At various points during his 80 years, he was the spoiled brat of an Indy 500 driver, an up and coming IndyCar mechanic, a damn good sprint car driver, a fine fabricator, a foil for A.J. Foyt and a bully of USAC’s sprint division with Pancho Carter (main image, with Stapp in 1974). He was a good husband to Rosemary and father to Suzanne and Andy. He survived crashing a sprinter on his 70th birthday, being run over by a train and other old-age maladies.
But the essence of Steve Stapp is that he was a racer to the core, a friend to all and a man who never met a conversation he couldn’t hijack.
The Bopper, who died in his sleep Friday in his Brownsburg home, was one of those characters that made every day an adventure and most days a lot of fun. His storytelling was so entertaining until you looked at your watch and realized he’d been yapping for an hour. Of course, that’s why so many people loved Stapp and hanging out with him.
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Fathered by Babe Stapp, a 12-time starter at Indianapolis, Steve always admitted he was incorrigible as a kid and once kicked Indy winner and perennial nice guy Johnnie Parsons in the shins. But he caught the racing fever and was running a sprinter by the time he was 21, and the highlight came at Terre Haute in 1960 when he broke Foyt’s track record.
He promised Rosemary he’d stop driving in those lethal 1960s when they had their first child, and that set him in motion to become a respected and in-demand mechanic for the big cars. He was helping A.J. at Milwaukee with his dirt car in 1965 when he recalled a memorable exchange.
“I’ve got a stopwatch and I’m timing him and he’s quicker than all the rear-engine cars, so when he pulls in after practice I tell him the good news, and he cusses me out and said I was either blind or stupid. So I threw the watch at him and told him to go time himself because he was the great A.J. Foyt. After he won the pole, things settled down.”
Yet the turning point for Stapp came in 1973, when he asked a young hot-shoe named Carter to drive his sprinter at Knoxville. Driving for The Bopper didn’t come with a lot of job security since he was liable to fire a driver at any time. “I knew about his reputation, but I also knew that (Larry) Dickson and J.R. (Johnny Rutherford) had driven for him and he had good cars,” said Carter.
Thus began an amazing run of success and bickering for the next four years as Carter/Stapp claimed the 1974 and 1976 sprint titles while 40 of Pancho’s 42 victories in sprinters were in a Stapp chassis.
“I had my way and he had his, and we argued back and forth so we just agreed to disagree and it worked,” said Carter with a chuckle. “Steve was a great fabricator with a good knack for setting a car up, and he relied a lot on what he’d done as a driver and it was a good combination.
“It was the best time of my career because we couldn’t be beat and everyone really wanted to beat us, and Stapp loved that.”