I really wish you, the reader, had the opportunity to hear JJ’s words yourself. Of course you probably know who he is — the star of Discovery Channel’s Street Outlaws: Memphis series and noted ambassador for a very elemental style of street racing. But to hear him explain what he stands for… you find yourself starting to believe.
Formally known as Jonathan Day, JJ grew up just west of Memphis, on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River in the tiny town of Joiner. Like many successful racers in various formats of the sport, he was raised around racing …. just not at the track. Which, with racetracks like Memphis International Raceway and Speedy’s Newport Dragstrip located nearby, raises the question of, “Why?”
It’s not because he and his family didn’t enjoy being there or disagreed with what the track stands for. As JJ says, “I don’t have anything bad to say about a track. You know I go and watch, I go and eat corndogs and the funnel cakes. I’m a supporter — it takes a hundred different kinds, of different things, to make the world go around.” Rather it’s because, in his experience, the line between success and one’s access to money is less direct, on the street. “Me, personally, and my family, we’re not millionaires, and we could never buy the kind of things it takes, to go to a track and run that crazy-fast time,” he explains, “Versus on a street — there’s no time, on a street.”
I feel like, as a street racer, you have to have a relationship with your car. Because that car will get out there, and on each different street, it will do something different…
What you have, instead, on the street are a nearly innumerable host of dangers that are completely out of your control. As JJ says, “There’s a hundred different factors that can come into play when you’re street racing.” From dew in the evening to dust blown onto the track to people’s crew contaminating the starting line, or other elements that would quickly be addressed at a track are left to the racers, on a street, to assess and adjust to, if possible. In his words, “At a track, you got safety officials, you got track techs, you got everybody to make sure everything is perfect. Versus when you’re street racing, you don’t have anybody. If you don’t have good sense out there, you will die.”
Part of avoiding that outcome is an exceptional connection between car and driver. “I feel like, as a street racer, you have to have a relationship with your car,” JJ emphasizes. “Because that car will get out there, and on each different street, it will do something different —you and your car have to be as one.” An adept driver and attentive crew are certainly essential on such unpredictable surfaces, but one’s safety in the car, during the race, isn’t even the half of it.
By definition, illegal street races exist outside of the law, and there’s little disincentive to violence if a disagreement goes far enough. A bet gone wrong, or twisted the wrong way, and suddenly lives might be at stake. This is where JJ believes respect and leadership are most critical. “There’s nine million different people, with nine million different hustles — nine million ways to die,” he emphasizes, adding, “If you don’t have someone out there that’s got sense, and that can deal, and work the street ‘things’ out, it’s gonna’ cause a killing! Immediately!”
In these circumstances the integrity, loyalty, and mutuality of the group is paramount. Indeed, successful leadership in that environment requires the unconditional backing of his crew, to any end. Thus, what enables the Memphis crew to not only survive, but thrive, is something far from a casual connection. It comes from a bond that’s truly organic — family. It’s something JJ and the entire Memphis crew have been born into. “I didn’t start it,” he explains. “My uncles and grandfathers were street racers. It’s a heritage for us! This has been handed down over the years, that we’ve done.” And just like the most close-knit family, “We share everything, we’re for each other,” he says. Indeed, the values of honor, loyalty, and family — by blood or otherwise — are often repeated in any conversation about JJ’s group of street racers.
No amount of money could hire me to go and be with another group, or another city. I’d rather stay in Memphis, if I didn’t get paid a dollar. Just to do it for the love.
Take, for example, the group’s history with one of their cars — Heifer. JJ first acquired the ’66 Chevy II in his early 20’s, when he lived in Heafer, Arkansas. Yes, with an “A”, and pronounced “HAY-fer”. JJ laughs when he explains that, when creating the tag for the car, “Precious, misspells Heafer, and spells it ‘Heifer!’” Regardless, the car the world knows as Heifer has been critical to the early success of the JJ and crew.
“That was the first, actual, back-half chassis car that we had. We had never seen anything like that. It was the most modern technology that we had seen. I bought that car, and we dominated, my group did.” And now, having just recently bought it back, the car is a fixture for the Memphis street racing family. “We all work on it and just laugh, and say, ‘Maaaan… if this car could talk.’ ”
In his rulemaking as Boss of the Memphis streets, JJ preserves the racing heritage of his forefathers and friends. The rules are distinctly old-school: No flashlight or big LED bar, just the drop of his arms. No arguments over how early is too early for the tire to crack, just the simplicity of chase-is-a-race. “That’s the real street racing roots,” JJ emphasizes. “Back fifty years ago, when people street raced, do you think they had cameras to go back and see if you jumped one-thousandth of a second, or if you crack the tire? No they didn’t. We don’t want to win like that. If you think someone jumped, and it’s obvious, just set there. But if not, if two cars take off down the street, what are y’all doing? You’re racing.”
This way of street racing, while sacred in Memphis, was well outside of the limelight prior to Street Outlaws: Memphis. The street action available on television was dominated by flashlight or light-bar starts, multi-angle video reviews, and traction compound in the burnout. The elite drivers in a particular city or state raced against each other, rather than in support of one another. What JJ had to offer was certainly different — that much was abundantly clear with he and his crew’s appearances with Oklahoma City, on Discovery’s original Street Outlaws series.
Naturally, various media outfits saw an opportunity to capture and convey this energy. “I had several different people come at me, several different ways, wanting me to do this,” he reveals. Even when Pilgrim Media Group, the producer of the Street Outlaws franchise for Discovery Channel, first approached him about the prospect of a show featuring his family of Memphis street racers, he was skeptical. “The [executive] producer Sam [Korkis], he said, ‘Hey, what does it take, for you to do a show?’,” he recalls, “And I didn’t want any part of it.” But, as he is JJ DaBoss, he saw an opportunity to at least state the requirements and conditions for entertaining such an offer, and leave it to the producers to decide how bad they want it. “I told him, ‘If you’ll let me do it as real as I want to do it, and no one tells me what or how to do it , and if y’all want to take a camera and y’all follow us and see how we really do it in the real streets, then I’m game for it.’ And he said, ‘Let’s do it.’” And according to JJ, that’s truly how it’s been since.
My uncles and grandfathers were street racers. It’s a heritage for us! This has been handed down over the years, that we’ve done. We share everything, we’re for each other.
When asked whether, and the degree to which, the show has allowed him to race in places or against people he hadn’t been able to prior, he answered in the negative. “I had traveled all over the world street racing. The only difference is, it [the show] allows the world, to really see us, and not judge us or stereotype. It really allows the world to feel the danger.”
Indeed, the wider world is now able to experience and begin to understand the life that he leads. So for JJ, the true reward of his celebrity has been the newfound appreciation and respect, especially from children just getting excited about racing. “It gets hectic sometimes, because you have to put everyone else’s feelings in front of your own,” he admits. “But it’s the ultimate reward when you look at this little ol’ child, that’s eight or ten years old, and you see ‘em light up and smile when they see you. You know, it’s really worth the work and the discipline.”
Where those children will take the inspiration, only the future can tell. What the future holds for JJ DaBoss seems relatively clear, however.
“I guess if I’m lucky I got twenty years left,” he admits. “I just want to live it and be happy. Do something I love, and be around people that I love.” And as you should know by now, that means the family he’s built in Memphis: “No amount of money could hire me to go and be with another group, or another city. I’d rather stay in Memphis, if I didn’t get paid a dollar. Just to do it for the love.” So that’s the message, then: to love and be loved. And if street racing is the means by which JJ lives that message, then well, who’s to argue a man’s religion?