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News & Press: April 2019

Jim Russell - 1920 - 2019

04 April 2019  
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John Kirkpatrick, a Founding Director of the MIA, on the recent passing of his special friend and colleague, Jim Russell

'It was fun in those days - Jim and JK joke with Kelvin Burt, a future F3 Champion at Snetterton!'...

Photo courtesy of Richard Styles 

The founding father of racing drivers' schools, Jim Russell, passed away peacefully at home last weekend following a hip replacement. Jim was 99, within a couple of months of receiving his 'letter from the Queen'.

A successful racer nationally and internationally, Jim launched the world's first school of racing drivers at Snetterton in May 1957 with his partner, Wally Ward, and an investment of £2600. The 'stable' of cars included an 1100cc Cooper Climax, a Triumph TR2 and a Cooper 500 F3 - using a variety of cars the School grew in popularity. in 1967, when Formula Ford was launched with the cost of complete cars capped at £1000, the Jim Russell International Racing Drivers' School took off with the first international three-week programme hosting a group of Japanese students, including Tetsu Ikazawa. 

In 1966, Jim closed the School temporarily as he had a film to make with John Frankenheimer, called Grand Prix. Jim build the cars... they may have looked like F1 cars but underneath they were Formula Juniors. He trained all the drivers including James Garner and Yves Montand and even devised a 'gun' to fire the BRM into the cliff overlooking the harbour - Jim defined innovation! He returned to Snetterton with loads of Hollywood money and set about reopening and rebuilding his School.

In 1969, Emerson Fittipaldi enrolled in the School and this encouraged Jim to enter him in the British F3 Championship..... he was Champion before season send. Over the next thirty years, Jim's reputation for developing aspiring young drivers attracted Frank Gardner... ' Jim taught me everything I ever knew.... and I know nothing'!.... Derek Bell, Jean Pierre Jaussaud, Patrick Neve, Danny Sullivan, Roberto Guerrero, Andy Wallace, Anthony Reid, Jimmy Vasser, Jacques Villeneuve, Jan Magnussen, Ralph Firman Jnr, MattiasEckstrom, Darren Turner, Jenson Button, Kelvin Burt, Dan Wheldon, Peter Dumbrek, Anthony Davidson, Gary Paffett, Robert Huff and so many more... the list goes on and on.

To satisfy demand, in addition to schools at Snerrerton, Silverstone and Mallory Park, Jim went overseas to Magny-Cours (France), Zeltweg (Austria), Mont Tremblant (Canada), Riverside (California) - all school bearing his name. 

Eventually the School passed to Jim's leading instructor, John Kirkpatrick (JK) who, in 1986, increased the momentum of the international business by moving the operation to Donington Park where it continued until 2000. By that time, despite the loyalty of long time partner Vauxhall Motors, with track rents soaring, the track-intensive training programmes, which were at the very heart of the Jim Russell ethos, became increasingly difficult to deliver cost-effectively.

For 'real' racing schools it was the end of an era. An era which began with an innovative, determined, bloody-minded man from Norfolk, who didn't take up racing until the age of 32, providing the opportunity for the man in the street, who couldn't afford to buy a racing car, to spend five shillings and experience the thrill of doing so.

It nearly turned to naught when, leading at Le Mans in 1959, Jim hit a spinning car at White House and was badly injured in a fiery accident. Good things came of that as he determined to keep students safe with even more thorough teaching and he met Jenny, his nurse, they were married and she was at his bedside once more as he slipped away last weekend.

So many drivers, professional and amateur, owe their driving careers to Jim Russell. He and his teaching will be sorely missed.

To Jenny, Amanda, James, Robert and Jim's much loved grandchildren, to son-in-law Ralph Firman, the MIA and Members, many of whom took up the business of motorsport inspired by a visit to JRRDS, extend their sympathies.