Most of you are familiar with the Jim Russell of racing school fame, but there was also another man of the same name. The Jim Russell of this tale was a business consultant in Los Angeles in the very early 1960’s. Needing to pass some time one weekend, a friend introduced him to a new hobby of racing scale cars, powered by electric motors, around a track. It was the then new activity to be known as model car racing.
Jim took to the idea of model car racing and built his own track in his den. The result of an accidental varnish spill over one of his scale car bodies resulted in the idea of producing a coating to protect these scale racers from scratches that resulted when intense racing was done. He called the product “Russ-Coat” and started marketing it in 1963.
The success of this product and his interest in the hobby lead to the creation and marketing of other products related to the now booming model car racing hobby. His timing was impeccable. By 1963 the Wall Street Journal reported that the model car racing market was worth $100 million dollars. By 1965 there were more commercial venues to go and race model cars than there were bowling alleys in the United States.
Jim managed his company like an auto manufacturer. He sold a range of products from individual parts to complete cars. He had a race team comprised of four members: Mike Morrisey, who was the “Captain”, Rick Durkee, Ron Quintana and Len Vucci. Like a full scale race team, they would travel across the country and compete against other hobbyists as a means of promoting products made by RussKit. Jim’s membership in an exclusive club, MESAC (Miniature Electric Scale Automobile Club), that was located in a building in Inglewood California, gave him a proving ground as well as the perfect setting to take photos to market his cars.
The products RussKit offered spanned a wide spectrum. Along with the motors, bodies and chassis components were real scale wire wheels and an LP of sounds and interviews from Laguna Seca in 1966.
RussKit’s financial success gave Jim the ability to sponsor full scale racing cars. One of the first was an “unofficial” Porsche team comprised of two Carrera 6 racers driven by Ken Miles and “Scooter” Patrick, which won the CSPRRC and was shown on the cover of the Laguna Seca album. He also sponsored a Lola T-70 driven by Ronnie Bucknum (this car is now owned and raced by AC/DC rocker Brian Johnson restored in the RussKit colours and livery). But these cars, while special, would pale when compared to Jim’s next purchase.
While attending a race in California, Jim had a conversation with Carroll Shelby. The subject of obsolete racing cars was discussed and Mr. Shelby mentioned that he was putting his cars on the market for sale. Jim agreed to purchase one of these cars for $4,500. A Cobra Daytona Coupe, CSX2287, the first one built by Shelby and the only one built in the U.S.
Jim intended to use the car as a promotional tool for his company, which he did. He also made some minor modifications to allow him to use the car on the street, and even drove it to work. The car attracted a ton of attention from neighbors and pedestrians, largely drawn by the sound of the race-spec V8.
Then the demand for the products of RussKit and all manufacturers of slot cars and slot car products went into a steep decline. In 1967 Jim sold the Cobra Daytona to music producer Phil Spector. Mr. Spector reportedly paid $12,500 for the car. Jim thought that he did very well on the deal, which on a percentage basis, he did. For a time, the car seemed to have vanished and then went on to have a very interesting few years with it being “found” in 2001 and ultimately landing in the possession of Dr. Fred Simeone who currently has it in his museum on display.
With the demise of the model car racing hobby, Jim was forced to close RussKit in 1969. He was then hired by Aurora Plastics and worked for them for many years where he was responsible for the AFX line of HO scale model racing cars.
Jim passed away in 2010 but he did get to experience the recent renewed interest in model car racing and the well-deserved appreciation and recognition of the RussKit products he developed and marketed. He was an automotive enthusiast of full size cars and ones made to scale, a loving husband and father and by all accounts a true gentleman.