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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

'Chef to the Car Stars': When Jon Wheeler returns to San Jose for the San Jose Grand Prix, he's bringing his former local band, enough food to feed a racing army, and his friend Paul Newman.

Wheeler Dealer

The Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix of San Jose is gonna be a hell of a homecoming for San Jose expatriate and 'chef to the car stars' Jon Wheeler: racing, cooking and rock & roll reunions


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OSCAR-WINNING actor and race car driver Paul Newman pointed to the door of his hotel room and said to Jon Wheeler: "See that door? Anytime you want to come in here and talk about food or racing, go ahead."

They were in Hudson Valley, N.Y., and Wheeler was doing the catering for the set of Newman's movie Nobody's Fool. That was 1993, and Newman subsequently helped Wheeler get a job as a traveling chef for numerous race car teams. Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Wheeler grew up in Sunnyvale and Cupertino and played bass for numerous bands based in the South Bay. Now living in Sacramento, he will return to the area for the Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix of San Jose this weekend, where he'll run the hospitality tent for PKV Racing. As if that wasn't enough, he's also using the whole adventure to reunite one of his old bands, Sunday night at Britannia Arms downtown. It's rock & roll meets racing meets culinary delights. What a combination.

The Thrill Of the Race

Wheeler originally discovered racing at an early age. "As a little kid, you couldn't even get it on TV back then," he explains over the phone. "I'd read old magazines and stuff. In the mid-'60s, I'd started to enjoy it, and I went to my first race in '68 in Monterey, Calif., at Laguna Seca."

Wheeler, now sporting short-cropped silvery hair and a goatee, graduated from Monte Vista High School in Cupertino and then spent years working in restaurants before entering the Culinary Academy in San Francisco—all while following racing and playing in numerous rock bands. But not until his gig on the set of Nobody's Fool did he find a way to combine all his passions. Paul Newman was the conduit.

"As soon as I got that gig to go work up there, I said to my wife, 'I'm going to have to get a job in racing,'" he says. "That would be a perfect way to combine this thing and make money at it, you know. Make a living." So he cooked for Newman and the movie crew for a few months and the actor set him up with the right folks in the racing circuit.

"We worked for about three or four months together and became friends pretty much," Wheeler says. "He pretty much pointed me in the direction and arranged my first meeting to get a job, not with his team, but with one of his competitors."

The rest is history, and now Wheeler crisscrosses the globe cooking for race teams. As a result of all this, he's come to know more than his share of celebrities and can spin quite a few stories, such as cooking pasta pomodori for Mario Andretti or sneaking backstage at a Sex Pistols reunion show in Vancouver, solely because he knows the guys in Goldfinger, who opened up. And Billy Corrigan once offered him five bucks to run over someone in a golf cart.

He's constantly on the road, and the music is always with him. "Most of the years up until now, the last 11 or so, I'm gone 20 weeks a year, basically," he said, "one week at a time at some venues. The kitchens I've worked in, and then designed in the trailers, have just killer sound systems. Just for me. The rest of the guys have their own stuff—wireless microphones to do their victory speeches and stuff. But in the kitchen, it's a separate deal."

Bringing the Rock

Dating back to 1972, Wheeler has jammed with several types of bands, playing everything from Grateful Dead tunes to punk, from covers to originals. After seeing the Dead Boys and the Sex Pistols in the '70s, he formed a punk band called FUX with some friends and played at Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco and a few clubs in Berkeley. When asked what the scene was like back then, he said there was nowhere in San Jose to play. My, how times have changed. Now, to coincide with the Grand Prix, he's getting at least one of the bands back together to close out the weekend. At the suggestion of his wife, he might call them the Boners. Locals George Zils, Dave Willyoung and Don Chase will comprise the rest of the lineup.

Wheeler's friend Paul Newman, who turned 80 last January, still hasn't gotten the racing bug out of his system and will contribute to the Grand Prix events by taking part in a series of go-cart races with several Silicon Valley business leaders on Saturday. The Canary Fund CEO and Celebrity Challenge takes place at the northwest corner of Plaza de Cesar Chavez, and the money goes to charity. Each participant is kicking in $7,500. Newman still races at the competitive level and actually came close to setting a few records. He's trying the win the national championship in the amateur ranks of the Sports Car Club of America, and just one month ago he came within one second of the lap record at Lime Rock near his home in Connecticut.

But unlike Newman, most celebrities just race for fun. They don't compete in serious teams.

"When people get up to [celebrity level], they typically will buy a couple of cars and have a full mechanic on staff," Wheeler says. "They'll throw everything in a trailer and go rent the entire racetrack someday and just go drive around with their buddies. Just because they can. Typically you don't see them in active competition at any kind of level."

Straight Outta The Kitchen

And then there's the connection between music and cooking. Many have stipulated that composing a piece of music and cooking are the same thing. "So many people I know that work in kitchens or restaurants are musicians, or frustrated, or have been musicians," Wheeler says. "It's always been that way and I'm wondering if it's the same sort of connection you'll find in motor sports, too. Motor sports and rock & roll."

It's not a silly idea. When legendary avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveiros taught music back in the '60s, the first lesson she would give her composition students was how to cook Indian food. When the process of cooking comes to its close with a presentation on the table, the whole process is no different than composing a concerto.

Wheeler explained that it is also quite common for promoters to book races in conjunction with rock concerts. Maybe it's just the sheer volume and the intensity, I don't know. Call it poetry in motion—watching the cars race around a track over and over again before coming to a blazing conclusion. Italian motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi once even described racing as poetry, so maybe there is a connection.

"There's been some rock & roll connections through some of the drivers along the way, and people that are friends of the drivers," says Wheeler. "A lot of rock musicians will come to the races. I've talked to Billy Corrigan a few times. I've made it a point when I go to towns anywhere is to get the local metro paper to find out who's playing. First thing when I get there, I want to find out who's playing."

Circling San Jose

Last week, Wheeler and I waltzed down Almaden Boulevard, one of the main straightaways of the San Jose Grand Prix. The walls were just starting to be installed, and the roads were just beginning to get repaved. You could seriously visualize the cars, the noise, the sweat, the heat, the flames, the crowds and the rock & roll—all underneath the palm trees lining the center median of Almaden.

The race starts on Almaden, right in front of the Sobrato Building, proceeds toward Santa Clara Street and then shifts into what would normally be the southbound lane. Just before reaching Santa Clara Street, the cars take a hairpin U-turn and proceed south down what would normally be the northbound lane before turning left onto Park Avenue toward Plaza de Cesar Chavez. We stood right at the spot of the hairpin U-turn, and Wheeler said, "This is going to be a mess on the first lap."

But after the turn, the pedal hits the floor. "Right here you're going to see lots of small bits of rubber flying into the air as the cars accelerate. You'll just hear the tires trying to grab the road."

Wheeler also pointed out some of the complexities of designing a grand prix in the streets. For example, all the manhole covers have to be welded shut because the suction underneath the cars is such that it'll suck the manhole cover right out of the ground. And the barriers flanking the streets have to be constructed so nothing flies over them.

"You'll see small bits of car parts flying all over the place," he said, while waving his hands in the air to the rhythm of his speech. As we gazed out across the intersection of Almaden and Park Avenue, he continued: "This will be just like Australia," referencing the layout of the track in Queensland.

Anarchy for The Grand Prix

After spending years as a chef for race-car teams, Wheeler has a lot of stories to tell. He says he lent a Sex Pistols two-CD set to Italian driver Alex Zanardi and never got it back. Imitating an Italian accent, Wheeler quoted Zanardi: "I just love that stuff before the race."

Continuing down Almaden, we ran into famous driver Chris Kneifel who was standing on a median talking on his cell phone. Kneifel, who must have just flown in from the Edmonton Grand Prix the day beforehand, is also Champ Car director of circuits. He's the guy who makes sure everything comes together and the one who negotiates the penalties during the race.

Wheeler also says one of PKV Racing's owners, Kevin Kalkhoven, wants to make the San Jose Grand Prix the main star event of the whole Champ Car Series. Kalkhoven made his fortune as president, chief executive officer and chairman of Uniphase and started PKV Racing in 2003.

Quite the renaissance dude, Wheeler can wax poetic about several subjects besides cooking, racing and playing music. The majority of our lunchtime conversation at Britannia Arms was about bicycling and he'll carry on forever about one particular Bianchi that he has. He said he wants to put race-car mirrors on his bike. He also lamented that he hadn't yet gotten around to figuring out what he's actually going to cook for the race weekend.

"My wife was asking me that too," he said.

Despite it all, Wheeler will sling grub for a team that includes two of the most recognized drivers in open-wheel racing: Jimmy Vasser, who went to Live Oak High School, and Christiano da Matta, a guitar player from Brazil. Vasser also shares an ownership stake in the team, and da Matta is a huge Frank Zappa fan. Vasser won the 1996 Champ Car series title while da Matta won the 2002 championship.

Typically, the hospitality rig travels with the team to each race, although Wheeler has sat out much of the tour this year. But he couldn't resist coming back to San Jo to hook up with old friends. "We have a 53-foot semitrailer that's got a lounge, office, restrooms and a kitchen," he said. "And then probably 100 seats and tables and chairs underneath the tent. We will be entertaining more around 120 to 150 VIPs guests under that tent throughout the weekend—the owners, the drivers, their families, their friends and the sponsored guests."

And then there's the final rock & roll blowout afterward. Wheeler says he wants to bring the guitar player from his old punk band FUX. "We'll have to watch over him to make sure he doesn't get too drunk, though," he quipped.

The Grand Prix: A User's Guide

(Click here for a map of the Grand Prix.)

A good portion of downtown will be fenced off to the general public for the Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix of San Jose. There will be four gated entrances:

1) At Almaden Boulevard and Santa Clara Street right in front of the De Anza Hotel.
2) The east side of Plaza de Cesar Chavez, right in front of the Fairmont.
3) On San Carlos Street, right in front of the Center for the Performing Arts.
4) At the Champ Car Paddock, right where the Children's Discovery Museum meets the freeway.

Several grandstands, each with its own advantages, will be situated along certain parts of the track. On Balbach Street behind the convention center, you can sit and watch the cars come flying off Market Street and slow down in front of all the houses on that block. Or you can get a ticket for the grandstand right in front of the hairpin U-turn on Almaden Boulevard. All, in all, the most expensive ticket package is $150 for a three-day Gold Grandstand Pass, which includes a paddock pass and may even be sold out by the time you read this. That's a great deal. Hell, people pay more than $150 just to see the Eagles for a couple of hours. Downtown will be raging more than ever this weekend, so make sure you show up.

Parking and Transportation
- From South San Jose, catch the Light Rail to the Children's Discovery Museum Station, where one of the four Grand Prix gates is located.
- From North San Jose, take Light Rail to the Paseo de San Antonio Station. There is a Grand Prix gate located at Plaza de Cesar Chavez.
- The following bus lines will stop at the Grand Prix gate located at Santa Clara Street and Almaden Boulevard: Bus lines 23, 63, 64, 65, 81, 85, 180, 300 and 305 and the Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH).
- Use Caltrain from San Francisco and the peninsula, Morgan Hill or Gilroy. Use Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) trains from the Central Valley.
- Parking will be available in both public and private parking facilities. The parking rates for the city of San Jose will be as follows: $15 on Saturday and Sunday, $5 on Friday and Saturday evening, free on Sunday evening.

Street Closures
The following closures will take place from Thursday evening through early Monday morning.
- NB Market Street between William Street and San Salvador Street
- SB Market Street between William Street and San Fernando Street
- Both directions of Almaden Boulevard between Santa Clara Street and Reed Street
- San Fernando Street between Almaden Avenue and Delmas Avenue
- San Carlos Street between Market Street and Woz Way
- Park Avenue between Market Street and Woz Way

Tickets for the Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix of San Jose can be purchased through Ticketmaster (call: 408.998.TIXS or 510.625.TIXS or 415.421.TIXS). Ticket plans range from a single-day general admission price of $25 on Friday to $150 for a three-day Gold Grandstand seat which includes a paddock pass.

Race Weekend Schedule

FRIDAY JULY 29, 2005
6:00am Facility Open to Registered Participants
7:15am Facility Open to General Public
7:45 - 8:00am Touring Car Practice
8:15 - 8:45am Trans-Am Practice
9:00 - 9:30am Atlantic Practice
9:45 - 10:00am "Back Seat Driver" on Track Activities
10:15 - 11:30am CHAMP CAR PRACTICE
11:45am - 12:15pm Pace Car on Track Activities
11:45am - 12:15pm VIP Pit Walk-Thru
12:30 - 1:00pm Trans-Am Practice
1:15 - 1:45pm Atlantic Qualifying
1:45 - 2:15pm Trans-Am Drivers Autograph Session (Convention Center)
3:15 - 3:45pm Pace Car On-Track Activities
3:15 - 3:45pm VIP Pit Walk-Thru
4:00 - 4:30pm Trans-Am Qualifying
4:00pm CHAMP CAR All Driver Autograph Session (Convention Center)
4:45 - 5:05pm Drifting
5:20 - 5:50pm Touring Car Qualifying
6:05 - 6:35pm Historic Stock Car Practice

6:00am Facility Open to Registered Participants
7:15am Facility Open to General Public
7:45 - 8:15am "Back Seat Driver" on Track Activities
8:30 - 8:45am Trans-Am Final Practice
9:00 - 9:15am Atlantic Practice
9:30 - 9:45am Drifting
10:00 - 10:20am Pace Car on Track Activities
10:00 - 10:20am VIP Pit Walk Thru
10:30 - 11:30am CHAMP CAR PRACTICE
11:45am - 12:15pm Touring Car Qualifying
Noon - 12:45pm CHAMP CAR Fan Forum (Convention Center)
12:30 - 1:00pm Historic Stock Car Practice
1:15 - 1:45pm Atlantic Qualifying
3:15 - 3:45pm Pace Car on Track Activities
3:15 - 3:45pm VIP Pit Walk-Thru
4:00 - 5:15pm Cytomax Sport Drink 100 - Trans-Am Race (70 Laps or 75 Minutes)
5:30 - 6:00pm Touring Car Race
6:15 - 6:45pm Historic Stock Car Qualifying

SUNDAY JULY 31, 2005
5:30am Facility Open to Registered Participants
7:15am Facility Open to General Public
8:00 - 8:15am Atlantic Warm-Up
8:30 - 8:45am Historic Stock Car Warm Up
9:00 - 9:25am Pace Car On Track Activity
9:00 - 9:25am VIP Pit Walk Thru
9:25 - 9:50am "Back Seat Driver" on Track Activity
10:00 - 10:30am CHAMP CAR WARM UP
10:45 - 11:00am Historic Stock Car Race Benefiting Canary Fund
11:00am Grid Atlantic
11:15am - 12:05pm Atlantic Race (45 Laps or 50 Minutes)
12:15pm - 12:30pm Drifting
12:45 - 1:15pm Pace Car on Track Activity
12:45 - 1:15pm VIP Pit Walk Thru
4:00 - 4:30pm Historic Stock Car Race

The Works: Other Grand Prix events

Cinema San Pedro Outdoor Film Festival for the Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix of San Jose, San Pedro Square in Downtown San Jose, 7-10pm

PACIFICARE RIDE AND DRIVE 440 West Julian St., 8am-4pm

Reggae performance by Everton Blender and Wisdom-Time, Plaza de Cesar Chavez, 5-10pm

First Annual Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix of San Jose Fundraiser
The B-52's perform; there is also a Tommy Bahama Fashion Show featuring Champ Car drivers. Fairmont Hotel, 6-10pm. $500 per seat. Proceeds go toward early detection of cancer.

La Preciocsa Gran Fiest Hispana Performance by Jose Jose and Los Angeles Negros, Miller Stage in front of Convention Center on West San Carlos, 6:30-8pm, $5 or free with Grand Prix pass.

Miss San Jose Grand Prix Finale
Miller Stage located in front of Convention Center on West San Carlos, 5-7pm

Television Coverage
Champ Car race, Sunday, July 31: SPEED Channel, 1:30pm

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From the July 27-August 2, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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