Bopper, we are going to miss you.
They don’t make them like you anymore, not anywhere close. You were tenacious, loquacious, cantankerous, and outrageous. You were funny and downright lovable, with your bib overalls and easy smile and crazy, warped sense of humor.
Most of all, you were eaten up with racing. From your first breath as an infant until your last breath on April 23 at 80 years old, racing was on the front burner every day of your life. Both front burners.
Along the way you met people – tons and tons and tons of people – and made countless friends. I feel a little sorry for all the others – the people who never got to meet you – but in these few words maybe I can sum up your crazy, legendary, Hall of Fame life.
Yes, you were officially Steve Stapp. But at our first meeting several lifetimes ago you stuck out your hand and said, “Just call me Bopper. Everybody else does.” So, I did.
The statistics are straightforward: two USAC National Sprint Car Series entrant championships, and 51 USAC national wins. During your heyday from the mid-1960s to the 1990s, some of the all-time greats drove your car. For many of us, you personified greatness. When you teamed with Pancho Carter from 1974 to the late ‘70s, you and Pancho were looked upon as the ultimate. The ultimate. Yes.
Like everybody else, your life had ups and downs. There were periods when it was tough to keep a race car going, and you had to work hard to keep your trucking business alive. You worked at various projects including building race cars and the like, and it wasn’t an easy road.
But you never stopped smiling, Bopper. That’s one of the things that made you a favorite person. Even when the hard knocks left a mark and the changing landscape brought frustration, it didn’t turn you into a bitter person. You’d shrug and laugh and say, aw, what the hell?
For a larger-than-life guy like you, there were bound to be good stories. And man, could you tell ‘em! You thrived in a crowd, and a crowd could be just you and somebody else. The stories came fast and heavy and they were always a little twisted – just like you. That’s why they – and you – were so entertaining.
You had a real knack for poking fun at yourself. Racers of your generation developed a hard, black humor, and they were not gentle with their barbs. You learned to deflect that stuff by making it funny, laughing at your own mistakes. People connected with you because you were always just the same ol’ Bopper, never putting on airs.
These days they use words like “authentic” to describe people like you. That’s a pretty good word, actually. You were the real deal, Bopper, The bib overalls, for example. You didn’t wear ‘em for show. You wore ‘em because one night Pancho stopped on the front straightaway under a red flag and when you jumped down off the inside wall your pants dropped all the way to your ankles right in front of a huge, packed grandstand.
(“That’s the only time I got more cheers than my driver,” you told me.)
Your wife Rosemary insisted that couldn’t happen again, so bib overalls were the new wardrobe.
When you were driving your RV a few years ago and got hit by a train, you managed to laugh about that, too. It was just another example of the aura of the Bopper: who else gets hit by a train and dragged down the railway, and lives to tell about it? Only you, Bopper. Only you.
You and your stories brought a lot of joy to people. But your life was not defined only by those funny tales. There was so, so much more than that.
You were a hell of a craftsman who was consumed with the challenge of beating the best. You were a psychologist who learned to navigate the impossible personality of a racing driver. You were a winner. You were a coach, a leader, a fabricator, a survivor. You were a husband and a dad and a friend. A good, good friend.
When I think about not seeing that goofy smile again, I’m sad. But I’m also grateful that life’s path brought me in contact with you, Bopper. You made this world a better, sunnier place.
You lived a large, large life. The Big Bopper. That was you. All the way to the finish.