According to Packard’s widow, Betty Packard Voris, “Jim was a quiet and gentle soul, born in Hendersonville NC, who became infatuated with open-wheel cars while he was serving in the Army in Germany. Jim got out in 1955, and came to Indy and straight to Pop Dreyer’s garage, saying to him: ‘You are the best sprint car builder and owner in the country and I want to drive for you.’ He had never been in an open-wheel car in his life.“
She went on to explain that Packard “worked with Pop for almost the entire season as a helper, mechanic, welder and at Salem, the last race of the 1956 season, Pop gave him a helmet and told him to get in.” That started the meteoric, but the short career of Jim Packard (1956 to 1960), the open-wheel racer.
“The next year Jim bought his own midget and toured the midwest circuits,” she continued. “Then went to Florida and won in the winter meet – setting the qualifying record at one track. He drove the rest of 1957 and most of 1958 for Ed Lowther in ARDC.”
Packard got his first champ ride at the final 2 races of 1958. Tommy Hinnershitz was his champ car mechanic for 1959 and Buster Warke for 1960. “Jim was considered a spectacular dirt driver, always having a rooster tail from the back of the car as he rode the high rail.”
Over his career, he had won races in Florida (the Winter Midget Meet), ARDC, as well as several other eastern and midwestern circuits.
In the late 1970s, Packard’s widow claims that Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson tole her that Jim Packard was 1 of only 9 drivers that had won a USAC race in every division. There are many more now, but in those days it was uncommon.
Jim Packard was killed in a midget race on October 1, 1960, while sitting Third in the USAC Midget National point standings, and Fifth in the USAC National Sprint Car point standings.
He was killed at Fairfield, Illinois, in the only race USAC had ever raced there at that time. At the time of his death, he was one of the hottest “up and coming” open-wheel drivers around. In the weeks leading up to the race, he had won USAC races at Springfield and Allentown and led DuQuoin until he blew a tire on the 92nd lap.
Married only two years at the time, and pregnant with their son, Betty was forbidden to travel long distances by her doctor. The race was scheduled on her birthday, so Packard asked if she would be alright with a delayed celebration. It was agreed that the driver would go and race while his wife stayed home for her health.
Because he was focusing on the Sprint Cars and Champ Cars, Packard didn’t have a Midget ride for the season. The track promoters arranged a single race ride with Parnelli Jones, which would allow Packard to pilot Jones’ Midget at Fairfield.
According to Betty, “Parnelli was one of our very best friends, and Jim hated to take his ride, but he did agree.” Parnelli drove to the Packard house to pick up his new driver. “I have to make sure he takes good care of my race car,” he told Betty.
“The steering broke in qualifying, sending Jim over the fence and flipping until it hit a tree 1/4 mile outside the grandstand,” she explained. “Parnelli had to bring his bag back to me the next day.”
From The Ashes
Betty Packard’s story continued where her husband’s left off. Once her children were in grade school, Betty went back to college and finished her degree. Before long, familiar names were knocking on her door. “George Bignotti called and asked me to be the team office manager for
Mecom Racing, a team he had just been hired to put together and run at the 500,” she explained. “I worked around my school schedule – and the kids – sometimes as late as midnight. But I paid all their bills, kept all the books, kept the drivers in line, made appointments, ordered parts, entertained sponsors …”
Drivers for the Mecom Racing team included racing standouts Rodger Ward, Jackie Stewart, and Graham Hill. “Graham won the race [Indianapolis 500] that year. I am one of only a very few to have a 500 winner’s ring from 1966, something that Mecom had made for team members.”
Betty stayed with the team for the three years that John Mecom was the owner. Having worked with Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill, she was invited to be a part of the Lotus F1 team, working with Colin Chapman in the same capacity as she did with the Mecom team.
She went on to teach high school journalism, then became the editor of a national magazine. Betty married an Army Captain and traveled the world for the next 12 years. Upon his retirement, the couple bought a house and moved to San Francisco, California, where they live today.