This is part two of a feature story on Jake Swanson from the November 2020 issue of Sprint Car & Midget Magazine. Part one can be read by clicking here.
On the personal side of Jake Swanson’s ledger, life got a bit more complicated as well as he continued to forge ahead.
In 2011, Swanson had a chance to race a pavement Ford Focus midget at Lucas Oil I-10 Speedway in Blythe, Calif. As he prepared for the night, he struck up a conversation with fellow racer Jessica Clark. What he figured out quickly was that she wasn’t fooling around.
In time he learned that Jess had a quick mind, a boatload of talent, a competitive streak that was wide and deep, and possessed a keen sense of humor.
Clark’s father, Rich, had competed in the Baja 1000 and other off-road events, and a maternal grandfather had competed successfully in NHRA-sanctioned drag racing. She admits to having racing in her blood, but was not brought up at the race track. Instead, in her words, she was “a serial sports kid.”
She did everything from soccer to basketball, to sailboat racing and horseback riding. Regardless of what she did, she did it to win. Seemingly out of nowhere, her father asked her if she would like to try a go-kart. In an instant she was attacking road courses at legendary places like Buttonwillow and Willow Springs.
Then her mother showed up. Mom looked around and saw the kart had no cage and no seat belt and put her foot firmly down. Yet, Rich began to suspect that his daughter had talent, and they moved to a midget class at Ventura where she was very successful.
While Rich, a retired firefighter, had been having fun with karts as well, he put that aside to concentrate on helping Jessica. He sent her application to Ron Sutton’s Winner’s Circle driver development program.
“I think my dad wanted to know just how far this could go,” she says, “and wanted someone else to see me drive and see if racing was worth pursuing.
“I was going to get to run a Ford Focus midget on pavement and that sounded fun. I made it throughout their shootout process, which included their training program and an interview, and I was among 14 out of 725 drivers who applied to actually make it on the team. I think the thing that helped me is that I am coachable. I mean, I can drive, but I am very good at soaking in things from people who know more than I do.”
Now she was set for the season opener at Blythe and could hardly contain her excitement.
“It was a fun weekend,” she recalls. “That track is the gnarliest pavement track on the west coast. It is a circle. It has so much character and I love that. I love when you have to think about what you are doing. That’s what separates drivers from those who are just out there. That’s the weekend I met Jake. He had pitted next to us and he and I just connected. We were talking about the different aspects of the race track and how to get around it.”
The green flag dropped for the feature and there was plenty of action to be had.
“I led it for a long time,” she remembers. “And I think I spun out at one point. Jake got the lead and took off, but I raced my way back to second with about three to go. I was bummed I spun out, but I was on the edge the whole time and was super proud that I got back to second. It was the first race of the season and I was jacked. We came out of the box fast. We led, I was able to pass a lot of people, I learned a lot and, on top of that, I had a new love interest. It was win, win, win for me, even though I got second. I thought, ‘Oh well, I’ll just marry the winner.’
“The next weekend we raced at Havasu and I got fourth and he got fifth. So I beat him, and he gave me a big old handshake before I even got out of the car. So, I thought ‘Hey, this guy’s cute, and he comes over and shakes my hand after he gets beat. He’s husband material.’ He didn’t get butt hurt that I beat him.”
In that same 2011 season, Jessica captured the USAC California South Ford Focus and the USAC Western Ford Focus championships, becoming the first woman in USAC history to win two titles in a single year. Unfortunately, due to a lawsuit she deems “petty,” Sutton closed down his development program at about the time Jessica’s career was ready to blossom.
She had had the chance to race pavement late models and modifieds, and then later father and daughter tried to carry on. It got to be too much.
By now she was in college, so she moved away from pavement modifieds and concentrated on dwarf cars and midgets. She also became an increasingly important part of Jake Swanson’s life.
While Jessica and Jake attended different community colleges, both would matriculate to Cal State Northridge and earn their degrees. For a number of years they were forced to conduct a long-distance relationship, which was also aggravated by their myriad responsibilities.
Not only was Jake racing, he had established a shock business along with West Evans, and was still working part time for Larry Henry.
It nearly wears one out just listening to what his average week was like at that time.
“Say we raced on Saturday,” he says. “I would do maintenance on the car all day Sunday. Then I would drive up to Northridge for school. I was actually living at two places at once while I was going to college. I lived in Simi Valley at the time with a couple named Shawn and Stephanie Buckley. I would stay with them Monday through Wednesday, and that is when I went to school, plus I would work my shock business with West Evans on Tuesday. That was like a 12-hour day, because I was doing it one day a week. Wednesday night I would get out of class at 9:00 to 9:45, and I would haul ass back to Anaheim to my parents’ house where I stayed the other half of the week.
“So, I would get back home late and work from 4:00 to 7:00 in the morning for Larry on Thursdays and Fridays. We would do that, then go racing wherever the CRA was. I had a lot going on and it was grueling.”
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