Ralph Jackson and Sharkwerks “Porsche Psychosis: Gearheads & Mad Scientists” @ Gualala Arts Burnett Gallery
This past July, Gualala Arts in Northern California hosted a Porsche-themed exhibit, featuring not only a presentation of two cars but the Porsche photography collection of Ralph Jackson. In conjunction with these works, acclaimed local nature photographer, Gail Jackson, explored outside her usual subjects to create these car images at the request of her father-in-law, the Porsche enthusiast Mr Jackson himself.
Ralph Jackson’s devotion to the notion of speed and beauty came together in the exhibit titled Porsche Psychosis: gearheads & mad scientists. The exhibit included the history of local builder and driver Jackson and the team at Sharkwerks, the business built around the Porsche. Sharkwerks is owned by long-time Porsche enthusiast Alex Ross (Sharky) and mechanical wizard James Hendry, successful entrepreneurs Joan Wood & Daniel Kennedy, all of whom live, breathe, own and drive Porsches.
Ralph Jackson was born in 1946 in Long Beach California to an engineer father and a stay-at-home mother. By the time Ralph was ten years old he had an intense fascination with cars and competitive motorsports racing of all kinds-especially Formula One racing. Ralph’s favorite races during his childhood years were the famous endurance races in Europe including Targa Florio, which was held from 1955 to 1973 in the mountains of Sicily, and the Mille Miglia run annually in the Italian countryside, and also 24-hour French Le Mans race.
At the local drugstore Ralph would spend some of his yardwork earnings on a monthly-published racing catalog that listed all kinds of races with the details of the recorded times and place awards. Although more expensive than the usual car magazines, these catalogs were worth every penny to Ralph, who pored over them many times.
Ralph’s introduction to the Porsche world came through his stepfather, “General” George Varinella who owned a red Cabriolet 1600 Normal. The precision, speed and handling of this wonderful car captured Ralph’s attention, to be sure.
During Ralph’s high school years, he lived in Manhattan Beach, California. His walk home from school took him right by the Porsche car dealership owed by the famous Vasek Polak, where Ralph would linger awhile to look at what Vasek had on display and what was in his front car lot, including plenty of beautiful European sports cars, race cars, Porsches, and the most notable ex-factory Porsche RS 60 Spyder which was owned by Vasek himself. There were more race
cars in the back lot, often sitting in pieces or badly damaged from race. These were thrilling and dangerous times in the racing world where success depends on the capacity of the car and, most importantly, on the skill of the driver.
Noticing that the young Ralph was enthralled by the cars on his lot and that he visited the dealership almost ever school day, Vasek offered him a job doing chores around the lot. Thus, a hardworking Ralph eagerly tended to the cars on the lot and performed any work that Vasek needed. He worked for Vasek for two years, expanding his role over time. During his senior year in high school Ralph would sometimes skip school to assist Vasek at the Friday races. Ralph worked in the pits, maintained and serviced Vasek’s RS 60 and even had the chance to run hot laps to warm up cars before a qualifying run. These races took place at some of the historic racetracks of the era including Riverside International Raceway, Willow Springs and the SCCA ay bale races at places like Dodger Stadium and Santa Barbara.
Ralph experienced the challenges that a race team of that day had to face, such as the incident of a competitor pouring sugar into the gas tank of Vasek’s race car for the purpose of damaging the engine. Fortunately, so much sugar had been added to the tank that it simply clogged the fuel system instead of getting into the engine and ruining it. Another time, at a Dodger Stadium race, Vasek’s driver Jay Hills burned out a clutch driving the morning test run. Vasek’s race car had to be towed back to his shop in Manhattan Beach for a hasty clutch replacement. In a few short hours Hans, the mechanic replaced the clutch and Vasek’s team returned the car back to the track again just in time to win the afternoon race! Such emergencies were part of the sport-part of the thrill-of overcoming whatever challenges come one’s way while still winning races.
When fifteen-year-old Ralph first went to work for Vasek Polak, he was too young to own a car, but he soon became old enough and had earned enough money to buy his first Porsche-that red Cabriolet 1600 Normal owned by his stepfather. Ralph’s time working for Vasek saw him able to trade up to own four other Porsches-model year 1957, 1958 and 1959 356A’s, and a 1955 Speedster-five Porsches in all before the age of 18.
In 1964 Vasek moved his shop from Longfellow and Sepulveda Boulevard to a vacant shoe store in Hermosa Beach that was also on Sepulveda Boulevard. Because of this move, Ralph discovered that Vasek had numerous unique ex-factory race cars stashed in private garages all over the South Bay. It became Ralph’s favorite job to travel with Vasek to these hidden garages to round up the cars, giving Ralph the enviable task of driving these special race cars to Vasek’s new dealership location in Hermosa Beach. On one occasion they went to a garage that looked abandoned, grass was growing in the front of the garage door, making it difficult to get open. Once they managed to get inside Ralph was amazed to see a 1960 Abarth Carrera, one of twenty-three that had ever been built and this particular car was the 1962 Daytona class winner. Ralph actually got to drive this gem of a car just the way it had come off the racetrack-with open exhaust, all the way from Manhattan Beach to Vasek’s new Hermosa Beach location Via Sepulveda Boulevard.
In the 1970’s Ralph Jackson enlisted with the Air Force and after several years in Menorca, Spain he was stationed in Point Arena, California during the final months of his service. Once discharged he decided to stay on the North Coast and began working as a carpenter on some of the first houses built on The Sea Ranch. He later formed his own contracting business and collaborated on building a significant number of the prominent Sea Ranch Homes designed by some iconic Sea Ranch architects including Joe Esherick, Bill Turnbull, Carson Bowler and Don Jacobs.
In time Ralph begin acquiring Porsches again, starting with some early 911’s a 930 Turbo, and a 997S. Currently he owns three Porsches; a 2007 GT3 which is powered by Sharkwreks 4.1-liter engine, a 2008 775 HP Sharkwerks GT2 and a “Sharkified” 2018 Macan.
Ralph says he is much more a Porsche driver than a collector, appreciating and perfecting the performance of his cars. Now and then one may see Ralph in his official driving uniform: yellow hat, shorts and Zori’s—driving through the Mendocino Coast backroads a Porsche kind of “Surfer of The Asphalt.”