When Bill Stroppe was a high school hot rodder in the late 1930s, racing was looked down on as an activity of dubious value for grimy-fingernailed outcasts who enjoyed auto shop class and "dragging" late at night on deserted streets.
But Stroppe, 67 and a lifelong resident of Long Beach, ignored that disparagement and combined a clever mind with his dirty hands to forge a successful racing career.
As a driver, he never considered himself as prominent as Mario Andretti is today, but Stroppe's racing skills and especially his ability to build cars contributed greatly to the emergence of auto racing as a respectable sport. And it still surprises him that, as basically a grease monkey, he has been able to keep company with rich and famous people who were impressed with his expertise.
"Racing has changed a lot," Stroppe said last Sunday before he and his wife Helen watched the Long Beach Grand Prix from the Hyatt Regency hotel. "It's been accepted into society, into engineering and into sport. It used to be you couldn't get a man and woman to dress up in nice clothes and go to an auto race. Now it has class."
Stroppe was dressed up in a suede sports jacket, blue shirt, red sweater and gabardine trousers. His white hair peeked from beneath a cap and he had on tinted glasses.
"I'm a can-opener engineer," he said, laughing. "That's an engineer without a degree. I wasn't very good at book learning."
He recalled racing midget cars at West Coast tracks after he graduated from Poly High School in 1938. "I fell on my head a few times," said Stroppe, who now dedicates himself to making sure other drivers don't by designing safe cars.
Although his focus now is on building cars, Stroppe still likes to get behind the wheel. Two weeks ago, he averaged 112 miles per hour to finish second in an off-road race in Mexico, driving the red Kurtis car in which he won the Sports Car Club of America championship in 1951 and '52. The car is the same as it was then, except for the tires. The engine is the same model.
"I like to make sure I can still do it, that I still have confidence in myself," Stroppe said.
Racing has always been Stroppe's addiction.
Helen recalled, with slight disbelief, how he once entered the family 1946 Mercury in a stock car race near Torrance. "I felt bad about it, but it didn't hurt the car," said Stroppe, whose Lincoln team, with Johnny Mantz driving, won the race.
Stroppe also was a champion boat racer, and his victory in a Detroit River race in 1947 enabled him to connect with Ford, which admired the knowledge of engines that Stroppe and his partner, Clay Smith, had. Ford still pays for the work done at Bill Stroppe and Son's 20-employee shop in North Long Beach, where Stroppe can be found seven days a week.
His list of accomplishments is long. He prepared the car in which Troy Ruttman won the Indianapolis 500 in 1952. Also in the early 1950s, he drove from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon to win an economy run, which landed him on the Ed Sullivan television show, and his crews won the much-publicized 1,500-mile Pan American Road Race three years in a row. In 1957 he prepared the car that won the Daytona 500, the last time the race was run on the beach.
Later, Stroppe went into off-road racing, a field in which he continues to be successful. In the Ford Bronco he designed, he was the co-pilot for Parnelli Jones in the 1960s and '70s as they dominated the dusty, bone-jarring races at 90 m.p.h. over the desert ruts and dangerous mountain passes of Baja.
As co-pilot, Stroppe was in charge of the race logistics and mechanical problems. He definitely was the boss.
"He's a very gentle man," Jones said this week, recalling how Stroppe's competitiveness flamed during a race.
"He'd start cussing at me (for driving too fast)," said Jones. "Normally, you'd never hear him say a bad word."
On Monday afternoon, Stroppe was in his office, which was cluttered with awards, racing posters, photographs, a huge map of Baja and framed covers of Four-Wheel, Off Road and Motor World magazines. His dog, Freeway, slept on the red carpet.
Stroppe wore a short-sleeve shirt, which allowed for close inspection of arms and hands that confirm that he has spent his life in a world of oil pans, pistons, cylinder heads, valves, manifolds, carburetors, rods, bearings and grease.
His forearms looked as gritty as desert dust and their veins stood out like the routes marked on the Baja map. His fingers were thick, creased and gnarled. "The manicurist (on the Ed Sullivan show) couldn't believe his hands," Helen had recalled at the Grand Prix.