Former kart racer JimmieYamane shows a photo from his victory at the 1959 International Grand Prix in Nassau, Bahamas. (Rafu Shimpo photos by GWEN MURANAKA)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor  

On Dec. 6, 1959 in Nassau, Bahamas, Jimmie Yamane streaked to the finish line of the 50-mile, inaugural International Grand Prix. Photos from that day show Yamane grinning, his face smudged with oil, wearing a helmet, leather jacket and thick gloves, behind the wheel of his racing kart.

The kart hit a top speed of about 90 miles per hour. An article from that time breathlessly recounted: “The hero of the day is Jimmie Yamane … His superb driving skill whipped him around the turns and straightaways.”

A headline proclaimed, “Jimmie Yamane, the King of Karts.”

“You keep driving until the race is over,” Yamane, 94, says with confidence, looking back on his career as a champion kart racer.

Today Yamane is retired, living a quiet life in Yorba Linda, but in his heyday, he reigned as one of the world’s best kart racers.

Kart racing began in Southern California in 1956, when Art Ingels, a mechanic for the Glendale-based Kurtis Craft Company, built the first kart and raced in public parking lots. The tiny, powerful speedsters instantly drew a following as an affordable, exciting entry into the sport of motor racing.

The sport continues to thrill a global audience, decades after its early beginning. Yamane is one of the sport’s true pioneers.

“Growing up, I was always interested in race cars,” he recalled in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo.

He would go with his brother Bobby to watch the racing. In the early days, on any weekend in Southern California, you could go to any place with a big parking lot and see these karts racing around.

“My older brother and I would go the race track in Hollywood every Thursday night and watch them race around this dirt track inside this stadium. I was always interested in cars, racing and motorcycles. They did this for fun and they would race around in parking lots,” he remembered.

The Nisei son of Kiku and George Yataro Yamane, a truck farmer in Pacoima, Yamane’s work on the farm meant that he was behind the wheel from a very young age.

Jimmie Yamane goes over photos and other memorabilia with his daughters, Marion Nishimura (left) and Joanne Ishii.

“I would drive the truck, drive the tractor, anything. We had a Model T, a bigger truck and a tractor that we used to drive around,” Yamane said. “All those years growing up and driving, I never had a driver’s license.”

During World War II, the family was incarcerated in Manzanar, where they lived in Block 8. Yamane drove a produce truck, picking up fruits and vegetables and delivering the produce to the mess halls. Yamane was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving in Germany and France after the war.

“Went into the Army, never had a license, but they let me drive because I was raised on a farm and I could drive the trucks,” he said.

After returning, Yamane settled in North Hollywood and married Kazie (Kazuko) Yamanouye in 1950. The couple had two daughters, Joanne and Marion, and Yamane found work as a lab technician for McCulloch Corp., a company that produced chainsaws, lawnmower and kart racing engines, parts and frames. Today McCulloch is known for its chainsaws, leaf blowers and other gardening machinery.

In the early days, McCulloch was a leader in kart racing, easily distinguished by its iconic canary yellow colors. The sport grew so popular that in 1961 Don Knotts, then starring on “The Andy Griffith Show,” became a McCulloch kart spokesman, donning a yellow helmet and zipping along a racetrack, claiming the checkered flag and even getting a kiss at the finish line.

The actual racer representing McCulloch, winning race after race, was Yamane.

Yamane raced for McCulloch at racetracks up and down California, and he also was invited several times to compete in Mexico – Mexico City, Monterrey and Tecate.

In Mexico City, he was awarded a heavy, three-foot-diameter sombrero and a trophy. In Monterrey, he received a bronze Aztec statue and two go-karts.

He proudly built his own kart, knowing the power and capabilities of his machine. Yamane also holds a patent for a thumb insert for bowling balls, called the “super snugger.”

At the 1959 International Grand Prix in Nassau, Yamane engineered his twin-engine kart to give himself an advantage over the other racers: he didn’t have to stop to refuel.

“I heard it was going to be over an hour race, so I figured I needed more gas,” Yamane said, showing a photo of his kart with fuel tanks in the front and back. “These engines spew out oil and after a while, you can’t drive with a shield anymore, so I just drove without any goggles or anything.”

“You keep driving until the race is over,” said the 94-year-old Jimmie Yamane, who also won races in Mexico (above, in Monterrey) and across California.

“My ears would be ringing until the next day because the engine is right behind your ears; it’s probably one of the reasons I’m partly deaf,” he said.

His young daughters would sometimes go to the races, but they never watched their dad in action. Kazie thought – understandably – that karts were too loud and dangerous, shielding her daughters.

“When we went to a race, we remember playing with our dolls and toys in the back of our station wagon, or playing with kids of the other kart drivers,” recalled Marion Nishimura. “Most of the time when our dad raced, we would spend Friday night and Saturday with our grandparents, which were treasured moments of good food and happy times. We were young at the time, so we don’t remember much about his racing.”

Yamane did most of his work on the kart at his dad’s home in North Hollywood. Although Marion and Joanne had no interest in driving the kart, over the years, he changed the frame to make it smaller so some of the male cousins could tool around in it. Yamane’s kart was initially stored at his father’s house and later moved, along with Yamane, to Yorba Linda.

Yamane’s karting career ended as the result of a serious accident, which eventually caused him to retire from the sport.

The kart remained in storage in Yorba Linda for decades, its winning days long passed, until last February.

Noted car collector Bruce Meyer, a co-founder of the Peterson Museum, purchased Yamane’s kart for his private collection of hotrods and other priceless automobiles. The kart was rebuilt and refurbished to its original condition by Tom Smith, and was transported to Meyer’s private collection in February 2020.

Located in Beverly Hills, Meyer’s impressive collection includes the 1962 Shelby Cobra, a 1935 Bugatti Type 57 and the Ferrari 250 GT coupe that came in first in its class at the 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The display of Yamane’s kart includes trophies and photos highlighting his accomplishments in racing as the first national and first world’s go-karting champion.

Yamane’s remarkable yellow kart has now found a place among these legendary vehicles of racing. In an amazing-but-true story that Yamane tells, this almost never came to be. In 1959, his kart nearly never came home from the Bahamas.

A wealthy Englishman tried to steal Yamane’s kart. After his victory, Yamane and his team stored the kart in a small shed as they waited to travel back home to Southern California. Local police were called to investigate after Yamane and his crew found that it was missing.

“Next day I went to get the kart and it was gone. We went to the police and they found that it was on his yacht. A rich guy tried to steal it … but I got the kart back.”

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