Racine Joe Traded Racing cars for Racing Parts

This Roadster with a Rajo conversion goes across the country.
This Roadster with a Rajo conversion goes across the country.

Joseph W. Haas is restoring a ‘51 Chevy with vintage Rajo speed equipment. The car is special to him; his grandfather was Joseph W. Jagersberger, an early racing driver from Racine, Wis. who competed against Louis Chevrolet. Friends called him ‘Racine Joe’—or ‘Rajo’ for short.

Jagersberger was born Feb. 14, 1884 in Vienna, Austria. He went to high school and junior college before becoming an apprentice at Mercedes. Jagersberger worked as an automobile demonstrator and public relations man. He began racing in France in 1897. In 1903, John J. Astor (wealthiest man to go down on the Titanic) brought Jagersberger to the United States. He built one of the first racecars in this country for Astor. Later, he did the same for Harry Harkness of Standard Oil Co. and for copper baron named McCoy.

On June 19, 1904, Jagersberger competed in a timed race from Boston to New York City. In 1911, he joined J.I. Case Co. in Racine. In addition to working on Case passenger cars, he built four racing cars. One ran in the first Indy 500, but didn’t finish. Jagersberger lost a leg in a serious racing accident in South Carolina in 1911, but remained a car enthusiast. In 1914, he formed Rajo Mfg. Co. Rajo’s first products included spark plugs, a water pump and an oil level gauge for Model T Fords. The company also made racing  parts.

Case racing cars were huge machines.
Case racing cars were huge machines.

In 1918, Jagersberger manufactured and marketed the first Rajo cylinder head that converted a flathead engine into an overhead valve power plant. This led to engineering and consulting work for numerous people. The company’s Los Angeles salesman, Dewey Gatson, helped popularize the heads. Wisconsin native Harry Miller, who was building racing cars in Los Angeles then, was a customer.

Gatson was known as Rajo Jack and as Jack DeSoto. He was one of the first African American racing car drivers in America. He raced on the West Coast in stock cars, midgets, big cars and motorcycles. Gatson entered the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame in 2003 and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2007

Gatson souped up his own Model Ts with Rajo heads. In the early 1930s,  Jagersberger named Gatson his Los Angeles dealer and salesman and “Rajo Jack” was born. Gatson raced in many venues and used many different engines.

During the 1930s and 1940s, there was an intense rivalry between cars with Rajo power and the Frontenacs that the Chevrolet brothers developed. Then, World War II came along. Racing was suspended and Rajo made parts for tractors, tanks and war goods built by Caterpillar, Cadillac and U.S. Rubber Co.

Members of the Case Racing Team.
Members of the Case Racing Team.

In 1949, Jagersberger designed a compound induction cylinder head for the 1941-1952 Chevrolet 216-cid in-line six. His modification to the famous Stivebolt six’s 15-bolt overhead valve cylinder head added another set of three intake ports above the three originals. This change permitted the addition of an multiple carburetion utilizing a separate intake manifold.

In total, Jagersberger made overhead-valve cylinder heads for around 4,000 Chevrolets and Fords before he passed away on Oct. 5, 1952.  His company survived in Racine until 1980. On June 2, 2007, Racine Joe was inducted into the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in Knoxsville, Iowa.

Two Rajo-equipped Ford engines powered this monster.
Two Rajo-equipped Ford engines powered this monster.
About John Gunnell 141 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.

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