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.”
Yeah, dude! It’s dangerous. Two crashes in 1984 and 1985, one witnessed by his mother, almost killed him. “She was at Las Vegas when I crashed real bad at 235 MPH in 1984 in the Night Witch Funny Car. I broke my left leg in five places, cracked a vertebrae in my neck, broke my other leg, and broke all my ribs on my left side. I broke my crotch strap and started to come out of the car.
“My Mom was there for that. In the ambulance they told her I might lose my left leg. But they were all even breaks so I still have it.
“Then in 1985, on my birthday, May 25, at Salt Lake City I had the Joan Jett and the Black Hearts funny car. I burned that to the ground. On fire, I ran off the end of the track, hit a telephone poll, which came down on my head. Live wires crackling on my head. I thought I had done it this time. No one would come near me because of the live wires. But then I realized I was not getting fried. So I waited until the side window melted to get out. We have an escape hatch but the pole was on top of me!
“I didn’t tell my Mom because I didn’t want to freak her out. But it was all over the news. How I knocked all the power out in the town, and that they had to evacuate everybody at the event because of all the oil from the transformer I broke. My Grandma lived in Salt Lake at the time. She sees it on the news, calls my Mom in California. Needless to say, it did not help me not calling my Mom. It took me 10 years to get her back to the track.”
On the day that Jaime Figueroa, a Panama City tourism specialist, introduced me to Neilson earlier this month there were openings in the grey sky of frustration that had settled around the Panama jet car run. “March. We’re looking at March or April now,” he said. “It’ll be great. We know where we want to run. The crowd will be huge. It will knock people out here. They’ve never seen anything like it.”
This week Neilson said he’d drawn even closer in an important meeting and the reality of an actual jet car run in the spring was coming into much clearer view.
A Character of the First Order
I haven’t met anybody like Jim Jet Neilson. Jet car drivers, after all, are a tight fraternity. Eleven of Jim’s colleagues died in crashes. His persistence is impressive, if not worrying.
Physically he bears no visible scars or infirmities from crashes. He’s stocky, white haired, wears sleeveless tees and an earring. He has the strong legs of the Hawaiian surfer he was as a teen. His thick shoulders and powerful forearms mark the 15 years he spent as a commercial fisherman as a young man.
His manner is generous, self-deprecating, and funny. Like his profession, getting from here to there at top speed, he’s not a complicated man. He is a master of one-line retorts. When I told Jim I’d mentioned him to a friend, Jim fired back, “Did you say I am skinny and have lots of hair?”
One night we joined Jim Jet aboard the Mirna, a big white seaworthy craft berthed in one of Panama City’s marinas. Jim had spent the day repairing a propeller. Jet, never married, told us more about himself. He likes his women young, typically younger than 30. “No wife. No drama,” he said. “If it gets to drama it’s over for me.”
On advancing age he remarks, “I’m 61 above the waist. I’m 19 below.”
Gravity and Pressure
He described driving jet cars as producing more G forces than piloting a military jet. In one conversation he had with military fighter pilots, he told them that things are happening so fast and there’s such physical and instinctive pressure compressed into a few seconds that “everything is grey and black” during his jet car runs.
“They told me that’s the feeling you have just before you black out.” He shrugged and smiled.
The most dangerous moment of his career came not in a jet car but while driving his custom tractor-trailer rig in the Rockies during a Colorado blizzard. Days before climbing into the mountains, Jim paid a shop to do some maintenance on the trailer. The shop’s mechanics, using a torch, accidentally severed lines to the rear brakes. Jim discovered the problem when his trailer started slipping sideways while descending the mountain west of Denver. The side of the highway at that point dropped hundreds of feet straight down.
“I’ll tell you I was holding the wheel and pumping the brake,” he said re-enacting the moment. “The truck was heading over the guardrail. I’m pulling it back and trying to slow it down and fighting to keep it on the road the whole way down. It’s the most dangerous spot I’ve ever been in.”
What compels Jim Jet Neilson to keep driving jet cars? His response is characteristically fast and direct: “It’s all I know my friend, commercial fishing and that. I got to prove myself. I want to finish what I started in Panama. I’m willing to run any day. You know, there are people here who said, ‘He can’t run. He’s washed up.’ I know I haven’t run for awhile. I got to do it. Not a problem. You have your wife and don’t have sex for 10 years, you don’t forget. At least I hope you don’t.”
— Keith Schneider