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.
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.”