Steve Stapp: August 19, 1940 – April 23, 2021
When the man known to all as “The Bopper” held court in his bib overalls and flashed his toothy grin, it was easy to forget who you were dealing with.
Steve Stapp was an unquestioned giant in the sport. More than that, the Stapp family, as a whole, has made deep and lasting contributions to racing for nearly a century, and the accolades they accrued along the way place them in rarified air.
Steve Stapp passed away in his sleep in Brownsburg, Ind., on April 23 at the age of 80. He was one of those rare individuals whose loss provoked both tears and laughter. The pain is easy to understand. The levity and smiles also came easily because The Bopper was the consummate storyteller, and by the time he had weaved a tale you no longer cared if he had embellished matters a bit.
The way he departed the earth was not without irony, for as noted writer Bones Bourcier suggests, “That’s the only thing he ever did quietly.”
In the end, Stapp’s was a life well-lived.
Steve Owen Stapp was born in Glendale, Calif., to Elbert Achilles “Babe” and Mary Louise “Lou” Stapp on Aug. 19, 1940. Lou’s pregnancy hastened the end of Babe Stapp’s life as an active racer, but by the time his son was born, Babe Stapp had already compiled a hefty list of accomplishments.
Babe began his racing career in 1923 and made 13 Indianapolis 500 starts between 1927 and 1940, with a best finish of fifth in 1939. Along the way, Babe competed in Monza Italy in 1930 in a Duesenberg, won a board track race at Charlotte in 1927, and was the AAA Midwest champion in 1935.
In the heady days of glitz and glamour found at Legion Ascot Speedway in Los Angeles, Stapp was a headliner. He also served as a driver double and technical director for the movie The Crowd Roars, which was released in 1938. After moving into the promotional ranks at Arlington, Texas, he also served as a technical director for the 1950 major motion picture To Please a Lady, starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck.
He continued in the sport as a promoter, official, and lent a hand to Steve when he launched his racing career. Babe Stapp was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1994.
By all accounts, Steve Stapp was a precocious and rambunctious child who was forever testing the limits. He dipped his toe in the sport when he began operating the scoreboard at California’s Carrell Speedway at the age of nine, and he also found work in a variety of shops.
At 13 he was helping on the Hollywood Spring and Axle Special owned by Marv Edwards, and then boldly purchased a Kurtis Kraft midget from Johnnie Parsons.
While he was too young to compete, he cobbled the car together and got others to pilot the craft. By virtue of his father’s involvement and connections, he rubbed shoulders with many legendary California-based craftsmen who had already made their mark at Indianapolis and on the short tracks of America.
Still hungry to race, in 1957 he purchased a sprint car from Hank Higuchi and peppered noted wrench Johnny Pouelsen for advice about all phases of the sport. He raced with the California Racing Association but, like many of his peers, he was anxious to head to the Midwest. Not only were drivers like Parnelli Jones and Jim Hurtubise moving through the IMCA to USAC, they were heralding the arrival of the Chevrolet-powered sprint car.
Stapp drew upon a budding relationship with A.J. Watson as he found his footing with USAC. It was a period where Watson, in spite of his modest nature, enjoyed nearly rock star status at the Brickyard. Steve had the chance to work alongside the master and, as usual, he was a sponge for information.
His longtime friend Buzzy Dobbins is convinced that it was there where Stapp embraced one of Watson’s key principles: keep things simple.
While those lessons became more valuable when he moved firmly into the ranks of a mechanic and owner, Stapp was still determined to make his mark behind the wheel. He was actively involved on the USAC sprint car trail from 1962 through 1964.
He made his biggest splash in 1963 when he finished 11th in series points, established a one-lap track record at the Terre Haute Action Track on June 16, and ended the year as the winner of the Hoosier Auto Racing Fans Johnny Thomson Most Improved Driver Award.
The year was also notable for what happened off the track. On Oct. 23, 1963, Steve and the former Rosemary Peterman were married. It was a bond that lasted for 57-plus years. Possessing a keen wit of her own, she was the perfect partner for him.
With the birth of his son Andy in 1964, Steve confronted the same dilemma his father had faced at his birth and came to the same conclusion. It was time to step out of the car and concentrate on building a team of his own.
In 1965, Stapp was prepared to turn over the seat of the Babe Stapp Special to drivers he felt could get the job done. On June 13, he pulled into the Terre Haute Action Track and, before long, encountered a man who needed a ride. By this point in time, Johnny Rutherford had cracked the starting lineup at the Indianapolis 500 three times, but he had only completed a total of 60 laps and his best finish was 27th.
Rutherford was yet to be a household name, so he gladly accepted Steve’s offer and paid off his owner’s confidence by sailing to the win.
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