By the heralded month of May in Indianapolis, P.J. had begun to get more comfortable in the car, and had become an outspoken media darling, doing numerous interviews and appearances. Even Tony George scheduled time out to watch as a tattoo artist brought into the Speedway by Chesson publicly inked his left shoulder with a commemoration of the ‘06 500.
P.J. qualified respectably for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, 20th on the grid, in row seven, sandwiched between Eddie Cheever and Felipe Giaffone, while brother James would serve as spotter.
However, as race day drew closer, despite the team’s crew and resources already being stretched thin, Hemelgarn seized an opportunity to rent Chesson’s backup car to racer Jeff Bucknum (son of F1 racer Ronnie Bucknum) and field a second entry.
On just lap two of the 500-mile endurance race, a bonzai move by Bucknum resulted in a spin in turn two that collected his teammate, Chesson. Moments later, with both of the team’s mounts damaged, Hemelgarn shut down his team for the remainder of the season, and P.J.’s ride was gone.
Chesson worked to find another team, competing in select Indy car events for Panther Racing and then in Canadian racer/car owner Marty Roth’s second mount with backing from Gene Simmons’ Moneybag clothing line.
“Tony George was very supportive of me, and they helped me a lot. The series was really good to me and they gave me an opportunity there,” P.J. shared. “They essentially kept me there. I was looking at going to do things at NASCAR and they liked me, you know, doing the burnouts and climbing the fence, and they were like the fans really like this guy. The 2006 Indy 500, I was pretty popular with the fans, and I think the series recognized that, they appreciated that, they liked that I was kind of this outspoken guy and the fans seemingly were into it.”
James ended his racing career slightly earlier than P.J. He was in his late-teens when he had been introduced to a pretty girl named Jami Sprenkle by fellow sprint car racer Jeff Shepard at a Pennsylvania sprint car event. James and Jami began dating, and later married.
“Some challenges were presented,” James offered. “I know when I was racing Infiniti Pro Series, I had a couple of crashes; one that kind of hurt quite a bit and wasn’t real fun. I’m like, I’m not enjoying this.” And, opportunities for rides in the IndyCar and NASCAR ranks weren’t being presented. In short, as James puts it, “it was time to make a decision.”
“At that time in my life, my current wife now – we were dating back then – we were talking about a lot of stuff and what the future looks like and family business stuff. I was thinking I was going back and gonna work with my dad for a while and see how that goes. And that was a life choice.”
And so, James’ racing career was over.
“I was starting to recognize that personality plays a lot into this stuff,” he reflected. “And, how you present yourself publicly and to the media, and just trying to go and get out in front of people. And, I’m certainly not as outgoing and colorful as P.J. is. He does that really well. So, it was a good run; I did enjoy it. I still catch a sprint car race every now and again. My wife’s from Hanover, Pa., so I’ll take my kids there; they love it.”
James returned to New Jersey and began managing two of his father’s repair shops.
“Mind you, I was still pretty young at the point, so I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he said with a laugh. “So, I was trying to figure it out and kind of grow with it, and I had some really good people helping.”
But, he confided, “When you come from the racing world to that, it’s a little boring.”
Though no longer piloting race cars, James’ love of competition endured, and later manifested itself in the form of triathlons.
Beginning in approximately 2010, he began competing in the human endurance sport featuring swimming, cycling, and running events, and for roughly three years went pro.
Chesson turned 40 in December and still competes in triathlons at a high level in the amateur ranks, as opposed to as a professional, and has simultaneously revisited his automotive passion.
In 2017, he launched 76 Customs, in Whitehouse, N.J., offering various auto services ranging from custom exhausts to full-body wraps, but specializing in high-end resto-mods.
The business’s name pays homage to the family race number and “it kind of gets the horsepower back into my life,” James confided.
He and wife Jami have four children. James, his oldest (age 11), was intentionally named with the initials J.A.C. to go by the nickname Jac in honor of Jac Haudenschild.
The couple also have a nine-year-old daughter named Macy, six-year-old son Ryder, and two-year-old daughter Skylar.
After his time chasing Indy car rides, P.J. drove his final race, for Roth Racing, in a No. 76 Dallara-Honda at Chicagoland, where he was credited with a 20th-place finish.
“It turns out,” he shares of his experience in Indy car racing, “you better have a really good race car, and you better have a lot of money, and then you better have a lot of luck. And I had some of those, but I didn’t have all them.”
After dealing with the drama and insecurity surrounding many of the Indy teams, with deals that fell through or negotiations that proved to be non-starters, P.J. was convinced it was time for he, too, to leave the sport.
In addition, his father needed help at home, so it was time to head back to New Jersey to lend support to the dad that had done so much to back him.
In 2007, drawing on his degree from Lafayette College, and inspired by his dog battling a fight with cancer, he launched a biotech company.
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