Sleepy Tripp has been driving race cars for 30 years and his friends are holding a tribute for him Saturday night in Ventura. But don't get the idea that the midget car veteran from Costa Mesa is retiring.
"I keep saying I'll drive for a couple of more years, but I've been saying that for about eight years now," Tripp said. "As long as I can still beat these younger kids and stay competitive, why should I quit?"
Tripp, 39, has won 148 United States Auto Club midget races, more than any other driver. He has won two USAC national championships (1975 and 1976) and six western regional titles (1983, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991) and has all but clinched his seventh this year. Tripp has 645 points to 473 for Wally Pankratz with nine races remaining.
"We wanted to honor Sleepy with a race, and we wanted it to be a tribute, not a memorial," said Jim Naylor, Ventura Raceway promoter and host of Tripp Night. "I was reading the other day about a memorial race for Rich Vogler, and I decided we didn't want to have a memorial for Sleepy. We wanted one he could be here to enjoy, too."
Vogler, whose 131 victories made him the winningest USAC driver before Tripp, was killed July 21, 1990, in a sprint car race in Salem, Ind.
When Naylor approached Tripp about the idea, Sleepy said: "Don't you think I ought to get hurt first?"
Tripp, who began racing quarter-midgets when he was 9, is having one of his best years. He won eight of nine USAC regional races in midseason, including a record five in a row in his Visalia-based Zarounian Race Products car.
"I'd raced for the Zarounian brothers for seven years, but then we parted company for a while," Tripp said. "This year, after I got back from my annual trip to New Zealand, I rejoined them. We got off to a rocky start with a new car and all, but we got it going in May and couldn't lose for winning."
The whole season nearly went up in smoke after Tripp won a July 4 race in El Cajon. En route home to Visalia, the transmission on the motorhome--which was towing the race car--caught fire and the rig burned to the ground near Grapevine.
"If the wind hadn't changed and the fire crew showed up at just the right time, the fire would have wiped us out," Tripp said. "As it was, the (car's) trailer is scorched at one end. We were five minutes away from losing everything."
Tripp had a scare last January in New Zealand when he suffered one of his worst crashes. His car flipped upside down and he was knocked unconscious for 15 minutes.
"When I woke up I thought I was in Disneyland, but I raced the next week," said the former All-CIF Southern Section linebacker at Newport Harbor High. "The (roll) cage was a little short and I banged my head on it. I'd probably have been smart to sit out three or four months. When I got back to California, I was still having trouble with my eyes. I don't want any more rollovers or I'll begin acting like a punch-drunk fighter.
"Between (a crash in New Zealand) in '78 and the one last January, the only bad one I had was at Ascot at the end of the '83 season when I went out through the billboards. That was the most violent looking, but I wasn't hurt bad."
In his first midget race, when he was 20, he crashed at the old Corona Raceway.
"I stuffed it into the fence on the front straight," he recalled. A year later, he won the first of 227 main events. It was also at Corona, in a United States Racing Club event. He won the 1974 USRC championship in his rookie year and parlayed the title into a ride in USAC the next season, when he won his first national championship.
"Things have really changed since then, especially the drivers," he said. "I remember racing against Bobby Olivero and Danny McKnight and Dana Carter and guys like that. Now I've got to fight off young guys like Page and P.J. (Jones), as well as old-timers like Pankratz, who's been racing longer than I have. There are no easy races any more."
Page Jones, Parnelli's son, is flying in from Indianapolis, where he has been campaigning a midget and a USAC dirt car for Greg and Mark Wilke on the national circuit. Last November, at Ventura, Jones became the first USAC driver to sweep a three-quarter midget/midget doubleheader.
"Everybody wants to be here for Sleepy's night," Naylor said. "It's almost like we had a bounty out to beat him. Jimmy Sills (former USAC Silver Crown champion) is coming down from Placerville and Brett Horrobin is here from New Zealand, plus all the regulars like Robby Flock. It ought to be a real night for nostalgia."
Motor Racing Notes