The Legacy of Jim Russell
The founder of the eponymous racing school has died at the age of 98 but his legacy will live on for generationsby Michael Fira, on
Jim Russell, the founder of the Jim Russell Racing School, can be considered the man behind the careers of many of motorsport’s top drivers including F1 World Champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Derek Bell, and Jenson Button, Le Mans winner Andy Wallace, Indycar aces Johnny Rutherford and Danny Sullivan and many, many more. Russell was also a keen racer himself and earned three British F3 titles in succession in the ’50s.
If you want to kick-off a career in motorsport, you need some deep pockets, an appetite for success, and the right teachers. The teaching can come naturally, through your own hands-on experience, but guidance is sometimes needed. That’s why racing schools have thrived over the years, and that’s why the best in the business can lay claim to some of the success of a bunch of top athletes that have become legends in motor racing. You may have heard of the newly-reborn Skip Barber Racing School or Bob Bondurant’s School for Performance Driving that was recently sold to private investors.
Both of these have hit some rather big hurdles in the past few years, but there’s no denying that taking part in the program of a top racing school can improve your chances of success in your motorsport career as well as making you a better, more aware driver throughout. Jim Russell’s racing school that he established back in 1956 - making it the oldest of the three - is also one of the world’s top organizations of this kind and is, currently, the racing school of the Mont Tremblant circuit in Canada. In the past, Jim Russell’s school also organized programs at Sonoma Raceway and in Russell’s native United Kingdom.
The Jim Russell Racing School is One of the Best and is Well-Known Across the Globe
Jim Russell, in more ways than one, was a bit of a visionary. He founded a racing school and helped thousands of aspiring young folks to become racing drivers - some reaching the peaks in different types of motorsports - and, with the same aim in mind, he established his own racing series which acted as the first step in the open-wheel career of many. He passed away at the age of 98 on March 30th but his racing school is still active, and those that he helped are living proof of his success.
Born in England in 1920, Russell lived out most of his youth in Downham Market, Norfolk. He was drafted in the RAF during World War II and, upon returning from duty, he opened his own workshop with his brother Peter.
Near the shop, a gas station soon found its place, but Russell wasn’t a keen race-goer at the time. In fact, his passion for racing was only ignited when he participated as a spectator at his local track, Snetterton, in the early ’50s.
The experience must have taken Russell back as, by 1952, he was already competing as a driver aboard a Cooper Mk. VI with a J.A.P. 0.5-liter engine. Similar cars were driven at the time by the likes of Stirling Moss who was still three years away from his breakthrough deal with Mercedes-Benz in Formula 1. According to FormulaScout.com, Russell found his way to victory lane quite quickly and, by 1953, he’d grabbed the attention of engine tuner Steve Lancefield, and this opened more doors for him at Cooper as well as at Norton.
He began piling the podium finishes and victories in the British Formula 3 championship run for 0.5-liter open-wheelers and, in 1955, he brought home his first driver’s title. Two more followed suit in 1956 and 1957 by which time he’d already established the Jim Russell Racing School at Snetterton. There, you could learn how to drive Formula 3 cars, and the business proved lucrative enough to help Russell to move up to Formula 2 and establish his own racing team.
In 1957, the Briton also started in his first Le Mans 24 Hours race (he was supposed to drive in 1955 as well, but the car suffered a chassis-bending crash in practice and never took the start).
He drove for the Arnott team that run the tiny Arnott Sports in the 1.1-liter division. He and Peter Taylor failed to finish due to a problem with the ignition. That same year, Russell got his first taste of Formula 1, albeit in a national event at his home track of Snetterton. The race was run to Formula Libre rules (a ’run-what-you-brung’ formula), and he came second to Archie Scott-Brown’s Lister.
In 1959, Russell was often seen racing the Cooper Monaco T49. The mid-engined sports car was driven by Russell to arguably his biggest victory that same year at the British Empire Trophy at Oulton Park. As Motorsport Magazine wrote its May issue, the grid was lackluster with "22 Coopers or Cooper-based cars, 8 Lotus, 1 Fry, and 1 Lister," but the last two didn’t even start. Russell qualified among the quickest with a 1:53.8, just 0.4 seconds slower than Roy Salvadori’s pole-grabbing lap time.
Come race day, an annoying drizzle starting falling right after the end of the support race for 1.5-liter cars. Russell started from the second row of the grid and made his way up the order slowly but surely, taking the lead on the 14th lap. "With the track in very damp condition cars were spinning very regularly, including such notables as Salvadori, Michael Taylor, and Tim Parnell," says MotorSport Magazine’s report which also underlines that both Jack Brabham and Graham Hill fell foul of the elements and had to pit with mechanical gremlins. As a result, Russell led effortlessly, but he was unaware of this.
"All this time Russell was apparently under the illusion that Brabham was still in the lead. His signal board was of the blackboard and chalk variety, and the signals were washed off before he could read them."
Lotus works driver Bruce Halford retired on lap 22 giving Russell even more breathing room and Tony Marsh took over second place with Le Mans winner Ivor Bueb in third and Bruce McLaren in fourth.
As the race neared the end, "the commentator gave Russell an extra lap [ahead of the others] no doubt hoping that this dull race would come to a close sooner." After the Empire Trophy race, there was also an event dedicated to big-engine sports cars. Russell won this race too, while others fared worse. Way worse. "Halford in the other works Lister went straight on at Cascades into the lake. Returning to the pits on foot he informed Brian Lister that his car floated well."
One month after the Oulton Park race meeting, Russell flew to France to take part again the 24 Hours of Le Mans. This time, though, he was entrusted with the wheel of a works-backed Cooper Monaco T49 that he shared with Bruce McLaren. According to Autosport.com, this race all but ended Russell’s career as a driver. "During the night, Brian Naylor had rolled his Aston Martin at Maison Blanche. Although Naylor escaped, Russell’s Cooper Monaco struck the abandoned car, and he was left with broken legs and ribs, plus minor burns." While he did make a fleeting comeback to the driver’s seat in the early ’60s, he ultimately decided to focus solely on managing his businesses.
That's when the racing school and the racing team really took off. In 1966, he and his team helped turn Formula Junior cars into F1 lookalikes for John Frankenheimer's legendary Grand Prix movie starring James Garner.
Garner himself trained at Russell’s school for the role as he insisted on doing most of the driving himself. Later on, he established his own racing team - American International Racing - which almost won the 1968 24 Hours of Daytona race.
Three years later, in 1969, Russell’s team backed Emerson Fittipaldi on his way to the Formula 3 title. One year later, Fittipaldi was hired by Colin Chapman to drive in F1, and he became the first Brazilian World Driver’s Champion in 1972 with the same outfit driving the achingly gorgeous Lotus 72 in JPS colors. He won a second title in 1974 driving for McLaren before dedicating himself to the ill-fated Copersucar project that ate up half of his F1 career in vain. Thereafter, Fittipaldi moved across the pond and was very successful in the IndyCar Series. He took the title in 1989 and won the Indianapolis 500 twice, in 1989 and 1993 at the age of 47.
But many other famous drivers are alumni of the Jim Russell Racing School. Derek Bell, the five-time Le Mans winner and two-time World Sports Car Championship winner, also started out at Jim Russell’s as did the driver of the ’Yellow Submarine,’ Johnny Rutherford. Scott Pruett, Chip Robinson, Danny Sullivan, Jimmy Vasser, as well as both Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve have also taken part in the school’s programs. Gilles actually used up his money earned from racing snowboards to go to the Jim Russell Racing School at Mount Tremblant while son Jacques attended the courses at Saint Jovite.
Another successful ex-pupil of the school is Johnny O’Connell, four-time Le Mans class winner and ALMS champion. He started his career off through the school’s own racing series as O’Connell recounts on his website. "The Russell School would run an event called the graduate run-offs which was open to all students that had been through the school but had not yet raced with them in their school series. Whoever was chosen the best, would win a free year of racing in the school series," he remembers. As it happens, he got on the grid at the very last minute but promptly won the race which earned him a full season in the Russell racing series which saw Van Diemen-built Formula Ford cars go head-to-head. O’Connell won the championship, and he went on to far greater things.
Now, you may be wondering how the Van Diemen thing came to be. Well, Van Diemen used to be (before it was bought off by Elan Motorsport Technologies) a British manufacturer established by Ralph Firman Sr. in 1973. Firman, father of former F1 driver Ralph Firman Jr., was a mechanic at Russell’s school in the early days before becoming his brother-in-law. Russell helped Firman get his business going by becoming a major customer of Van Diemen vehicles. Basically, most Formula Ford cars operated by the racing school were of Van Diemen provenance.
With the business expanding to both North and South America, Van Diemen’s market grew as well, and it became the largest supplier of Formula Ford vehicles and stayed that way for over two decades which made Van Diemen one of the biggest racing car builders in the world thanks to the popularity of the formula.
In 1973, the Russell school also opened an office at Silverstone after initially moving away from its first home at Snetterton to set up base at Donington Park.
Nowadays, the only hub that’s still operating is the one in Canada, at Mont Tremblant where you can train behind the wheel of the Van Diemen Formula X FR02.
"Jim was a brilliant boss to have, and he was full of life and laughs," Firman told Autosport. "He liked to have fun. He was just superb at spotting talented drivers, and he must have launched 1000 racing careers over his time," Firman added. While the school still survives, the racing team last competed in Formula Vauxhall Junior in the late ’90s. It was quite a ride and, over at Mont Tremblant, the story continues, and you never know what talent the school’s coaches will uncover next. The latest graduates to reach Formula 1 is Lance Stroll although far greater talents have gone through the school’s doors in the past and probably do today as well.