Sleepy Tripp won his first race in a quarter midget at Buena Park when he was 7, won his first United States Auto Club professional race in a full midget at 20 and won his first USAC national championship series at 21, but he says this year has been the most productive of his career.
Tripp, 34, has won 28 main events, driving his midget racers primarily on the West Coast and in New Zealand and Australia.
Along the way, though, he won the Belleville Nationals in Kansas, the Indy of midget racing; won his third USAC western regional series championship in five years, taking 16 main events, 5 of them at Ascot Park, and won the $10,000 1-ZB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand's premier race, a 50-lapper he has taken 7 of 8 tries.
"A year ago, I heard a lot of the guys saying that I was over the hill, but I don't hear that anymore," Tripp said as he prepared for USAC's final racing weekend. "This has been my best year since I started racing, and that was a long time ago."
Tripp will close out his U.S. season with USAC national championship races Thursday night in the 47th annual 100-lap Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ascot Park and a 30-lap race Saturday night at Imperial Raceway in El Centro. Next month, he will head for New Zealand for his eleventh season of racing down under.
The powerfully built Tripp, who was an All-Southern Section guard and linebacker in 1971 at Newport Harbor High in Newport Beach, credits a switch from Volkswagen power to a 120-cubic inch Cosworth engine for much of his success this season.
"We were struggling before this year, mostly because we stuck with the VW engine a couple of years too long," Tripp said. "My car owners (Gary and George Zarounian of Visalia) got a Cosworth and it's been pretty reliable."
Now, however, Tripp is concerned that perhaps the Cosworth is being outdated by the appearance of a new Pontiac power plant.
"Four or five of the sprint car guys are coming to Ascot with Pontiacs that put out more horsepower than the Cosworth, and if they can use all the power they'll have, it'll be tough to keep up with them," he said.
Five-time Turkey Night winner Ron Shuman, World of Outlaws veterans Jac Haudenschild and Greg Wooley, two-time California Racing Assn. sprint car champion Brad Noffsinger and Stan Fox will be in Pontiac-powered midgets. Haudenschild and Noffsinger will be driving for Larry Howard, who fielded the winning cars for Shuman from 1979 to 1982 and again in 1984.
"All of a sudden, the Pontiac is proving to be a very efficient engine," Tripp said. "It has sprint car technology. I'm glad Ascot is 100 laps because that will put them to a real test. I've never had a lot of luck at Ascot, but if I won Thanksgiving night, it would make this a really big year for us."
Tripp has been in the Turkey Night race nearly every year since he joined USAC 14 years ago but he has never won. He was second to Rick Goudy in 1978 and third in 1984 to Shuman and Rich Vogler, then third again last year to Warren Mockler and Shuman.
"I like the track, but something always seems to happen to me," he said. "I can't pinpoint it. It's always something different. I won five races there this year but they were on the quarter-mile track and Thursday night we'll be on the half mile."
Tripp is going into the race with a winning streak, though. He won combined USAC national and regional races two weeks ago at Tucson and last Saturday night at Baylands Park in Fremont, Calif. He clinched his third Western States title when Friday night's race at Hanford was rained out. Runner-up Rusty Rasmussen was left without enough races to catch him.
Although Tripp quit running for the national championship five years ago so that he could spend more time at home in Costa Mesa with his New Zealand-born wife, Erin, and their daughter, Ashton, he ranks fifth among career winners. Only Mel Kenyon, Bob Wente, Vogler and the late Bob Tatersall have won more, and with 4 wins in 6 USAC national races this year, Tripp is closing in on Tatersall.
"Someone asked me how many features I'd won in my total career and I'd never thought about it," Tripp said. "After a lot of thinking and checking with my brother Bob, I came up with about 160, give or take a couple."
The Tripp brothers, Ron--who became Sleepy--and Bob, began terrorizing Southland neighborhood tracks in their dad's quarter midget as soon as they were big enough to put on helmets and see over the front end of a car.
"The first race I can remember, I was 5," Tripp recalled. "I drove until I was 12 and then quit to play Pop Warner football and race motorcycles. I didn't get back into racing midgets until I finished high school."
He was successful on a motorcycle, too, winning the expert class in the Elsinore Grand Prix the last year it was held.
In 1973, his first season in a midget with the United States Racing Club, the rookie Tripp won the championship of the Southern California-based organization.