Robert Jackson Jr., spends leisure time in fast lane at PIR, Woodburn
When Happy Valley's Robert Jackson Jr., set out four years ago to purchase a used hot rod that was suitable for drag racing, he wanted to buy local and he wanted to buy cheap.
Checking on Craigslist, the Portland bar owner found a seller in rural Amity who had what he was looking for -- a rebuilt, fully-loaded 1971 Chevrolet Vega.
"They were asking $11,000 for it," Jackson said. "I gave them $5,500 and drove off with it."
Driving the Vega in 2017, Jackson, 54, is in his second full season of drag racing and first in the Super Pro division at Portland International Raceway. Already, heading into Wednesday night's regular-season finale card, he is in the hunt for a spot in the Race of Champions at Woodburn Drag Strip.
The winner of the Sept. 1-3 Race of Champions advances to the eight-car field for the Nov. 9-12 NHRA Finals in Pomona, California.
"I love every bit of it," Jackson said. "Yeah, there is that feeling of competition when you get to the line and you're sweatin' and you're nervous. And I'm a showoff.
"I like having a hot rod, I like doing burnouts -- the burnouts alone are worth the price of admission -- and I like hanging out with the other drivers. It's like taking a roller-coaster ride. And that slight sense of danger, too … that's what I love about it."
Growing up in Mineola, New York, Jackson was introduced to drag racing from his father, Robert Sr., -- known to his friends as "The Bear" -- who raced his 1970 Plymouth Barracuda at New York National Speedway in Suffolk County.
"My dad won seven consecutive races and when we were leaving the track, he'd say, 'What do you think?'" Jackson said. "I'd look at the trophy and then he'd throw it in the garbage and he'd say, 'Don't tell your mother what we were doin'.'
"He'd keep the prize money, but he'd throw away the evidence."
The family moved to Oregon in 1977 and Jackson graduated from Sunset High School in 1981. He became a fervent Oregonian and area sports fan, while retaining his loyalty to his childhood teams -- the Yankees, Knicks, Rangers and Jets. He then did a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force before launching into a career in the bar business in the Portland area, first as a popular bartender and then as a bar owner.
Jackson and his wife Starr have two children -- Emily, 16, and Hunter, 14 -- and own three bar/restaurants -- the Jolly Roger in Southeast Portland, the Jolly Roger at John's Landing in Southwest Portland, and the Sports Page in Beaverton.
The businesses were built on the premise that "nobody has more fun than we do," which isn't only a slogan, but is a way of life for the unabashed and often unfiltered Jackson. If you don''t want to know what he thinks, don't ask him; because if you ask, he'll tell you.
"I almost bought a race car in 2007, but then the depression hit and the bar business crashed," Jackson said. "I don't know how we made it through, I really don't. But we kept fighting and we got through it.
"When I turned 50, I said to Starr, 'I'm not getting any younger.' And she looked at me and said, 'You don't spend any money. So, go do it.' It was nice to have her blessing."
The Vega sat idle for more than a year before Jackson finally got behind the wheel in 2015.
"I entered a few races, but I had no clue what I was doing yet," Jackson said.
Team Jolly Roger
The following year, Jackson formed a partnership with Dave Chun Jr., a Vancouver, Washington, mechanic with the tools, racing experience, and automotive repair shop -- Super Tune in Vancouver -- to provide a safety net where before there was none.
Jackson also invested another $5,000 on a junior dragster for Hunter, who might be the only incoming freshman at Clackamas High School who is also a licensed drag racer.
"My problem was I'm not good at working on the cars," Jackson said. "That's where Dave comes in. And then one of the greatest things about this whole set-up is that Hunter is head and shoulders above me already when it comes to anything mechanical, which is another reason we got into it.
"When Dave works on the cars for us, he does it with us, so it turns into a training session every time we do something on one of the cars. We're learning as we go, and Dave is the 'Mr. Miyagi' to our 'Karate Kid.'"
Jackson said there is also no better "carrot" for a young driver whose racing privileges are contingent on maintaining good grades.
"Hunter got all As and one B last spring, so he gets it," Jackson said. "If he messes up, racing is out.
"It's really been a wonderful thing. Obviously, getting to spend this much more time with my son can only benefit both of us, so I'll take that. It's nice, too, knowing where my teenager is on the weekends."
Jackson has been impressed with the camaraderie that exists between drivers and with the sense of family that ties the local racing community together.
"Last year, I needed to win one more round to reach the Race of Champions when my engine exploded, and nine different people who had just met me that year offered me either their car or an engine," he said. "Corey Seekins offered me an engine and I said, 'No, I need to …' and Corey interrupted and said, 'No, just come pick it up.'
"We dropped Corey's engine in, we made the Race of Champions, and we gave him his engine back a few races later."
In addition to regular trips to PIR and Woodburn, Jackson's race schedule this season has included stops in Bremerton, Washington; Seattle, Washington; Mission, British Columbia, and Boise, Idaho. His father, Bear, died of cancer in 2014, but Rob has Bear's picture in his racing helmet.
In that sense, the dad who passed along his love for racing is along for the ride.
"This is my deal," Jackson said. "If I didn't do this, I'd be playing golf or doing nothing, just working. This is my excuse to get away from work."
He's also one winning Powerball ticket away from joining the NHRA full time.
"If I won the lottery, I'd run a nostalgia nitro funny car," Jackson said. "There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. I mean, there is nothing else that would pop out.
"People might ask, 'What about a private jet?' Nope, nitro funny car. And it would be immediate. The next day, I would be ordering one."