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J.B. Automotive’s owner designed an built really cool race cars!

Bonsey, MR. Bonsey!

ST. PETERSBURG — If most people drove past J.B.’s Automotive on Central Avenue across from Haslam’s Book Store without knowing about the shop or its owner, there’s probably a good reason for that.

Most people don’t drive cars made by Lamborghini, Ferrari or Rolls-Royce.

Nor do many people try their luck at amateur auto racing, a sport that poses physical and economic hardships without making anyone rich.

Yet between high-end car owners and racing aficionados, owner Jim Bonsey prospered. He designed and built open-wheel race cars of his own invention, 18 of which he sold.

At the time of his death last week, Mr. Bonsey was nearly finished with a new design — a poor man’s race car he planned to build himself at a fraction of the cost.

Now that future is uncertain. Mr. Bonsey, a quiet man who thirsted for speed, died Nov. 16, six days after he collapsed inside a Walgreens store. He was 57. The cause of death is unknown.

He opened J.B. Automotive in 1979 and quickly established himself as the high-end mechanic of choice. Clients included well-known race car driver Augie Pabst; ex-jewel thief and security expert George Feder; and musician Roger McGuinn, who co-founded the Byrds.

But Mr. Bonsey didn’t go into business to fix other people’s cars. He wanted to build cars, then push them to run faster than anyone else’s. If he wasn’t driving at Florida tracks from Key West to Daytona Beach, he was running full speed up Chimney Rock Mountain in North Carolina, needing just two minutes to get from the bottom of the mountain to the summit.

Or racing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, or Road America in Wisconsin.

After nearly every test run and nearly every race, he challenged his teammates with the same question: “Do we need to make it faster?”

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