Long before he was the chief fabricator at American Honda’s race shop Tom Jobe was an American racing legend.
In the 1960s, Jobe and some pals became NHRA drag racing legends when their home-built dragster set the then so-cal hot rod elite teams on their collective ear. The dragster and team were christened “The Surfers” by their fans because they were Beach Boy-level clean cut and rode skate boards around NHRA events when not putting existing big-name teams on the trailer.
Jobe worked in many different series over the years, from cars to off-road trucks to Indy car and more. It was a major coup for American Honda to hire Jobe as Team Honda’s in-house fabricator. Jobe passed away last weekend after a brief illness.
Former American Honda executive Vice President Ray Blank said of Jobe: “One of the true unsung heroes of Team Honda, Tom was simply a genius. I’ll miss him badly.” In the very closed world of HRC in Japan, Jobe was known as “high advisor” by HRC technicians.
Jobe influenced an entire generation of mechanics and machinists at Honda.”I would say that my big three influences have been Byron Hines, Tom Jobe and Merlyn Plumlee” said former Superbike crewchief Al Ludington. “Meryln showed (me) how to run a team, how a team should work, Byron, although I did not have that much time working with him, showed how he made power. Tom Jobe showed me that the math is never wrong. That the numbers don’t lie. Tom was a guy who saw things much ‘bigger picture’ than guys usually do in racing. I’d bring him something I’d been working on for two days and he’d look at it and say, ‘why do all that when you could just do this?’ And he’d be right. He did that to all of us, all of the time.”
“I think that genius in design is simplicity. Jobe was one of those guys who made simple solutions to complex problems.”
While the old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is often repeated it wasn’t anything close to representative with Jobe. Throughout his life he spent an hour a day learning. Anything. Normally he picked topics that interested him or those he needed to be of more help in the shop. In the early 1990s it was computers, then electronics and after he retired it was digital photography. He did so by picking up a book or buying equipment and immersing his brain in the basics. Jobe went from now knowing how to turn on or operate a computer to being the guy who fixed and set up all the computers in the race shop. Then he went on to learning everything about electronics–he started by checking out books at the library and buying an oscilloscope–so that when the science of telemetry and data acquisition flowed into racing he was at the forefront of how it should work.
“I wish I took pictures of it,” current Honda MotoGP technician Yuji Kikuchi says of the dyno room at American Honda where he worked with Jobe for several years. “He built this absolutely beautiful engine cradle or jig that was a work of art and also so functional. It was so simple but nobody would have thought to do it that way. I learned a lot of little things from Tom and I use them every day in my job here in MotoGP. In my brain I can still see him, in his back machine shop, a tall guy with toothpick in his mouth and wearing his well-worn jeans, working on something. He had all the wise answers.”
Jobe was notorious for not suffering fools, at all. “If he liked you,” Ludington said, “then he’d help you. If not, well, then you’d stand in his little room with your problem and he’d intentionally read the newspaper until you went away. We used to say that if someone with kids lived next door to Tom Jobe and one of the kids wanted to go racing and–Tom liked the kid–then when that kid hit the track the other factories would be coming over to look at that kid’s bike that Tom built.”
If you went to the races for 20 years and don’t recall ever seeing Tom Jobe under the Honda tent, don’t feel left out. “He rarely came to the races,” Ludington explains. “He was well burned out on the travel by the 1970s and he was more a problem solving guy after the race. He did, however, come to some of the west coast races where he bought a fan pass at the gate, pulled his black cap on and just walked around with his camera. He’d go up to someone like Peter Doyle (Mat Mladin’s longtime crewchief) and ask, gee your bike is kind of missing in the middle of the corners–bad plug? And Doyle’d be like, no, that’s how the traction control works. Oh, there’s traction control in motorcycles? Then Doyle would tell this tall, older fan guy how their system worked. He was notorious for doing that stuff.”
“Tom Jobe was by far the smartest guy I ever met in my entire life,” says former Honda Race Manager Gary Mathers. “He had a wide variety of interests. He liked guns, cars, hot rods, bikes and he even went to the opera, he did photography and a million other things. He was by far the best fabricator I ever worked with. I’d actually go down after hours and sit and watch him work. He taught me a lot of things. He taught me to weld aluminum with a torch, how to TIG weld and a million other things. He could read broken parts like no other person I’ve ever seen. He would look at broken engine parts and he’d tell you why the part failed, not just what physically caused it but why the part failed in terms of what the engine was trying to do when it failed. It was amazing.”
Jobe helped Mathers build the infamous Honda Valkarie Gold Wing which Mathers rode on the street for many years. Jobe also helped Honda on some very difficult recall fixes both in motorcycles and cars. He retired from Honda in 2009 but remained as a consultant and was designing the special tools needed to service Honda cars.
Longtime American Honda employee Brian Uchida was one of Jobe’s closest friends. He tells a story: “In Japan once for a car race in the 1980s–before he started work at American Honda–an American’s car needed some welding and there was no heli-arc there so Tom gas welded the aluminum. Many shocked natives at the track witnessed this feat there for the first time because they didn’t think it possible. A day later, the factory Toyota needed some aluminum welded and they politely asked Tom if he could help. He did, again, with an even larger crowd watching. When the job was complete, Toyota offered to give him a tour of their facility and put him up for a few days in gratitude. He accepted. The murmurs around the Japanese pit was ‘White giant has magic flux’.
Current Yoshimura Suzuki Crewchief Davey Jones worked with Tom Jobe at Honda and says Jobe’s kind and patient mentor-ship was a terrific influence on his professional life. Jones says that as a young mechanic just having a man like Jobe work with you and teach how to do things right influenced him immeasurably. “Tom Jobe was far and away the best fabricator I have ever had the chance to be around,” Jones says. “I literally watched Tom take fuel tanks from completely unrecognizable, smashed flat, to the beauty of a brand new fuel tank, and if you have ever had the pleasure to work on a works level HRC RC-45 you know what I mean. I have seen him look at a piston and tell me within minutes what’s right and wrong with the design, and how to improve it. Have him look at parts that were damaged and would tell you from start to finish why it happened and what to do to fix it. The guy was truly amazing.”
Mathers recalls, “I asked him once what the heck do you wear when you go to the opera? Because you’re supposed to get dressed up for that, I think. Tom really only had t-shirts and jeans. He never wore anything else. He said that he’d wear his cleanest t-shirt and jeans to the opera. I laughed like hell when he told me that. That’s Tom!”
Sept 12 2019. Tom Jobe links:
The RS250 project by Dan Axton
Tom Jobe interview on Hot Rod magazine by Elana Scherr
Video interview with Tom Jobe on YouTube