Pitt Magazine

What makes a career go?

By
A man wearing a hat and glasses leans against a wall.

 

On a trip to the local library with his mother, 5-year-old KJ Jones wanders into the towering stacks to find a book on his favorite topic — cars. He’s been fascinated by the machines since before he could even utter the word. Soon, he finds just what he’s looking for: “What Makes a Car Go?” by Scott Corbett, a surprisingly detailed breakdown of how cars work, from brakes and battery to transmission and tailpipe.

The book, published in 1963, is long out of print, but thanks to eBay, Jones located a copy, which he keeps on the desk of his home office in Los Angeles to remind him of how it all began.

Today, Jones is a senior editor at HOT ROD, a quintessential muscle car magazine owned by the Motor Trend Group. Jones, who has worked at various MotorTrend imprints for more than 20 years, is a revered company pioneer, serving as its first African American staff editor.

He credits that old library book and the lessons he learned as a student at the University of Pittsburgh with helping him to lay the foundation for that success.

“You come from greatness at the University of Pittsburgh,” he says.

Jones (A&S ’85) grew up in Elmsford, New York, where he developed an affinity for muscle cars and go-karts. He wanted to earn a degree in engineering so he could roll that passion for mechanics into a career of designing high-performance engines. But, he says, his math scores weren’t quite up to par for any of the engineering programs he applied to, including Pitt’s. During a dreary afternoon visit to Oakland, an admissions counselor suggested he join the University anyway, ace his first-year math classes and reapply to the engineering school.

That was Jones’ plan when he arrived on Pitt’s campus in the fall of 1981, but it soon got derailed by a new, unexpected obsession — the campus radio station.

Jones signed up for airtime on WPGH because he liked radio and needed an activity, but he was immediately frustrated by the AM station’s broadcasting limitations. “You had to stand on your head on the south side of Towers to hear it,” he jokes.

So, he joined the yearslong effort to create an FM station. Thanks to a series of summer internships at major-market radio stations, when WPTS finally launched in 1984, his peers chose him as the inaugural station manager, a position he held until graduating from Pitt with a degree in communications.

That degree and his radio experience led him to a job with CBS News Radio, then CBS News television and, in the early ’90s, a stint with Prodigy, CBS News’ internet spinoff. But while those jobs paid the bills, they did not fuel his passion.

“In the big picture, news was not my thing,” he says.

Struggling with the burnout that often accompanies a career in media, Jones took a leap that changed his life. He quit Prodigy, moved to California and went all in on cars.

A month after arriving, he answered a want ad for a service advisor/dispatcher at the local Lincoln-Mercury dealer. The Ford expertise he gained there, along with his news background, eventually landed him a position as a Ford data specialist with Edmunds.com, and subsequently, freelance and full-time writing gigs with some of the country’s top automotive publications, including 5.0 Mustang & Super Fords and Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords.

Then came the biggest break — Motor Trend named Jones editor-in-chief of Diesel Power Magazine in 2014.

“They gave me the keys to the truck,” he says with a chuckle. Today, he remains the only person of color to hold the rank for any of MotorTrend’s titles.

The magazine world’s consolidation and move to digital eventually came for Diesel Power, and the title ceased publication in 2019. Jones remained on board at MotorTrend, though, returning to his muscle car roots and taking the senior editor position at HOT ROD. There, he not only writes but, thanks to his radio voice and affable personality, he also stars in much of the brand’s video content.

Looking back, Jones is sometimes astonished at all this career has afforded him. He’s traveled the country and beyond, including a memorable trip to Japan. He’s driven cars that cost more than his house. And he even got to conceptualize and build high-performance engines, just like he aspired to do all those years ago.

“It’s been pretty bad ass,” he says. “And I owe a lot of it to Pitt.”