of roughly the same ages. During weekends and holidays we poured onto Ralph Field to play football in the fall, baseball in the spring, and sled in the winter.
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Corvette Museum’s Crushed Cars, Closing Sinkhole As American Metaphor

One of the eight Corvettes wrecked after a sinkhole opened in February beneath a wing of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo/Keith Schneider
One of the eight Corvettes wrecked after a sinkhole opened in February beneath a wing of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo/Keith Schneider

BOWLING GREEN, KY. — Seven months after a sinkhole opened in the wee hours in a wing of the National Corvette Museum, collapsing a concrete floor and swallowing eight sports cars, museum executives in September announced they would fill the hole, repair two cars, and move on.

In every way, the Earth’s swift unbuttoning of the ground, the muddy ruin it caused to valuable machines, the attention the injury-free event attracted, and the decision to fill the hole represents a useful metaphor of our time.

First is the sinkhole itself. Unanticipated, unheard, entirely direct and assured in its purpose and mastery of the situation, the 40-foot deep expanse of rock and mud is impressive and ruinous. Bowling Green rests in a region of the country astir with subterranean adventure. The “karst” geology underlying the city and its environs consists of water-soluble limestone set in an underground matrix awash in irrepressible hidden streams. In such regions the rock strata slowly dissolves, which is why Kentucky is so famous for its wondrous big caves.

Though knowledge of the risk is widespread in southwestern Kentucky, engineers apparently discounted the potential that the domed addition they were designing for the museum, founded in 1994, might become unstable. Assured that the danger was close to nonexistent, museum directors carefully laid out a display of rare, valuable, and buff-polished Corvettes from various manufacturing years to be admired by thousands. The message of the display was unmistakable — here in an ample theater lit by natural light rested the 20th century engineering and design transport jewels of a great and wealthy nation.
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ROMP Bluegrass Festival Honors The Masters and Advances Compelling New Artists

Owenboro's ROMP bluegrass music festival is a venue for top young talent, including (l to r) Sarah Jarosz, Rachel Baiman, Phoebe Hunt, and Lily Henley, with Maggie Gray, Gabrielle Gray, and Donna Acquilano. Photo/Keith Schneider
Owenboro’s ROMP bluegrass music festival is a venue for top young talent, including (l to r) Sarah Jarosz, Rachel Baiman, Phoebe Hunt, and Lily Henley, with Maggie Gray, Gabrielle Gray, and Donna Acquilano. Two of the Boston Boys standing in rear (l to r) are Nicholas Falk and Duncan Wickel. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — Bill Monroe, a virtuoso mandolin player and the father of bluegrass music, was born in 1911 and raised on a ridgetop near Rosine, Kentucky about 40 miles south of the bluff on the Ohio River where Owensboro is located.

With every passing year the connection between Monroe, his birthplace, and this river city gets closer. That’s never more true than during the last weekend in June when Owensboro hosts ROMP, the River of Music Party, now a fixture in global consideration as the one of the best celebrations of bluegrass music in the world. This year’s ROMP festival, held from June 25 to June 28, added to that reputation and for very good reasons.

ROMP’s organizer, the Owensboro-based International Bluegrass Music Museum, treats the festival as a showcase of 1) the traditional hard-driving bluegrass sound that honors Bill Monroe’s legacy, 2) a salute to the musicians and artists that expanded bluegrass music’s embrace of more rhythm and vocals toward the end of the 20th century, and 3) a coronation of the intricate, almost concerto-like complexity that the top young artists are incorporating into bluegrass today. Taken together over four days, ROMP builds a historical narrative of a quintessential American musical form told by superb musicians and vocalists from all over the United States and overseas.

Doyle Lawson and Del McCoury, both members of the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame, are fixtures at ROMP representing the historic roots of the music. McCoury, a guitarist and lead vocalist, performed with Bill Monroe in the early 1960s. Lawson, a mandolin player, composed “Rosine,” one of his great recordings, to honor Monroe’s birthplace.

This year the places reserved for the next generation artists who advanced the bluegrass sound were held down by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, his six-man band, and the Sam Bush Band. Skaggs and Bush are mandolin players and their big bands have repertoires that incorporate aspects of blues, country, rock and soul played with the traditional bluegrass instruments – standup bass, fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and dobro – Ricky Skaggs was particularly impressive, especially during a song that featured the band’s bass player, Scott Mulvahill.

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder perform at ROMP. Photo/Keith Schneider
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder perform at ROMP. Photo/Keith Schneider

Still, the ROMP feature that I find most intriguing is the festival’s focus on the top young artists in American bluegrass music. Continue reading “ROMP Bluegrass Festival Honors The Masters and Advances Compelling New Artists”