When Jim “J.K.” Kelly retired from his management position at VP Racing Fuels late in May 2015, he could’ve taken up the typical retirement activities: golfing, boating, fishing, traveling, etc. That’s not to say he hasn’t done those things, but when his management career wrapped up, his career as an author was just getting started.
Kelly, who first started working in motorsports in the ‘70s as a photographer and writer for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated (no relation to this Drag Illustrated), wrote his first novel, Found In Time, towards the end of his time at VP. His early retirement allowed him the time to indulge his rekindled passion for writing. Kelly released two more books since then, all while serving as a marketing consultant for VP and spending time with his family.
Found In Time and its sequel, The Lost Pulse, are military thrillers with a science fiction twist. But Fuelin’ Around, Kelly’s second of the three books, is the page-turner for readers with an interest in drag racing and motorsports in general. It’s a memoir of sorts, with Kelly looking back on his path from a teenaged gearhead to an executive who traveled the world selling racing fuel to everyone from weekend warriors to legends like John Force. Kelly tells the history of VP’s rise to prominence alongside his own, describing the growing pains and achievements that both he and the company experienced along the way.
Earlier this year, Kelly spoke with Drag Illustrated to talk about his books, his future plans and his push to encourage racers to read not just his books, but more books in general.
You spent 28 years working as a regional manager for VP. Before that, you were a writer and photographer for magazines like SS&DI and Car Craft. Why did you get back to writing?
I’ve always had a passion for writing. I was doing it through college, did it for Super Stock & Drag Illustrated and some of the other magazines, but once I got the job first with DiGard working with [Darrell] Waltrip on the NASCAR circuit, then jumped in with Steve Burns at VP, there just wasn’t enough time in the day to focus on all the passions, between the work and the travel I was doing. Then as the family started to come along, there just weren’t enough hours in the day. So I really had to put that off to the side.
I did have the ability to quench my thirst for writing to a degree because VP was so small at the early stages that we didn’t have a marketing department. The managers drummed gas, drove trucks, wrote PR, worked trade shows, did everything and anything.
It wasn’t until after I had been at VP for close to 30 years that to a large degree the feeling I had was that we had built the engine, built the race car, built the track, built the series and it was doing its thing. I wasn’t getting tired of the challenges, I was getting tired of the road. What I had seen was my children, who had put up with my nonsense of always being gone and doing the things I was doing, they were now grown and starting to make babies of their own. My wife’s health was a little bit of an issue as well. That’s when I got a sense that it was time to get back into something else.
I always had a couple books in mind. I always wanted to write, I just didn’t have the time to focus on it full time. When I did decide to retire, I was able to sit down at the word processor. My wife was still working, none of the kids were home, and I started crafting the novels and things just followed suit. I’ve always liked to tell stories and tell jokes, so it was just natural that I started to come up with these stories.
How did you get into publishing novels?
The first one just flowed. I went through the whole process of going through queries. Writing a book and then getting an agent to pick it up and getting a mainstream publisher to pick it up is almost like trying to qualify for the Daytona 500. The problem is, instead of having 50 or 60 cars trying to make a 42-car field, there are a million writers trying to fill a hundred or a thousand slots.
After going through that process of writing query letters and all that nonsense, I decided to self-publish. That’s something that Amazon and some other companies have allowed writers to do. The first book came out, got great reviews and was very successful. I really wanted to tell the VP story. I had some of those pages written. I probably wrote about 100,000 words. That book got to be too big, so we trimmed it down, cut out some things that in hindsight I probably didn’t want to say. I put those pieces aside for maybe another novel down the road about racing.
What inspired you to write these military thrillers?
My dad had fought in World War II in Europe. So I had knowledge of that, then I had an uncle who was in charge of Andrews Air Force Base in the early ’60s. He got me down there with my brothers and sisters to see JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were there when Kennedy got off the plane coming back from Chicago when things were getting really hot and hairy, so that was exciting.
My cousin was killed in Vietnam. That just did something in our house. My father and my uncles always believed in what we had fought for in World War II. Vietnam was different, and once my cousin was killed, everyone’s demeanor and outlook on things changed.
So I always had an interest in the patriotism and the efforts that those guys put forth in World War II and subsequent wars. Then Band of Brothers came out with Steven Ambrose. I was always curious about Normandy. So when I did the Autosport show in Birmingham, England, one time, I just jumped on a plane and ran over to Paris and went up to Normandy and spent some days there. That’s when everything kind of fell together.
I’ve always been passionate about our armed forces, and I’ve always loved travel. It gave me an opportunity to tell a story, but it also gave me the opportunity to take readers to some places they might not ever get a chance to go to themselves. I enjoyed that.
You’ve written military thrillers and a nonfiction book about motorsports. Do you think you’ll get the chance to do a novel combining those two genres, maybe a motorsports thriller?
Oh yeah. I actually have about six chapters written. I don’t really know if it’s a novel that would sell. The problem is when you write a conventional novel that’s a thriller, let’s say, you’ve got a large audience. There’s a tremendous number of people that enjoy thrillers. When you insert it being a military thriller, that actually detracts from some of the readership because some people don’t like reading about war and killing and all that stuff. When you write about motorsports in mainstream, you get an even smaller audience.
What I’ve done with this project that I’ve got sitting on the side here is I think it would make a perfect Netflix series. It’s got the excitement of racing but it’s got a lot of backstory in it, a lot of sex, drugs and rock & roll. If you ever saw the movie that Netflix did about Motley Crüe, it would be like that with racing on the side.
I’ve tried writing screenplays and such before. It’s a little bit of a different animal, but it’s doable. I’m really focusing on turning that into something I would pitch to Netflix or Amazon or Hulu. The biggest problem is, just like trying to qualify for the 500, you need some connections. I don’t necessarily have a connection that gets me to the decision makers who might want to read that. That’s something that I strive for with these other books. I’m hoping to become more and more well known, and maybe someone who likes my work and hears that I’m doing this other project might put me in front of the right eyeballs. You just never know.
How has your experience in racing played into your career as an author?
The reality of it was the PR and marketing element of my career at VP was a very small part of it. There was so much other stuff, as I talked about in Fuelin’ Around. It did give me an opportunity to get to know a bunch of journalists and see how certain things work and see how PR flows and how it doesn’t flow and how companies that send out 6,000 press releases a month don’t get any picked up because they’re inundating guys like you with that type of material. It’s allowed me to get into some circles that I may not have gotten into before.
What I found in PR and journalism is there’s an awful lot of people who’ve always wanted to write a book but never got the time to or never knew how to do it or never took shot. That’s the one thing I’ve always enjoyed. I’ve always believed in taking a shot. If you want something you go for it. If you don’t, you’re going to be on the sidelines with one of those “Gee, I wish I had done this or done that” regrets. I don’t have any regrets from anything I’ve done.
It’s pretty rare to find books about drag racing. What would you say to the people who find your book, but might be on the fence about sitting down and reading it?
People always told me growing up that I should read more. What I found, which was very frustrating for me, is people spend much more time on their phones and their screens and they’re not reading books and things along that line. I would encourage folks to not necessarily just read my stuff, though I’d love it if they did, but there’s so much in reading and you can learn so much. You can learn about industry and personal growth and war stories and how to fight a good fight and history. I would just encourage people to read more.
Have you faced challenges in getting more people – especially in racing – to read more?
I asked a couple racetracks last year if they would carry my book in their gift shops. The Sprint Car Hall of Fame carries it. Some of the other tracks carry it. But one of the guys at a track where a lot of Drag Illustrated readers race at, I asked him to put a half-dozen books in his gift shop and see if people buy them. He said, “Racers don’t read.” I was kind of taken aback by that.
The response I had in racing to all my books has been very good, but I hear a lot of “I’ve seen your book, I’ve heard it’s really good, but I haven’t read a book since high school. So sorry, but…” So I would encourage people, if they have the time, to read more. Kindle is a great thing. Audible is a great thing for the racers who are going down the highway and can’t read because they’re driving. Get an Audible thing and listen to a book that way. It’s a tremendous world out there.