The memories are vivid, and warm. A beautiful dark blue sprint car, roaring in the night, an orange-yellow No. 66 lettered on the tail. Crisp and clean and fast, just like Jack Nowling wanted it.
Captain Jack left us in early October, a longtime battle with pulmonary disease finally getting the best of him. He died on a peaceful Sunday morning at his home near Gibsonton, Florida at the age of 81.
There aren’t too many left like Captain Jack.
His race cars were top-notch, and his tenure as a car owner began in the 1970s and spanned the next four decades. He was especially successful in Florida, but also made several USAC campaigns through the years. After years of trying, Jack finally won the Little 500 in 1996 with an up-and-coming young driver named David Steele.
Jack was a car owner in a very traditional sense. He didn’t just write the checks; he got down on the ground and put his cars together, bolt by bolt. It wasn’t just money he invested; it was blood and sweat and skinned knuckles. Win or lose, Jack was in charge. That’s the only way he knew.
His background was interesting. A native of the Indianapolis area, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps out of high school and eventually landed in Florida, where he pursued an interest in maritime work. He became a licensed sea captain – yes, a real captain – and later channeled his entrepreneurial energy toward Quickload aluminum boat trailers, which became the business that sustained his racing efforts for many years.
In addition to owning race cars, he also served a couple of stints as a racing promoter.
In the early 1980s a bunch of Florida racers began making the trip north to run the Little 500. Florida drivers such as Dave Scarborough, Bob Luscomb, and Bill Roynon had been coming to Anderson for many years, but by 1984 it was a genuine migration, and by the middle part of the decade nearly half the Little 500 field hailed from the Sunshine State.
That’s when we got our first up-close look at Jack Nowling’s beautiful No. 66.
Jack was an imposing figure. Big, burly, gruff…he very much resembled an irritated grizzly bear as he hustled in his pit, working on a car that wasn’t quite perfect. Yet.
His icy glare could halt a tiger in its tracks. His massive hands – resembling a catcher’s mitt – effortlessly handled even the heaviest jobs. His gruff voice barked out instructions to his crew and his driver.
Maybe that’s why it took a while before we connected. After that first conversation – 30-plus years ago – I was surprised to discover that, once you got past that rugged exterior, Jack was a gentle, kind guy who cared a lot about people. He had a funny sense of humor and a powerful work ethic.
Winning the Little 500 was truly one of the highlights of his racing life. Maybe that’s why he never grew tired of coming to Anderson in May, even after the No. 66 had fallen silent and Jack became a spectator.
One of the interesting aspects of Jack’s life is his mentoring of a number of younger people who worked with him. In particular, Wayne Hammond and Dave Steele were profoundly influenced by Jack’s teaching and leadership. The value of hard work, how to treat people right, honesty, ambition, following your passion…Jack helped instill those values in a lot of people.
Late in his life, after his years of fielding a race car had ended, Jack took joy in another role. Each year in late January, as Florida racing was about to begin, a bunch of racing teams wheeled their rigs off Hwy. 41 and made the big turn into Jack’s place on Bliss Road, not far from Gibsonton.
It was there that Captain Jack was truly in his element, beaming as he swapped racing stories with friends and strangers alike. His place became race headquarters for countless teams and people through the years, and Jack thrived as the host. He built a couple of bunkhouses, offering a place for drivers and crew members to lay their head and have a good meal.
His later years were not easy. Declining health really took a toll on Jack, and he was forced to close his boat trailer business after many successful years. Travel became all but impossible, and his connection with his racing friends was mostly limited to telephone calls and social media.
He tried to make humor of the cruelty of advancing years, taking into account how life definitely has highs and lows.
“I used to be a hero,” he said a couple of weeks before his passing. “But now I’m just a nobody.”
He was completely wrong about that. To his countless friends, Jack was not only somebody, but somebody special. A hundred years – a thousand years, maybe – could never change that.
Rest easy, Captain Jack. We’re gonna miss the ol’ grizzly bear.