Jim Kelly, R.I.P

Larry Lawrence | November 3, 2009

Jim Kelly, who is best known for building Jay Springsteen’s motors during his resurgence in the mid-1990s, died on October 26 at his home in San Pedro, California. He was 80.

Kelly, who had a lifelong involvement in motorsports, began building racing motorcycles in the early 1970s. At first he built Triumph flat track bikes, but by the early 1980s had switched to Harley-Davidson XR750s. Over the years Kelly became known as one of the best XR builders in the country.

Although he was already well established at the time, Kelly’s reputation rose considerably when Springsteen began riding Kelly-built motorcycles for Bartel’s Harley-Davidson in the mid-1990s. By that time Springer was nearing 40 and hadn’t had a win in nearly a decade. On Kelly’s XRs, Springsteen made a strong comeback, winning at Pomona in 1995 and going on to win two more Nationals, including the Springfield Mile, before retiring.

“He was a working machine,” Springsteen said of Kelly. “He loved working on those Harleys. Jim smoked like a chimney while working and we used to joke that his motors wouldn’t seal up right unless it had cigarette ashes mixed in the sealant.

“Jim did a lot of motors over the years. They were all over the place. He went with me when I went to race in Australia and he was surprised to find that some of his old race motors had even made it all the way down there.”

Over the years Kelly built XR motors for a variety of teams and riders. Springsteen said he remembered one of Jim’s proudest moments came when seven of the bikes on the starting grid at the Springfield Mile were built by Kelly.

Shaun Russell, who also raced for Kelly, said that Jim was genuinely great guy.

“He offered to help me and was so generous. He’d give you anything he had. I stayed at his house and he fed me; we just don’t have enough people in this sport like Jim. He truly loved it.”

Kelly, whose shop was in Gardena, just a short distance from the old Ascot Park track, where he spent many hours, continued working until the very end. He was building XRs for Sammy Halbert this summer.

“It’s sad to see him gone,” Halbert said. “The good thing was a lot of riders stopped by his shop and were able to see him before Pomona.”
Jim’s son Pat said that Jim wanted to attend the Grand National at Pomona, but was too ill.

“He outlived doctors’ expectations,” Pat said. “He’d been battling cancer for years and the family is glad his suffering is over.”
Kelly was survived by his wife, Nancy, three sons, Pat, Mike and Dean and eight grand children and three great-grandchildren.

The family said memorial contributions can be made to the American Cancer Society or the Harbor Animal Care Center in San Pedro.

Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor

In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.