Last summer, I met a man named James Barbour III. I wrote about his remarkable life as documented original Tuskegee Airman, as a highly influential and respected racing official who’s had an immeasurable impact on the Sports Car Club of America and world-class competitions, and his time as an avid amateur race car driver who was well-known for his fast and fearless driving style.
On the track, Jim raced Sprites and Alfas. He autocrossed Triumphs. He loved his sports cars. But his appreciation for cars hardly ended there. Jim’s love of cars is what drove him to own more cars in his life than he can even count. I’d asked him how many he owned, and he laughed.
I asked them to estimate, and he said, “I mean, you name a car, and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’ve had one of those. Or I’ve had two or three of those,” Jim told me. “I don’t know how many Fords, Chryslers, Plymouths,” he says. He’s owned more Mercedes than any other marque, which is saying a lot since Jim told he he owned nineteen Alfa Romeos in total. Since 1950, he told me, “I’d always had at least one or two Mercedes at a time.”
He also loved the fast cars of General Motors. Especially Corvettes. And Corvairs. He owned 14 of those. One of his favorite cars he’d ever owned was a 1952 Chevy. And a lot of Cadillacs.
The cars are gone now. In the small garage of their Florida home, there’s a Toyota Avalon, which his wife drives. That prompted me to ask Jim one last question: Are there any cars left that he wishes he could drive? Or if not drive, at least ride in?
“I would love to get into one of those CTS-Vs,” he said, referring to Cadillac’s 640 horsepower supercharged V8 sedan.
The story was published in August, and readers sent appreciative notes about Jim and his service to the country, his leadership in racing world, his taste in cars. And people noted his wish to get into a CTS-V.
“Someone out there has one of these things and needs to take a road trip with Jim,” one commenter wrote.
A few days later, someone called my house and apologized in advance for tracking down my phone number. But he told me that he had a friend in Georgia with a CTS-V, and he’d be willing to drive down to meet Jim.
(Full Disclosure: Cadillac loaned us CTS-V for this adventure, with a full tank of gas. Also big thanks to Henry Gilbert at Performance Driving Group who gave us lots of time during his track day at Sebring.)
David: But by this time, there were already other plans afoot. Professional race car driver and Jalopnik contributor Robb Holland reached out to both myself and editor Patrick George to see what could be done to make Jim’s wish come true.
Robb wasn’t the only one interested in helping out. Some guys from Cadillac jumped in and told us to let them know where and when they should make the CTS-V available.
I was thrilled for Jim, and I insisted that I come along for the ride. But as it turns out, Robb had his own personal reasons for wanting to see this through.
Robb: They say that you should never me your heroes. They say that you will just be disappointed. They are wrong.
Jim Barbour was the hero I never knew I had. And one, who instead of leaving me disappointed, left me even more in awe of the man and his accomplishments.
Jim had been on my radar for a number of years. As one of very few minorities that have made it into motorsports, I am always interested when I see other minorities that have made their way in this sport. As he served on the SCCA’s Board of Directors and as the Chief Steward of the Ferrari Challenge, I had come across Jim’s name numerous times during my career. But for one reason or another, our paths had never crossed.
It was only after Jalopnik published David’s excellent piece on Jim that I realized that he was someone that I really needed to meet.
It felt a little odd to just ring someone up I’ve never met to say, “Hey, you have no idea who I am, but we should meet because I think you’re really interesting.” Kind of a non-starter.
Then it occurred to me: I know how to drive a fast car. People even pay me to do this, weirdly enough. And a CTS-V is certainly a fast car.
Fast forward several weeks and I find myself pulling up to Jim’s house in a brand new CTS-V press car with permission to give Jim a hero’s ride at Sebring International Raceway, one of the most daunting race tracks in North America.
The was a very fitting journey, to say the least. Jim is one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen from World War II, and Sebring International Raceway was originally a World War II airbase used to train B-17 combat crews.
Being able to give Jim what could very well be his last laps on track was a humbling experience, but to me the best part of the day was the two-hour ride down and back to the track. The time spent on that drive listening to Jim was indescribable.
Here was a guy that grew up in the south during one of the most racially divisive times in our history, and while racism did feature in some of his stories, the stories that most defined his life were his stories about speed—his love of cars, of racing, of the camaraderie and the competition involved with all of that. They were stories that anyone with a love a cars could relate to and enjoy. The stories of what it was like to race in the days where safety was a four letter word and roll cages hadn’t been invented yet. What it was like to race an Alfa Romeo (of a vintage that would now make it eligible for historic racing) with drum brakes that were the opposite of predicable. And what it was like to be there when the rules that form the backbone of modern racing were made.
This was a man that could have looked back in his later years in life and reflected on his battles with the racism he encountered. But instead the battles he reflected on were ones he fought on the race track fighting for the checkered flag—just the way my other racing heroes Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti would do.
Thank you, Jim, for allowing me the honor of giving a lap to a member of that very short list of my racing heroes.
David: There’s a lot more of Jim’s story to tell. And I’ll be telling that story in the near future. But for now, I hope you check out the video of an extraordinary car, and two very unique people with a very special bond. Not to mention, a love of speed.