The other day, a story about how racing promoters deal with the media caught my eye, and within a paragraph or two Bill Lipkey came lumbering into my mind.
Bill was already an Indiana institution when I began covering racing in the early 1980s; an old school promoter with not a lot of flash but an ocean’s worth of experience. He promoted Kokomo Speedway for many years, but also had a long history at the indoor races at Ft. Wayne and elsewhere.
He could be crusty and distant and hard-nosed, but as time passed he gradually revealed a much more lighthearted side. In due course it became clear that this was a man who had lived a highly interesting life.
Bill was professional and it was not difficult to be added to the media credential list at his back gate. However, whenever he felt like you were writing a little too much about other tracks – Lincoln Park, Paragon, Bloomington – and not enough about Kokomo, he would share his opinion with a scowl before sauntering away with his shuffling, uneven gait.
These days, the O’Connor family does a terrific job at Kokomo, but in Bill’s era the track was still a favorite destination for a lot of racers and fans. Bill had his critics, to be sure. The place wasn’t gleaming and the fixtures needed some TLC, but the racing was good. Damn good, actually.
Despite the fact that he was getting on in years – he was nearly 80 when he finally retired around 1990 – Bill continued to run the track, and helped his son Jim take the reins when he stepped away.
Bill was a collector of sorts, and he filled a couple of pole barns with vintage cars, motorcycles, and oddball stuff. The collection was eclectic and unique, just like Bill. He invited me up for a tour and it turned out to be a fun afternoon. With the weight of running the track no longer sagging across his shoulders, Bill was easygoing and engaging, and truly funny.
As we walked around the shop looking at his collection, Bill’s life unfolded like a fascinating novel. He was 19 when he received a pilot’s license in 1932, and Lindbergh’s engine had barely cooled off by that time. Bill was also an avid rider of motorcycles in those early days. Motorcycles, in fact, never left his blood, and he was riding well into his 80s.
He pointed to a rusty old truck with a straight pipe and no muffler, a lot like the truck in The Beverly Hillbillies TV series. He explained that he and his older friends dressed up like hillbillies and drove the truck in area parades. Bill showed me how, where the crowd was largest, he would stall the engine and climb down from the truck. He’d grab the dummy crank at the front of the truck and give it a few turns, as animated as possible.
As the crowd began to cheer and clap, he’d finally kick the front tire in exasperation. That’s when he’d trigger a remote starter in his pocket and the engine would roar to life.
How can you not love a guy who does stuff like that?
As we toured the shop, he pointed to a length of dowel rod hanging from the ceiling. It carried a sign that read, “10-foot pole – for girls you wouldn’t touch with.”
“You can borrow it if you ever need it,” he quipped.
As I think back to that day, I realize it was yet another wonderful experience getting to know people who are truly, truly interesting.
Bill died in 1999 at age 87. That seems like a long time ago … but not really.
I can easily picture his tousled gray hair, his long and lanky frame, and that odd shuffling gait. He’s was a bit like a grizzly bear in the beginning, but soon enough, the teddy bear came to the surface.
“Ol’ man Lipkey,” they used to call him. They sure don’t make ‘em like Bill anymore.