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Single-handedly -- The man who built, and then rebuilt, a piece of Nebraska racing history

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The first time Jim Schuman built his No. 77 sprint car, it took him maybe 300 hours. But that was when he had two working hands.

They rolled the race car into his garage a few years ago, and Jim Schuman took stock.

It was incomplete. Chassis, rear end, front axle and hood. Some parts in boxes, some parts missing.

But what remained was familiar to Schuman.

Four decades ago, he’d used this same car to help inaugurate a new class of sprint car racing at the speedway near 27th and Superior streets. The sport had needed a resurrection at the time; Schuman had watched it peak in Lincoln in the late 1970s, but then crash and burn.

It was becoming an arms race, but not all owners could afford aluminum wheels and heads, fuel injectors, bigger stroker motors.

“Racers are so competitive. There was always somebody willing to spend more money,” Schuman said. “We thought we could make an economical sprint car class. You could buy the old parts for little or nothing.”

One night, over beers, he and his friends schemed up a set of rules that favored low-budget builds. Iron heads, steel wheels, 360-cubic-inch maximum motor size.

And it caught on. They started the 1981 season with a dozen so-called 360 Sprint cars, ended it with 25 and started the next season with 40. The Mecca of sprints — Knoxville, Iowa — added 360s to its lineup the year after that.

Schuman

In the early 1980s, Jim Schuman built the first low-budget 360 sprint car, and his friend Ed Bowes drove it.

“It ended up going nationwide. It’s one of the biggest classes of races in the country. But most people don’t know it kind of started by accident, and that it started in Lincoln.”

But before any of that could happen, Schuman needed a car to prove his point — that he could make an affordable sprint car using available, castoff parts. The very first 360.

He found an old roller in southern Minnesota, hauled it to his home in north Lincoln and built it with his own two hands.

And 40 years later — his long-lost No. 77 back in his garage — he rebuilt it with just his left hand.

* * *

The last time Schuman used his right hand, he signed his will from his hospital bed.

He was 40 in 1989. He’d just closed his racing shop — and had started the job of building the new museum at Speedway Motors — when the trouble surfaced.

His hand was opening and closing by itself.

He dismissed it as muscle cramps, maybe from running a surface grinder all day. But his girlfriend was a nurse, and she was concerned.

“She asked her doctor and her doctor said, ‘No. It sounds more serious. I need to look at him.’”

A neurologist diagnosed an arteriovenous malformation in his brain, a birth defect; the capillaries connecting his veins and arteries were knotted up like a nest and ripe for rupture, setting him up for a stroke.

The neurologist planned to operate that Friday afternoon, but Schuman — recently divorced and with custody of his son — wanted a will first, and insisted on waiting through the weekend to see an attorney.

He nearly made it, but the stroke caught up to him that Monday morning at his lawyer’s office.

“I stood up and my legs wouldn’t support me. I was conscious, I told them I had to sign my will before I leave. They brought the will for me to sign in the hospital.”

He woke from surgery with no use of his right side. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t read. He couldn’t know what lay ahead.

“They tell you it’s going to come back. But they can’t tell you how soon, or how much.”

* * *

In his basement art studio, Schuman is seated at a small desk, his right hand resting on his legs, his left clutching a narrow paint brush.

Almost every inch of the walls surrounding him is draped with his drawings, sketches and paintings. Race cars, mostly, but a couple of nudes, animals, pastoral scenes.

He stares at his canvas — a 15-inch-by-30-inch pane of glass that will sell at auction to benefit the Nebraska Corvette Association — and makes a few strokes.

Then he breathes, relaxes, stares again and makes a few more.

“To do a painting like this exhausts me more than a day of labor,” he said. “The level of concentration I need to do that is not a natural thing.”

Jim Schuman

After a stroke turned him into a left-hander, Jim Schuman didn't abandon his artwork.

Schuman grew up with one foot in the art world, the other on a race car’s gas pedal.

His mother, Gerry, was an artist. “And she started me drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. We sat around and drew in the evenings all the time.”

His father, Bill, raced cars. But his mother tried to keep her son off the track. “She didn’t want me racing. Dad said, ‘Let him try it; it will get it out of his system.’”

His father sold his own stock cars to buy Schuman a 2.5-horsepower quarter midget to race around near 14th Street and Cornhusker Highway. And as an 11-year-old, he was named Lincoln’s 1958 quarter midget champion. He went on to race motorcycles, stocks and, occasionally, sprint cars.

He started building cars for others, opening Blue Engineering near 17th and O streets in 1975.

“Everything that came out of that shop was a work of art,” said Ed Bowes, who raced Schuman’s cars after his friend retired from the driver’s seat. “Sometimes he’d make the thing so pretty, I didn’t feel right about driving the thing. I worried I was going to hurt it.”

In 1988, Schuman built a record-setting car for Bonneville Salt Flats legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. And two decades later, he was inducted into the Nebraska Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Racing had won out, though he’d never abandoned his art. He’d pursued it in college after serving a year in Vietnam but dropped out. He was already trying to juggle a full-time job at the phone company and his racing career, he said, and something had to give.

Jim Schuman

When Jim Schuman was 11, he won the city's quarter midget championship. And that was just the start of his racing career.

He painted and lettered his own cars, and then others. He filled his studio walls with his drawings. Before his stroke, he enrolled in a college art class.

One of the assignments: Go home and sketch something with your off hand.

Schuman wasn’t naturally ambidextrous, but years of working on cars — wrenching and welding and pinstriping and painting — had given him control over his left hand.

The instructor was skeptical. “When I turned it in, the professor didn’t believe me. He had me draw it again in class.”

So he sat down and, with his teacher watching, redrew a picture of his perfectly good right hand, using his left.

* * *

His therapists at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital told him he’d need to find a new profession, encouraged him to collect disability.

Before the stroke, he’d just started working for Bill Smith, building what is now the 150,000-square-foot museum at Speedway Motors. He started from scratch.

“When he hired me, it was just a pile of motors on pallets in the warehouse.”

After the stroke, Smith was good to him, Schuman said. He would let Schuman work when he wanted, where he wanted — building the museum at Speedway, or building its motors in his garage.

“He said, ‘I hired you for your knowledge, not your skills. You’ve got a job at Speedway for life.’”

Schuman appreciated the time and the flexibility. He needed it. He was starting over.

“It was a challenge. You don’t remember learning how to walk, but I do. You don’t remember learning how to talk, but I do.”

Everything was new, different — and more difficult from what it had been. He’d try to read, but his eyes raced ahead of his brain. “It was gobbledygook. My brain was trying to comprehend each word.”

Bowes had worried about his friend at first. But then he didn’t.

“He’s human. When he lost the use of his arm, of course it was a big blow to him. He knew he couldn’t do a lot of the things he had done before. But watching him train his left hand to do what his right had done was fun.”

Klara Schuman, his girlfriend and future wife, watched Schuman try to make sense of physical therapy sessions designed for men twice his age.

“Most people would have given up,” she said.

Jim Schuman

With one hand and 35 types of wood, Jim Schuman built Lincoln's skyline on the wall behind his hot tub.

But Schuman didn’t. Instead, he grew tired of waiting for his right hand to refire and started learning with his left. He’d leave Madonna under the guise of getting lunch with his father so he could see yet another therapist, and squeeze in even more rehabilitation. He made annual, weeklong visits to a stroke-recovery specialist in Wisconsin.

Schuman retaught himself the tasks two-handed people take for granted. Opening a twist-top. Tying his shoes. Tightening a nut and bolt.

“Or just zipping your pants. It’s not like anybody’s going to help you do that. Oftentimes, it takes me longer to figure out how to do a job than to do it.”

Still, he developed a series of tricks and hacks to get through his day. A rubber-padded table vise for jars and bottles. Duct tape, Vise Grips and clamps to thread a bolt through an unseen nut. Leaning against a wall to tug a zipper.

But just getting through his day wasn’t enough. He wanted some semblance of his old life. He modified a motorcycle to all left-handed controls — both brakes, clutch, throttle and shifter — and nearly crashed it on his inaugural ride through his neighborhood.

More importantly, he continued creating. Building cars, picking his paintbrushes back up. He learned his brain — not his hand — was the tallest hurdle, and he taught himself how to clear it.

* * *

Ed Bowes was driving down West O a few years ago when he saw a familiar figure in a roadside field.

“I just knew the shape of it and how it was built. It was a bare frame, but I spent enough time in the car that I knew what it looked like.”

He stopped, talked to the owner and, after paying $1,100, reunited with the first 360. Here was the prototype Schuman built to launch a new class of sprints, the car Bowes raced in 1981 and 1982 before his friend built a second.

“It was all apart. We rummaged around. The parts were in three or four buildings out there.”

Bowes hauled it home and started the rebuilding process, sanding and powder-coating the frame. But then it all ended up in Schuman’s garage.

“It had been used pretty hard. It was tired; let’s put it that way. It took a lot of restoration. We welded up broken stuff and kind of got it pretty much back together.”

Schuman

The first step of sprint car restoration? Take it down to the frame.

But not right away. The car sat in Schuman’s garage — a project in need of progress — for several years, until the COVID-19 lockdown. Schuman took the virus seriously because of his preexisting conditions.

For more than a year, he didn’t go anywhere, except to his garage.

He estimated he started with about a fourth of his original car, and he had to toss even more parts too worn to save. But he disassembled what remained, cleaned and polished it all, and started the rebuilding process.

He had to make it perfect, because it’s eventually headed to Speedway’s museum.

He fabricated some components — like the kick-up bars and bumpers — himself. He scoured the country for others. And that was hard, in part due to the pandemic, but also because he was looking for parts from the 1950s and 1960s.

“Those parts were already old when we started, so finding them now was tough, and trying to find them during COVID was twice as tough.”

But he slowly gathered what he needed: rotors from New Mexico, pitman arms from Illinois, hubs from Pennsylvania, the fuel tank from Tulsa.

His friend and former driver, Bowes, drove down to Oklahoma to pick that up. He also helped with the two-handed TIG welding. But beyond that, he just watched Schuman coax the old car back to life.

“When he had both arms, it was just absolutely incredible,” Bowes said. “But what he’s doing with one hand is beyond belief.”

The first time Schuman built this car, he had it ready to race after about 300 hours. His recent one-handed build took more than 1,200, he estimated.

Jim Schuman

Coming Sunday: Longtime Lincoln racer Jim Schuman had just been hired to build the Speedway Motors museum when a stroke stole the use of his right hand. But that didn’t slow him down.

He’s used to that now. Everything takes more time. Before he lost the use of his right hand, he’d spend a day or two on a painting. Now, he holds the brushes for up to 100 hours to get it right.

But he still gets it right. “I’d say, almost everything I do, I do better than what I did right-handed. Before, I just did it. Now, left-handed, I have to think about it.”

Toward the end of summer, after he finished the sprint car in his garage, it was time to see it in the sunlight. With his left hand, he started moving all of the obstacles between the car and the garage door — the floor jacks, a small work table, a chair.

His wife Klara had to help steer while Schuman shoved, his right arm dangling.

But once it rolled onto the driveway, he stepped back. He liked what he saw.

That’s pretty good, he said to himself.

He took another moment to take it all in. The baby-blue and white paint, delicate pinstriping and lettering, his own history resurrected, single-handedly.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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