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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Spinning Out

Cherry, 60, Is Forced to Leave Racing by Heart Problems

August 18, 2000|DARIN ESPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 14 seasons as a race car owner, Jim Cherry of Simi Valley is on the fast track to go out a winner.

Cherry, 60, does not not want to give up his California Dwarf Car Racing Assn. team. Driver Rob Anderson of Fontana, who finished second in the pro division points standings in 1999, leads the division this year after 13 of 19 races.

But Cherry has no choice. He had open heart surgery, coronary bypass surgery and wears a defibrillator on his chest because only 28% of his heart is functioning. His doctor told him it is time to get out.

"I'm fighting it pretty bad now," Cherry said. "I don't want to just sit in somebody's backyard reading a book until I die."

At a race in Pahrump, Nev., earlier this year, Cherry's heart stopped and the defibrillator kicked in. Cherry woke up in an ambulance.

Cherry, vice president of the dwarf-car association, said members have gone out of their way to help him, doing things such as picking up heavy objects for him.

Dwarf cars are five-eighths-scale replicas of 1930s production vehicles powered by 1200cc motorcycle engines.

According to Anderson, who has four victories this year, Cherry has always gone out of his way to help others.

"He'll give you anything, anywhere, any time," Anderson said. "Nobody wants to see him out, they all love him so much."

When Anderson flipped the car three times in a heat race in Santa Maria on Aug. 5, other teams pitched in to help get the car fixed in time to make the main event.

"The association is the best group I've ever been with," Cherry said. "When we got upside down, the same people helping me were the same people who were racing me for first."

Cherry's success begins with his approach, which is why he puts the best equipment out on the track.

"I've never been one to do anything halfway," Cherry said. "I believe in doing things right the first time."

Anderson credits Cherry for the success.

"I'm the lucky one who gets to drive his car," Anderson said. "[Anyone] could get in that car and do what I do."

Painted inside the door of the dwarf car is a slogan that gives insight into Cherry's competitive nature: "Second is the first loser."

Cherry's interest in racing began when he was growing up a Quaker in the hills of Pennsylvania. His father was a racing fan, and they would sneak away to attend dirt track races.

The interest in cars and racing was immediate for Cherry, although he didn't become a race car owner until 1986.

Cherry spent several years building, driving and showing street rods. Several of his cars have been featured in national magazines. He owns a customized 1933 Ford panel truck and a 1928 Dodge Grand Page truck that he uses to haul cars.

He began his career as an owner by entering Leonard Lee in the California Racing Assn. sprint car series. Cherry also helped sponsor Rip Williams in the series. In 1991, Cherry began campaigning a TQ midget, driven by Rob Hansen of Simi Valley.

Hansen's best finish in the TQ was third place in 1992.

During the 1993 season, Cherry pulled out of the United States Auto Club TQ midget series and purchased his first dwarf car.

The attraction to the dwarf cars came from Cherry's background with street rods.

Hansen drove the dwarf car to Cherry's only championship, and eventually Cherry left sprint car racing when the CRA folded.

Hansen continued to drive the dwarf car for Cherry through the 1997 season but never duplicated his success of the first season, and Cherry decided it was time for a change.

Anderson had been racing dwarf cars on the East Coast when Cherry came calling. He began his career in legends cars, which look just like dwarf cars but have more restrictive specifications to equalize the equipment.

"I had seen Rob Anderson drive before and I liked his driving style," Cherry said. "He drives like I set the car up, so it was a natural."

Cherry plans to continue attending races as a fan.

"There's no way I'll just fold up and walk away," Cherry said. "I'm sure I'll stay involved one way or another. I don't want any tension next year, I just want to stay out of the limelight, in the background, and have fun."

Cherry has not decided what he will do with his equipment when he retires. Suzanne, his wife of 39 years, is as adamant as the doctors about Cherry stepping away from racing. His 29-year-old son, Jim Jr., chose playing bass in a rock 'n' roll band over racing after seeing several drivers get killed at defunct Ascot Park.

The family will maintain a presence in racing. Cherry's 26-year-old daughter, Danielle, is a member of the CDCRA board and serves as an official. Cherry has considered turning over his equipment to her in the same manner he turned over his carpet business to her.

"I can sit back in the background, tell her what to do and what not to do, and she'll tell me to shut up," Cherry quipped.

Cherry will cross that bridge when he comes to it. He is enjoying the ride while it lasts.

"As of right now, it feels real good," Cherry said. "My daughter and I are having a great time."

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