Baja Tough

imco Racing of Santee has built a reputation on off-road racers that don't bog down in the desert

By David Washburn - UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
November 15, 2005

It's 11:30 a.m. on a Monday, and Mike Julson is cruising at full throttle in a $175,000 race car over the ragged and jagged desert landscape near the border of San Diego and Imperial counties.

Some would call the 90-mile-per-hour ride, over bone-jarring jumps and through hairpin turns, a thrill-a-minute. Others would call it pure insanity.

To Julson, it's simply customer service.

His company, Jimco Racing of Santee, designed and built the car's chassis and suspension system. And the car's owner, Martin Christensen, needs it in tip-top shape for the Baja 1000, the world's premier off-road race, that starts its four-day run Thursday.

So Julson and Christensen, who owns All German Auto in Escondido, were spending a good part of the day doing test run after test run, tweaking the shocks and checking the gauges in a cockpit that looks like it belongs in something that takes flight.

"It's part of the deal when you buy a $150,000 car," said Julson. "And it's the part of the job I like best."

The top names in off-road manufacturing can be found within a stone's throw of each other in Santee. Among them are Fox Racing Shox, the top maker of shocks for off-road cars and motorcycles, and MasterCraft Racing Seats, another industry leader.

No company, however, can match Jimco's influence in recent years. Since 2000, the 11-employee business has been the world's largest fabricator of off-road race cars. It likely will gross more than $3 million this year, twice as much as last year.

Of 120 cars racing in the Baja 1000, 60 will be Jimco cars. And if recent history is any guide, Jimco cars will be well-represented among the top finishers.

In addition to building the cars, Julson has raced them for more than a quarter century, winning just about every off-road race during his career, including the Baja 1000 in 2002.

"San Diego County is the epicenter of the off-road community, and Mike is leading the charge," said Kurt Ickler, owner of Ickler Electric. His son Brian races a Jimco car.

Making more off-road race cars than anyone else in the world was not what Julson's father, Jim, had in mind 30 years ago when he founded Jimco in the garage at his home in El Cajon. All the elder Julson wanted to do then was build a car that wouldn't break down in a race.

"At the time I wasn't even thinking about extra money," said Jim Julson, who was a civilian engineer for the Navy for 22 years.

"I just started building cars, and people seemed to like them."

Within six months, Jim Julson had moved the company to a small shop in Santee. And by 1978, he had left his Navy job and was running the business full time.

The first several years were hard on the company. The national economy was in recession, which is always doubly difficult on industries that depend on disposable income. Plus, Jim Julson's talent for building race cars wasn't crossing over into the areas of sales and customer service.

"I am a terrible salesman," said the elder Julson.

Jimco's fortunes began to change in the early 1980s after Mike Julson asked his dad for a job. While the younger Julson was not as good with a wrench as his father, he enjoyed racing the cars and had a knack for dealing with people.

He was also motivated. Though only in his early 20s, Mike had a wife and two young kids to support.

So, with son running the front office and father staying in the garage, the 1980s turned out to be a period of steady but slow progress for the company.

"For a long time I just made a living, and not a very good one," said Mike Julson.

John Marking, who worked for Jimco from 1987 to 1992, said the company at that time felt more like a hobby shop than a business.

"It was a relaxed atmosphere," said Marking, who is now the vice president of the off-road division for Fox Racing Shox. "There was a lot of innovation."

In 1989, Jim Julson retired and moved to Sisters, Ore., leaving the entire operation to Mike. Two things happened during the next six years that turned Jimco from a well-regarded but small operation into one of the biggest names in off-road racing.

The first came during the 1993 Baja 1000. Julson's car had broken down in the middle of the race, and he was standing by the side of the road, when a car came barreling through the course. It had a look he had never seen before.

It had what is now known as an "A-arm suspension," meaning that the car's front suspension is angled in the shape of an "A," rather than a straight "beam" suspension. The difference is a far smoother, quicker ride and better cornering.

"I saw how well the race car was working, and said to myself, 'that is the future of off-road racing,'" Julson said.

Less than two years later, Jimco introduced its first A-arm car. And not only did Jimco become the first manufacturer to capitalize on the innovative design, but Julson won races with it.

Then in 1995, Julson won the Score Championship, which is the off-road equivalent of NASCAR's Winston Cup Championship. The company hasn't looked back since. Jimco chassis have been voted the industry's top chassis every year since 1995, and its cars have won races on three continents.

A key to Julson's success is that he was a driver before he was a manufacturer. He speaks the language of the racers and, in 30 years of racing, has likely encountered every problem that can be encountered in an eight to 17 hour off-road race.

On the day Julson test-drove Christensen's car, he also was showing a car to Jim Anderson, a racer who had flown in that morning from Reno. Anderson said the expense of the plane and the two-hour drive to the desert were worth it, if it meant dealing with Julson directly.

"Mike is so successful because he has a passion for the sport," said Anderson. "When you talk to him, you say to yourself 'I believe in this guy.'"

As Jimco has grown, off-road racing has gone through a transformation from an avocation for young gear heads to a sport for the very wealthy. No longer can someone enter a major off-road race with a $10,000 car and a crew of buddies.

Beyond spending $150,000 or more on the car, the average race team will spend $10,000 to prep the car for the race. An additional $10,000 will be spent on food and lodging for the team during race week.

To better accommodate the new breed of customer, Julson moved from the 5,500 square-foot facility he had operated in since the 1980s into a shop that is almost three times as big.

Among Jimco's best customers are Mark and Scott McMillin, owners of The Corky McMillin Companies, one of San Diego's largest home builders.

"He has put a little bit of Henry Ford into the business," said Mark McMillin.

People like the McMillins are used to getting a level of service that most fabricators aren't used to providing, Julson said.

Most of the people in the off-road business are not businessmen, Julson said. "They are fabricators. They don't understand that when a guy walks in the front door and has $150,000 in his pocket to spend on one of these things, he's not on a losing streak."