By Holly Cain
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - For decades, Jim Pace has been one of racing’s most appreciated personalities and respected wheelmen. The Mississippi native was generous in offering an encouraging smile; long considered one of sports car racing’s most approachable "good guys" in the paddock and equally well-respected for his huge talent on track.
On Nov. 13 – on the eve of the 2020 running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts – word came that Pace, 59, had died of COVID-19 complications. The heartbreak – felt from trackside to paddock, grandstands to pit lane – was evident at Sebring last weekend, a place where Pace earned two of his most celebrated victories and where a moment of silence was held in his memory prior to Saturday’s race.
Lyn St. James, a longtime racing icon, recalled time spent with Pace over the years as she was being inducted into the Sebring Hall of Fame during the race weekend.
"Jim was just a larger-than-life personality, very kind and smart,” St. James said. "Being here at Sebring and inducted into the Hall of Fame here today, I can’t equate it in my head. He was young and he was vital. I don’t understand it. It’s a huge loss, not just to the racing community.
"He was just a super, super guy, one of life’s people that makes things happen.”
Pace indeed spent many days and years at the venerable track in Central Florida – racing and winning himself and also teaching the craft to scores of aspiring drivers. In a career that spanned four decades, he was as beloved by those he taught as by those he raced against – no small feat in and of itself.
Initially, Pace had planned to become a doctor and even completed three years of medical school in his native Mississippi. But his fondness for racing and natural ability behind the wheel of a race car compelled him to fast track another career.
Pace started racing professionally in the Barber Saab Pro Series, then made his way into the IMSA ranks, where he very quickly established himself as a very fast and very smart driver. That 1990 GTU class win at Sebring came only two years after he started racing professionally.
He added to that high-profile sports car win, earning the 1996 Rolex 24 At Daytona crown and the overall win in the Twelve Hours of Sebring co-driving with Wayne Taylor and Scott Sharp. He later followed that up with Rolex 24 class podium finishes in 2003 and 2007.
"It’s very, very sad news,” Taylor said on his Wayne Taylor Racing team’s Facebook page this weekend. "Hard to believe.
"Jim and I drove together and won at Daytona and Sebring in 1996. My condolences to his family. I always said he was one of the nicest people and one of the best teammates I ever had.”
Taylor’s sons Jordan, 29, and Ricky, 31, worked with Pace, who served as their mentor and driver coach as they made their own way up the racing ranks. In fact, the Taylor brothers followed in their father and Pace’s footsteps in 2017, when they became the first set of co-drivers to earn overall victories in the Rolex 24 and Twelve Hours of Sebring in the same year since Pace, Taylor and Sharp did it 21 years earlier.
Ricky Taylor claimed the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Daytona Prototype international (DPi) championship Saturday at Sebring and was quick to pay tribute to Pace in his post-race comments. Jordan Taylor, meanwhile, now drives for Corvette Racing in the WeatherTech Championship, claiming the GT Le Mans (GTLM) title this season.
"Jim was a big part of our family,” Jordan Taylor said. "Not only did he have a big impact on my dad by teaming up and winning the Rolex 24 together, but he also coached Ricky and I through our Skip Barber careers. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
"Not only was he an amazing coach and driver, but an amazing human. He touched so many lives at the racetrack. We’re all going to miss seeing him at the races.”
IMSA President John Doonan knew Pace for most of his career.
"Racer, teacher and loyal friend, these are the simple words to describe Jim Pace and the loss our sport feels today due to his passing,” Doonan said upon hearing the news.
"When it comes to racing and driving, Jim did it all and saw it all. From a beginner to a champion. … Jim counseled drivers on the path to the top after he himself rode that same journey. All of us at IMSA are devastated by losing such a great champion and friend.”
In recent years, Pace continued to mentor young drivers and went on to be very active in historic racing, taking an ownership role in the Historic Sportscar Racing series. And he was president and chief operating officer of the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival.
"We are saddened and heartbroken by the untimely loss of Jim Pace to COVID-19,” said Byron Defoor, founder of the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival.
"Jim was my dear friend and racing partner with the Fifty Plus Racing Foundation that helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Alzheimer’s research. Jim was the president and chief operating officer of our most recent fundraising event, the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival. Not only was he an outstanding race car driver, he was one of the nicest, most gracious gentlemen in the sport and car collector world.”
Pace’s partner and president at the Historic Sportscar Racing series, David Hinton echoed what much of the racing world felt upon hearing the stunning news of Pace’s passing.
"The HSR family is shocked and deeply saddened by Jim Pace’s passing yesterday afternoon,” Hinton said over the weekend. "Jim to me was the ultimate gentleman who had time for everyone he came across in his life. He made us all better people for knowing him.
"He has helped make HSR a better place to race and be involved in with his knowledge and input over the last five years. The outpouring we have received from around the world tells a lot about the respect and love people held for J.P. Everyone from Formula One drivers to ex-Skip Barber school students he taught over the years have all echoed the same message.”
Pace’s personal Facebook page has been flooded by tributes – from people that have known him for decades to young, aspiring drivers he recently helped.
For as accomplished as Pace was inside a race car, he will also be warmly remembered for his presence outside a race car – for his ever-present smile, for his warm nature and for his unique ability to teach and to care.
"Obviously, there’s his history with my dad,” Ricky Taylor said. "Our very first racing schools at Sebring and all through the beginning of my career he was around and helping. The sad thing for me is, I don’t think he ever realized how much he meant to us. He was such a good person and made everyone feel good at the track. He had such an impact.
"It sounds simple but being a nice race car driver that accomplished so much and gave back to the other drivers meant so much. He was always there for questions and he had great humility.
"He helped so many other people share in his love for racing.”
And what a legacy that is.