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Steve Stapp (John Mahoney photo)

Remembering The Bopper, Steve Stapp

Sure, Dobbins remembers the occasional sparks but thought nothing of it.

“Steve was outspoken,” Buzzy said. “But I never had the sense that there were hard feelings between them. It was more that they were aggravated with the situation. As competitive as Pancho was, Steve was equally competitive. It was such a mutual respect and love for each other. One time Steve asked Pancho what was wrong with the car and Pancho said, ‘Everything!’ Steve said, ‘No, that’s not true, it started.’

“Sometimes Steve would be watching hot laps and Pancho would come in and Steve would say, ‘What is wrong with it?’ Pancho would say, ‘You were watching. Fix it.’ It really was a wonderful relationship. I don’t know anyone who has that extreme competitive spirit that doesn’t have flare ups. It is just such a release of emotion.”

In 1975 Carter only mustered two wins, but they were the prestigious Tony Hulman Classic at Terre Haute and the Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial at Salem.

In 1976, now with Stapp as the sole entrant, Carter rebounded in a big way. He claimed 12 wins on the USAC trail and easily outdistanced Tom Bigelow for the title. Everything was looking up for Carter. He was the Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500 in 1974, and was finding steady work on the National Championship trail.

Then disaster struck.

A mechanical malfunction while tire testing in Phoenix in December of 1977 resulted in devastating injuries. His career truly hung in the balance.

Carter returned to the cockpit at Indianapolis Raceway Park on April 4, 1978 and no one truly knew what to expect. For his part, Carter was relatively confident.

“I was pretty sure I was going to do it,” he said. “Or at least try my damnedest.”

He worked hard to get back to speed. In fact, aside from the limited use of his right leg, Carter felt he was in the best shape of his life. The concern was stamina. In storybook fashion, he took the checkered flag at IRP, but even he knew that the date on the high banks of Winchester the next day would be a real test.

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Stapp (right) with driver A.J. Foyt in one of his cars at the Terre Haute Action Track in 1966. JOHN MAHONEY PHOTO

Once again he was out front, but this time it was a bit different. “About halfway in the feature, or maybe a little more, my leg got a little fatigued,” he says. “So, I had to pull my right hand off the wheel and I had to push my right leg down with my hand on the straightaway to get full throttle. Then I had enough strength that, when I pulled my hand off, I had enough throttle to get through the corner, and then I could squeeze it back down with my hand again. It worked out. You only have to use one hand on the straightaways.”

Maybe so, but when Carter pulled into victory lane on this day everyone was impressed and many were reassured that he was back.

It was a remarkable personal performance, but some of the success also fell to his owner. “Those first two races he had that car just about as perfect as it could be,” Pancho says. “I think he worked a little extra hard on it because he knew I had been laying in a hospital for a couple of months, and he saw me and I had lost a lot of weight. I was about a skeleton compared to what I looked like before, so I think he wanted to make the car the best he could so it would be easier to drive. It did everything I needed it to do.”

The truth is, Stapp did try to do some creative things to help Pancho succeed. Dobbins remembers that Steve crafted a special throttle pedal with four springs that, in his words, “scared almost everybody and I don’t think Pancho liked it very much.” He also remembers that Stapp would tilt Carter’s seat to the left and slightly raise the right side to help him when he attacked the high banks.

The bottom line is this: Pancho Carter won 40 of his 42 career USAC sprint car wins, and two titles, with Stapp. He was the first man to win the Hulman Classic twice, and he captured the Joe James-Pat O’Connor Memorial four straight years. The 40 wins is the most of any sprint car owner and driver combination in the history of USAC. Pancho had taken the baton from his father and run with it, and by the time his Hall of Fame career had come to an end he was recognized as one of America’s greatest racers.

“We ran pretty good everywhere, especially the banked tracks, including Dayton,” Pancho says. “But we ran good at IRP and Terre Haute, too. There weren’t many we didn’t go well at. There was one day we didn’t hit it at Terre Haute. It was a hard slickie, and I couldn’t get ahold of anything. I was last, or damn near last, and I remember seeing the old pictures of Hinnershitz and guys like that and they would just drive four wheels over the cushion. I thought what the hell, I’m not doing anything here, so I started doing that.

“So, I passed a car, passed a few more cars, and really got going. I couldn’t figure out how I was doing so well up there, but then I figured out that everybody I passed jumped up there behind me, so we were packing the cushion down and made a new race track. I went from, essentially, last to first. I just found another part of the race track. Steve always liked that about the way I drove; if I couldn’t get the car working somewhere I would move around the track until I found some place it would work.”

The two men remained close to the very end, at times appearing together to reminisce about that special time when they were in the zone. Of course, they could still bicker when need be and, as for the endless stories, “I heard them all!” Pancho says. “I just had to correct him a few times. It was funny how we could both remember things differently about the same thing.”

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