The “Jake” skull is familiar to virtually all Corvette Racing fans, and to most Corvette enthusiasts in general, but very few people know how this now-iconic mascot came to be. That’s because over time, the origins of the skull imagery and the name “Jake” have grown nebulous, thanks in large part to a farrago of incorrect information readily available on the Internet. To set the record straight, we went directly to the people who created and named the symbol, and we herein present the true story behind one of the sports-car world’s most recognizable symbols.
Jake’s origins go back to a man named Jeff Beitzel and his company, Prototype Automotive Services (PAS), in Farmington Hills, Michigan. PAS was a specialty shop that built a number of limited-production, high-performance vehicles for GM, including the 1989 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am, the 1991 GMC Syclone, the 1992 GMC Sonoma GT, the 1992-93 GMC Typhoon, and various pace cars. Beitzel, a former Ford SVO engineer, was also involved with racing, and that led him to connect with Tom Goad, who rose through the ranks at GM to become Pontiac’s director of advanced engineering. In the mid-1980s Goad and his son Doug raced, among other things, Firebirds in IMSA’s Firestone Firehawk Endurance Championship.
Beitzel’s relationship with Goad, and Goad’s position with Pontiac, led Beitzel to also field Firebirds in IMSA’s showroom-stock Firehawk Championship. And it was at a Firehawk race, in either 1991 or ’92, that the seeds of the Jake concept were first sown. Gary Claudio, who was Pontiac Racing’s marketing manager at the time, and Tim McDonald, who was race strategist for Beitzel’s team, called Wheel to Wheel Racing, were both there, and each tells the same story, albeit with a few differences in the details.
Getting off the Lawn
Claudio’s best recollection is that it all began at Sebring, while McDonald thinks it was more likely Road America. Either way, the team, which was in the habit of partying as hard as they raced, was on the way back to their hotel from dinner, where more than a few adult beverages had been consumed. During the walk back, just for a laugh, they swiped someone’s lawn jockey statuette. The next day they took the pilfered ornament to the track, placed it in front of their paddock setup, dressed it up with some racing gear, and named it in honor of team owner Beitzel’s recently born son, Jake.
“We had a lot of laughs with that lawn jockey,” Claudio recalls, “ and the other teams also shared in it, with some trying their best to steal Jake when nobody was looking.”
“Taking it a step further,” McDonald remembers, “we applied for and got an IMSA credential for Jake, so from then on he had his own hard card! He also got his own Pontiac Racing jacket and hat. This went on for several years, until our adventure with Pontiac Racing ended in 1995.”
While the race team stopped competing, Beitzel’s company continued its relationship with GM, building many pace cars and other specialty vehicles for the automaker. That came to an abrupt end in 2008, when GM was on the threshold of its bankruptcy. GM’s financial woes led to Beitzel’s company going into foreclosure, and according to McDonald, when that happened all of the corporation’s assets, including its race transporter, were transferred to a buyer. McDonald believes that Jake the lawn jockey was in storage on that transporter, and that the well-traveled mascot was most likely disposed of by the new owners.
The Skeleton Crew
From here we travel back to the year 2000 and Gary Claudio, who had become the Chevy Motorsports marketing manager in 1997. Claudio was in discussions with Oakley to bring the sunglasses-and-apparel maker on as a Corvette Racing sponsor. Though the company didn’t end up sponsoring the team, its marketing arm did send a crate full of shoes for team members to wear, and a variation of the skull logo that Oakley used at the time was on each pair.
Coincidentally, Don Male, a Corvette crew member who drove one of the transporters and sometimes fueled the No. 4 Corvette during pit stops, was a devoted skull enthusiast. Male, who has a large flaming skull tattooed on his right arm and a smaller one on his left leg, was in the habit of placing small skull stickers and pins on the No. 4 Corvette. This proved unpopular with some Chevrolet officials, so it became something of a challenge for Male to hide the skulls or, at times, affix them to the car shortly before the green flag waved, allowing no time for them to be removed.
Predictably, Male liked the Oakley skull logo, and for a while he affixed stickers with the symbol to the C5-Rs. After that practice received unwelcome attention from the brass, Male laid low for a little while before changing his tactics. “One year at Le Mans,” recalls Male, “there was a vendor selling ‘No Fear’ stickers, and I bought every one he had. I cut off the ‘No Fear’ wording for each and had fifty-something skull stickers to put on the car, so those lasted a while.”
Claudio supported Male’s shenanigans with a wink and a nod, and in fact saw great value in officially adopting a skull logo as a team mascot. In an effort to stave off the copyright infringement issue inherent in using the Oakley and No Fear versions, Claudio drew his own skull using Corvette design elements for the eyes and nose. To get around opposition by some in GM’s management ranks, he gave it to Joe Wheeler, who handled Chevrolet-branded merchandise in Europe for GM. “My bosses at Chevrolet didn’t like the idea of a skull mascot, so I went directly to [Wheeler] to bypass the opposition at home and get it done, but he dropped the ball and didn’t do anything with it.”
Made in Manhattan
Now our story moves to Manhattan and a marketing meeting for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. In a bizarre twist of fate, the confab would ultimately breathe new life into Claudio’s efforts to create, and gain acceptance for, a skull mascot for the team. A small, sophisticated licensing agency called Kick Design, led by Eddie Jabbour, was doing work for Olympics sponsor Coca-Cola, and Jabbour was at the meeting. GM was also a sponsor of the games, and Gene Reamer, the head of licensing for GM, was there to represent the company. Reamer was impressed with Jabbour and asked if Kick Design would help Chevrolet with Corvette’s upcoming 50th-anniversary celebrations. More specifically, he was interested in having the hip firm reach a younger demographic on behalf of the sports car.
“That initiated our work for GM,” remembers Jabbour, “so to better understand Corvette’s history we took our first ‘info dive’ and went to the assembly plant in Bowling Green, and also talked to key designers at the GM Design Center in Warren, Michigan. In our conversations, the racing program never came up. It was two years later, in an April 2004 meeting, when Gene mentioned the Corvettes’ Le Mans wins.
“I was very surprised that in all our information gathering, we never heard about the Corvette Racing Team. I asked who the competition was, and Gene answered. ‘Ferrari, Porsche, Viper, and Saleen.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s incredible, and we must act on this!’ Two months later my business partner, Kathy Chow, and I were at Le Mans in the pits with the Corvette Racing, team doing our ‘Corvette Racing info dive.’”
Jabbour and Chow had never been to a race, so they saw everything at Le Mans with fresh eyes and no preconceived ideas. “Kick does a lot of branding for the fashion industry,” explains Jabbour, “so we are very aware of trends. While walking around the pits and paddock in Le Mans, we noticed several teams with skull-and-crossbones flags. In the Corvette garage, we noticed that someone—I subsequently learned it was Don Male—had put a small No Fear flaming-skull sticker on the B-pillar of the Number 64 Corvette. Curious, I asked and found that No Fear was not a sponsor, so whoever put it on the car obviously did it out of passion.”
The night after the Le Mans race, in which the Corvettes again finished First and Second in class, Jabbour and Kathy were at a café trying to digest the excitement of the experience they had just witnessed. “We were sitting there trying to process everything that we’d experienced by taking notes, and then I took my marker and scribbled the Corvette crossed-flags emblem on my cocktail napkin. Then, impulsively, I sketched a skull outline around that. It was just a scribble, but Kathy and I both immediately knew we had it.
“When we got home I rendered it, using the Terminator movie’s tech-skull as inspiration. Contrary to what some think, it was never intended to be a human skull, or satanic, or a biker skull. From the beginning, it was meant to be very high tech and intimidating. We took inspiration from others, gave it a high-tech look, and made it uniquely Corvette by combining it with the crossed flags.”
Over the Finish Line
While many at GM still wanted nothing to do with a skull logo, a small group of influential forward thinkers loved it. Among them was Gary Claudio, who had previously tried to get a skull mascot formally adopted as part of his never-ending efforts to build team spirit. Claudio fondly remembered all the good times with Wheel to Wheel Racing’s team mascot, and he immediately tagged Jabbour’s design with the name “Jake.” Then, along with Gene Reamer and Doug Fehan, Claudio went to battle to gain acceptance of the mascot within GM’s management ranks.
“I saw it as an effective way to build camaraderie among the team members,” Claudio tells us, “and a great way to communicate with our fans, especially younger ones. It was all part of the take-no-prisoners, badass personality we were adopting. Getting past the resistance by some at GM wasn’t easy, but we didn’t give up, and eventually, over a period of several years, support from the team and our fans overpowered the opposition. And to his credit, Tom Wallace, who was chief engineer for Corvette and then vehicle-line executive for performance cars, embraced Jake and helped move it into the production Corvettes.”
The Jake logo is now virtually ubiquitous in the Corvette universe, thanks to the cumulative efforts of a diverse team of professionals. The edgy, high-tech skull logo began with some alcohol-lubed team members pilfering a lawn jockey and was subsequently influenced by the birth of a Pontiac racing team owner’s son; a rebellious, skull-loving Corvette crew member; a Chevy Racing marketing manager unwilling to take no for an answer; a talented and tuned-in designer from Manhattan; and a few brave souls at Chevrolet who understood, and were willing to fight for, the concept.