“Just Start Me”
Rip Williams: the surfnsprint interview
February 23, 2012
Ever since I’ve been going to the races, all I have been hearing is “Rip Williams” The main reason I wanted to do this interview is the depth of your experience. But what’s amazing is the breadth of your perspective. You’re starting your 35th year in a sprint car this year, with a record 104 victories, a USAC/CRA Championship, but that doesn’t even tell the whole story because it’s untold the number of years you ran second or third in points. In CRA, another interesting statistic is you have the record for the most semi main wins, which says a lot to me. You’re no overnight sensation. You were no natural talent. You worked; you had to crawl every inch of the way to get what you got.
And really the reason you’re in the Hall of Fame, as far as I can tell, is the depth of your commitment and the history of your commitment, because for 35 years now, you’ve been running and running well. Most of those CRA and SCRA years, you were running in the top ten, usually in the top five, often in the top three.
It was tough back then though. There’d be seventy cars at Ascot. When I first started, there would be seventy or eighty cars. It was tough! (laughing)
How’d you get the name Rip?
My dad named me that. My dad and my mom had a fight over what to name me. My dad wanted to name me Rip, my mom wanted to name me something else. It’s Rip.
Where were you born?
I was born in Newport Beach at Hoag Hospital. We lived in Costa Mesa. My dad was born here in Costa Mesa. He was born in a house. You know where Costa Mesa Park is? Anyway there’s a big park up there and he used to live there. His dad used to own all that land that the city parks are on now. He sold it, you know the dirt’s no good, you can’t grow anything, so he sold it and the City bought it for the park. So they owned a lot of land up there, but in them days, in Costa Mesa, anything on the other side of Newport, on the north side of Newport Boulevard, they used to call it goat hill, because the Mexicans ran goats up there. And that was the bad side of the tracks, all the rich kids were on the other side and they went to Newport Harbor. He went to Newport Harbor too but he was from the wrong side of the tracks. So he was the poor kid up there at the top and he went to school with all the rich kids.
How’d he meet your mom?
You know, I’m not really sure; it had to be at maybe a car show or a car cruise or something like that. My mom went to Santa Ana High. So, they’re pretty close together.
So what year were you born?
‘56. Five Five Fifty-Six. May 5th.
And that was at Hoag?
Hoag Hospital, yeah. And we lived up in Costa Mesa. At the Costa Mesa fairgrounds they used to run micro-midgets and that’s were my dad raced. So we could hear the micros hot lapping from the house and I used to tell my mom “let’s go, let’s go, they’re hot lapping!”
That’s an early memory then?
Oh yeah, so that’s “come on, Mom, let’s go” because I couldn’t go with my dad because he went in the pits. So I could hear them hot lapping and I’d be trying to get her to go. (laughing)
So did she take you?
Oh yeah, she’d take me but she didn’t like to get there early. So his brothers, they all raced micros, and then my cousin raced the micro’s too. And they started out at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds and then they closed it because of the noise, if you can believe that! They had 2 cycle Konig engines which was an outboard engine. They’re really loud. They had megaphones on them. They were super loud. And then they built the racetrack at El Toro Raceway. My dad raced there. They had a go-cart road course and they had a fifth of a mile, just short of a quarter mile, track with good clay and they ran midgets there and micro midgets there. It was pretty cool. Then I would ride with him, I was older and I could go in the grandstands.
So what did your dad do for a living?
He was a marine diesel mechanic down in Newport Beach. And all of his brothers were painters. They painted houses for a while and then my dad got into boats. Then all the brothers came and started painting boats. In those years they used to brush the boats. I mean they would take and brush the boats and they’d look just like plastic.
So you’re in Orange County; you’re a kid; it was a lot different back then wasn’t it?
It was all orange groves. There was nothing here; you used to go down Harbor Boulevard from Disneyland to the beach without hardly seeing anything. We moved to Santa Ana from Costa Mesa and it was all bean fields. Segerstrom, did you ever hear of Segerstrom, they owned all of those bean fields there? Just poor dirt coast farmers and they own South Coast Plaza.
Yeah, a very wealthy family…
Well now, yeah. I used to test underground storage tanks for a guy named Larry Henry who is good friends with Bubby. I worked for him for seven years and I went over there and tested underground storage tanks at the Segerstrom farm there and the guy showed me all of their cars, they had one barn full of Mustangs. Every Mustang that was ever made was in there.
You’re kidding me?
No, and then steam engine tractors, a tractor collection, another barn full of tractors. Steam engine ones with steel wheels, it was really interesting. That was fun.
So when did you start racing?
Well, my dad stopped racing about ’69 I think. I always wanted to drive racecars. I remember they used to ask me, what do you want to be when you grow up? Well, I want to be a racecar driver. So, we didn’t really have a lot of money so what I did was I worked. I went to school, high school and got all my credits and I graduated when I was a junior. But I only went to the next semester to play football. When that was over I bailed, I went to work. I went down to the boatyards and I started scrubbing bottoms and painting bottoms and stuff like that. Started at the bottom and just saved all my money. And I bought my own first sprint car, I mean three quarter midget, in ’75. So I started racing that and I raced that two and a half years, but it was only about twenty-five or thirty races because there’s no place to race em. We used to run out at the drag strip in Orange County, they had a little track out back and then we ran a couple of times at El Toro, and then we ran Saugus, 605 speedway on the pavement and Saugus was pavement and Ascot had a quarter mile, we ran the quarter mile there. So I did that and then told my dad….
I heard you got a Rookie of the Year even in that, in TQ’s.
NMRA. Rookie of the Year in 1975. And then I raced all the way up to ’78 and I saved my money again, I started working two jobs and saved my money and I got together another $8,000.00 and that’s what I bought my first sprint car with. It was a complete sprint car, it wasn’t very nice but it was a sprint car. It had a motor and everything. So we started racing that…
In ’78, yeah, first race I ever went to was at El Centro. When it was a big track and they used to kill guys there all the time. If you read some of the history in the old books, they killed a lot of guys there. So that was my first race. First time I ever sat in one. I remember going down the back straightaway thinking “Man, I’m going fast!” Bout that time two guys go “whoosh” past me, one on each side! I thought “Oh, this is a different deal! I thought yeah, this is a different deal! I thought I was going fast! I raced there, it was a two day show and I missed the show both days, then I started racing at Ascot and we ran about three times I missed the show, about three times and about the fourth time I thought “you know what, I going to have to step it up here” you know, so I just said I’m going for it and I started making the shows and started running in the back of the semi’s.
So at that time, that’s 1978, you’re at Ascot and how many cars are showing up?
Oh, there’s like 70 or 80 cars. Especially at the first of the year, the Northern guys, it’s still raining up there so those Northern guys would come down and race with us and the Arizona guys would come and race with us, so at the first of the year, there were a lot of race cars! A lot of them. You know you had like Jimmy Boyd up north, and you had Patterson and all the guys up there, Mike Andretti and all those guys, really good race car drivers, most of them are in the Hall of Fame, and Kaeding and all those guys would come down and you had Leland, you had Shuman, you had Billy Shuman, you had Larry Clark and you had Wayne Bennet, I mean, the list went on and on, I mean it was a lot of good race cars, a lot of good race car drivers. And in those days you didn’t own the race cars. It’s not like it is now. You worked your way up to get into the top ten race cars. Because the seats were open. So that was always your goal, to get enough experience to move into somebody else’s car. Get a ride! And that’s what I did, I ran in all of the, in ’78 I was Rookie of the Year with Rick Paranelli, and we went…John Elias, do you know John Elias.
Anyway, he had a Ready Mix company out of Tustin; he approached me and hired me. He wanted me to drive his race car the next year in ’79. And he also was gonna hire Mike Shaw and this all happened about, towards the end of the year about five or six races before the end of the year and Mike Shaw got killed at Ascot and then I continued and went with Johnny Elias and started to racing his car. We had a ’79 Ric Ferkal car. It was built up north, Tognotti built it, and we just started racing that and we had some fast times and stuff and we were going pretty good. Then September 15th, we had a real bad crash and shattered my right foot. They had to pin it all together and so I missed all that year.
That was ’79?
’79. Shattered my foot and they had to pin it all together and I was black and blue from about here (indicates his chest) on up, it was solid red, it was a mess. So it took until the next year to get back in a racecar. Then I got back in a car and started driving for Elias again. Well at that time he hired this engine builder and him and I didn’t get along too good. The motor wasn’t any good.
This was ’80, right?
Yeah, he said I was scared because I wouldn’t gas it! So a friend of mine, Big Rich, he was with me for thirty something years, he just retired about three years ago from here, you know. Me and him were together all the time, you know, from five o’clock until like eleven o’clock every night working on racecars together, and he was like ten years older than I was, and I told him “that guy thinks I’m afraid”. And I said “I’m going to run it wide open”. And he says, “No”. And I said “yeah”. I’m going to run it wide open.” So he said “don’t do that” and I said “yeah, I am.” That’s how bad the motor was. I ran it wide open. I ran it through one and two, wide open. Down the back straightaway, wide open. Made one lap, going down the back straightaway, the rods started coming out of it, (laughing ), it was blowing smoke and everything, it was a mess. (laughing) So I came in and the engine builder was all mad at me because he thought I blew his engine up on purpose and all that stuff and so then the guy fires me, right, so now I’m done. So I started working some deals and I started driving for a guy named Al Hendrix, I started racing his car and he didn’t have a very good motor and his stuff wasn’t that good but we did good with it.
That was about ’81?
That was still ’80, because I got fired at the first of the year.
That was the only year you finished out of the top ten, 1980.
Was it? So we started running and we blew an engine up and he didn’t have money to put it back together so then I started driving for an old guy named Roy Battersbee. So I started racing for him, he had some decent stuff but it wasn’t really, really good. We went down to Chula Vista and I think it may have even been an Outlaw race and we ran third or fourth down there and old man Battersbee, man he was happy (laughing). So I ran his car and we blew an engine, and then he had another engine and it didn’t just go as good. About halfway through ’80 I was kinda of ticked off because I couldn’t get a good ride…so I started saving my money again and I bought me another race car in ’81. We brought it out in ’81 and started racing it.
So in ’81 you finished 9th in points.
Yeah, I bought my own car and ran it all year in ’81.
Who was sponsoring you?
I had Standard Logic. It was a company, computers were real new and he had designed a hand held calculator looking thing for the waitresses. So if you go to a restaurant, she could punch it up and it would go in front of the cook, so they’d be faster. So he made a lot of money on that, he used to sponsor us and then I just worked, I mean, I worked whatever I could do to get money to go race. It was like drugs (laughing), you had to have it. You know, so that’s all I wanted to do, so I just saved my money and got that car and then ’82 we started, what did we do in ’82, let me think, ’82 and ’83 I owned my own racecars too, yes. ’82 and ’83 those were my cars.
’82 you finished 6th in points and you were named “most improved’.
Yeah, those were in my own car. So I built engines, I did everything. I built my own engines, I did my own rear ends, I did everything, I’d repair my own car, everything. Like I said, I’d do anything I needed to do to race. So then I took in ’83, we built a, Bubby was starting to build cars so I got one of Bubby’s cars and started running it. And we went to Western World and we won a race in ’83, let me see…
In 1983 you won your first race…
A fifty lapper. Had to beat Tony Simon at Ascot. So we won that race and then we won… I don’t know…
You won again, June 25th…
There you go. I won two that year, didn’t I? Then we went to Western World in Arizona and crashed and destroyed everything.
So the car that you had in 82 and 83 is that the same car?
And that was the car that you built?
Well, it was, I didn’t build the chassis, we had the chassis, one of them was a Stanton and one of them was a Bubby Jones car.
So you were hooking up with Bubby about that time?
Yeah, Bubby started about, he came in 80 and you know, I didn’t really know him that good yet, and I didn’t really have anything going because I was just driving other people’s cars. I asked him, “what do I have to do to learn how to do this right” and he says “ the thing you need to do is quit your job.” “Quit my job!” I said, “How am I going to support my racing if I quit my job, that’s how I do it?” He says “you’re going to have to figure it out. You gotta quit your job.” So I was working for my dad at the time so I gave my dad a year notice. And so I quit my job and just started hanging around at Bub’s shop and I used help him build racecars and stuff and I used to just help him. And that’s how I learned. So that was like 82 and 83.
Were you already married?
No. We started building racecars and stuff and we went to Western World that year and I crashed, destroyed the car, had no more money, I was done, and uh, I told uh, and Bubby had flipped that night too and he was, he had a concussion and he was, I think his shoulder blade was hurt or something and he couldn’t, he really didn’t want to race the next week at the Pacific Coast Open so we went home and it was Monday about ten o’clock, we’re in the shop, just screwing around and he says what are you going to do for the “Coast”. I said “just about all the stuff’s gone, Bub” and he says “why don’t we build you a new car?” (Rip pauses dramatically.) “We’re going to build a new car before Friday?”, because you had to qualify at least by Friday. He says “yeah”. So we look up on the rack and it’s all straight tubing, and we started building that race car and we ran it Friday night from straight tubing. And then Bubby you know, he got dinged a little bit, so he didn’t put a spacer in there, there were spacers that make the car a little bit longer, we forgot, we had the car sitting there and I said, “Bubba, how we gonna put the radiator in?” He says “whadaya mean”. I said “the tie rod’s in the way!” I said “I can’ get the radiator in”. He says “well, we’ll just have to change some things around”. And we went out there and we ran about third in the main event, the big main event at the Pacific Coast and there was a bolt on the bird cage that broke and we didn’t finish. So….
What was his shop like back then?
Almost a dirt floor (laughing).
Was it a garage?
No, it was just a little building with plywood on the walls. It was down by Larry Henry’s shop.
It was down in Orange County?
Oh yeah, it was right down the street from where Larry Henry was…
Where was that?
Over there on Manchester and Lincoln. Like Euclid and Lincoln, right there. Yeah, it was just a little crummy shop.
Is that the same Larry Henry, isn’t there still an Orange County Tank Testing?
Yeah, that’s his. He still runs it.
And you used to work for him.
I worked for him for seven years.
And Bubby worked for him…
Bubby worked for him. I used to test the tanks and fail them and Bubby used to dig them up with a back-hoe.
So Larry Henry is a big race fan?
Oh yeah, he had a sprint car and he used to drive and then he let Bubby drive it and then after that he just let Bubby drive it.
So you got a front row seat for the infamous Dean and Bubby Show.
All though the early 80’s I guess, starting in 83, 85 that’s the Dean and Bubby Show. You not only had a front row seat, you were a principal supporting actor, weren’t you. You were finishing in the top five…
Yeah, a lot of times I ran third right behind them.
So tell me a little bit about Dean Thompson?
He was a heck of a competitor; he was a great racecar driver. I mean, it’s obvious, even with the handicap he had, he’d kick you around pretty good.
What was his handicap?
He had one short arm. Yeah, it was probably six inches shorter. He had a steering wheel that was round like this (demonstrating) you hold it here and the other one was up here. Yeah, he had a short arm. Birth defect of some kind, I’m not sure…
But still incredible….
Yeah, and then Bub, shoot, he was…there was nothing like Bubby…He was smooth and awful good. Right off the bat, from the first time I saw him.
So he was a natural talent?
Well, I mean he had been racing a long time before he had ever got to here. So he showed up here in the 80’s.
Indiana, he had just lost the championship in USAC and he had always come to California and worked for Henry during the winter, he didn’t work all summer because he raced cars. He got a ride with Gaschem, which was a Kazarian; so that’s how that started…
So he decided to stay?
In 1980, yeah, he stayed. He’s on salary and he’s in heaven.
I heard you say once you regretted not going back East…
Yeah, I should’ve gone back East. I didn’t know. I should have gone. But I didn’t. I didn’t really know anybody, I just didn’t know how I could get there and get started. I didn’t have enough money to do it myself. So, I wish I would have…(laughs). But I mean I don’t regret it, it’s just something that I missed. So I’m still happy about everything I ever did, it’s just that…
Were you good friends with Dean?
Just knew him on the track?
Yeah, me and him had some problems.
Well, he always…we used to have problems on the track. We had it out a couple of times on the track.
Were you a fighter?
Oh yeah, I could fight. You need to make a stand somedays. Somewhere. Dean run into me a couple of times, so I ran into him back and he didn’t run into me no more. (laughing)
What about Bubby? You actually became really good friends with Bubby.
Yeah, because he was going out with Becky’s sister, so, and we only lived about six doors apart.
How did you meet Becky?
I meet Becky through high school. We were good buddies all through high school and we never really dated, we might go to a party together or something but, and then after high school and I started racing and everything we just started and we just kind of hooked up after that, its been good ever since.
What year did you get married?
Bout ‘86. So we went together for 11 or 12 years before we got married.
And now Bubby’s in the picture?
We started racing together in 80.
OK, and then he met her sister?
Well, he came in 79 during the winter and Steve Howard, we all kinda ran around together, Steve knew Bubby pretty good and so Becky’s sister, Patti, had a Super Bowl party and so everybody came. Jimmy Oskie was there and there was quite a few guys there and so we all sat around and took it easy and stuff and then the next day, I just live six doors down and I drive by and saw Larry Henry’s El Camino sitting there and I thought, “oh, (Bubby) must’ve got too drunk and couldn’t go home (laughing) so I go to work and come back it’s still there! Wow, that’s something. So I didn’t think too much of it and he next day I get up to g to work and go and its still there! I come home and it’s still there and I told Becky, I say “Let’s go down to your sister’s house because Bub’s car still there”. We walk in and Bub’s in the recliner, drinking a beer and watching tv! Found a new home (laughing). Never left.
They got married?
They got married about a year before we did so it had to be ‘84, ‘85 maybe.
Where’s he live now?
Bubby, he lives in Avon, in Indianapolis.
Still working on race cars, right?
He wrenches for a kid this year, his name is Kevin Thomas, Jr.
He was with somebody….?
He was with Blake Fitzpatrick.
He’s not with him anymore?
No, he’s got this new kid this year. And Bubby you know, he taught me how to work on racecars, he taught me everything, cause I hung out there for about two years. Then one year Larry Henry, the reason I got a job with Larry Henry is that he used to come down and screw around with us and he comes down and said “hey, you want a job? Want to work tomorrow?” that’s what he said. “Yeah, I’ll work tomorrow.” “Allright, be here at seven o’clock.” He said you want to know what you’re going to do? “I don’t care what I do”. So I showed up and they were uncovering tanks, so they were digging with a backhoe so I was down there with a shovel, I was shoveling. So I shoveled all day and I was back above working on cars and screwing around with him and he said “Want to work tomorrow?” “Yeah, I’ll work tomorrow”. So another day goes by and he said “Do you want to work tomorrow?” Yeah, I’ll work tomorrow.” He says I’ll tell you what, keep coming until I tell you not to come!” So I was there like seven years and we were testing underground storage tanks and uncovering them and removal, Bub did a lot of removal and stuff like that. And then I wanted to go fishing, down in Cabo. And so Mark Atchison, he owned and made AMA Plastics and he said “We’re going to go to Cabo, do you want to come? You need to take a Friday, Saturday, Sunday and take the Monday off. So I went into Larry Henry’s office and said “hey, I want to go fishing with my buddy” and he says “when?” I said about six weeks from now and he said “I don’t think so.” So, I said “Henry, I’d really like to go” and he said “Well, I don’t think so, we got all these Arco contracts and I say “I’ll work sixteen hour days and if I don’t get everything done, I won’t go.” “Nah, I don’t think so”. So I went back and Mark Atchison was after me for like two years to work for him because I had my race car in his garage, so he comes and he says did you get all set up? So I says “No, he said no!” He said “Why don’t you come work for me?” And I said “Can I go hunting, fishing and racing any day I want?” and he says “Yeah” and I said “You got a deal!” So I went back to Henry and I said “Is there any way we can work this out and he says “No” and I said “I don’t work here no more”.
So I moved on, I went to work at AMA Plastics and I was there seventeen years.
What do they do?
They do injection molding, foams, everything, I ran maintenance.
In Orange County?
It started out in Anaheim and then I moved half the shop to Tucson, I built a plant in Tucson and then I built another plant in Corona and then we tore Tucson down and moved it all into one plant and then last year I built another plant in Riverside. I took time off from the lift company and built another shop for him, a 150 thousand square foot shop in Riverside. We put like two miles of PVC pipe in and a mile of black pipe and a mile of aluminum pipe. It was a big job; we did it in like four months. So I built that for him and then I left AMA Plastics and started the lift company in 2006.
AMA has been a long time sponsor, right?
He started helping you when?
He started helping me about the time Jack came on board, because he used to sponsor Jack. Jack used to sponsor Mark Atchison. So uh, he kinda felt like he needed to repay the favor like…
That was back in 96? When you started in with Jack Jory…
Yeah, we’d won the Championship in 94 or 95 I can’t remember, with Jan Gaffney.
The Owner’s Championship?
Yeah, the Owner’s Championship, so what happened was I had my race cars at Mark Atchison’s garage’s, he had a six car garage real close to my house, about a mile away so we kept everything there, and then he got…it’s his wife now, she moved in with him and we’re always out there making noise and stuff so that didn’t last too long so he went to Jack and asked if we could put the race car over there and that’s how me and Jack got together. But I was driving for Jan Gaffney and she… so Jack just used to come to the races with us. Jack would just hang out with us. He didn’t give us any money, we never asked him for anything. He was just our friend; he hung out with us. And then we won the championship for Jan and next year, it must have been ’94, ’95
In 1994 you won Jan Gaffney the Owner’s Championship.
Yeah, and after the year ended I told her “you know we need to buy some new stuff and update everything”. “Well” she said “I quit”. “What do you mean you quit?” “I quit.” I said “You win the Championship and you quit?” She says “Yeah, I did everything I wanted to do.” So she just quit.
What was her story?
She had a health food bar down in Huntington Beach.
And loved racing?
Yeah. So I went in Jack’s office and I said “She quit”. And he says “What do you mean she quit”? “She told me she quit”. I said “I’ll get the stuff out as soon as she tells me what she wants to do with it I’ll get it out of here for you”. So he asked me “what do you think it will cost to run the deal?” And I told him and he says “We can do that”.
How much was it?
At that time, with all the sponsorships that I had and everything, she was only out about $25,000.00.
For the year?
For the whole year. I mean because I had all kinds of sponsors. So I told Jack and he said “We can do that”. So I used to have an old dually, that I towed with, a trailer that Mark’s dad bought, for me to use and we used to go to the racetrack like that and then he decided he’s gonna buy a new rig.
Tell me if I’m wrong here, the year that you won for Gafney (the Owner’s Championship) you had eight wins that year in 1994. From the record books I’m looking at, you had no wins in 1995, your first year with Jory and then you took off like a rocket in 1996. Is that true that you had no wins in ’95?
McSpadden won the championship that year driving for Ron Chaffin, was the year after you won for Gafney,
Yeah you’re right…We got together with Jack and…
Figuring things out?
It was kind of a mess. We had a car and it just didn’t work right and everything, so I took a championship car that I won the championship in 1990 and I took that car down to Stinger and I told em I want it just like this. Once we started racing Stingers as you can see we started winning races.
Yeah, in 1996 maybe fourteen wins!
So the first year with John Jory your just kinda figuring it out, you’re not winning anything, you realize you need better equipment…
Well, we bought a car and it never just worked right. We should have changed the car.
Was he discouraged, the first year with him?
Jack? No, he doesn’t get discouraged. No, because he knows, he always told me “I know you’re going to make it right”, you know. There was always that confidence in him….But just think how disheartening it would be to not even win one.
When you didn’t win one the first year.
That is such a fascinating story…
No wins the first year…
Realistically, he should have fired me. Nobody can go all year without winning…I mean, when they’re putting money in it.
It must have been discouraging to you too…
Oh, it killed me. Yeah, that was awful. Because that’s not what I was about. So I had to suck it up and get it right. That’s what I did.
You went out and built a Stinger?
That was the first Stinger of that style. Then pretty soon everybody had them. Bub’s actually the one that got me going on it, because I took that car and I can’t make it work, it’s nothing like what I used to drive. He says “why don’t you build what you used to drive?” I called four or five different people and I said “hey, will you build me what I want? And they said no.” So I called Richard Harvey up and I say “hey, if I bring you a race car, will you copy it, exactly the same?” “Yeah, I’ll do that.” Cause he had kind of a business going but it wasn’t going real good yet. So he was all game, you know. So we went in there, we built the car… So that’s what we did. I took it up there, they copied it, took it out of the box and it was good first day.
Amen, 1996, fourteen wins.
Yeah, I was a little frustrated after not winning.
That must have been some party, fourteen wins, and you didn’t even win the championship.
That was the Shuman years.
Tell me about Ron Shuman…
Good racecar driver, you know, really a good racecar driver. He just, our styles were a little bit different, he was more calculated and I was more getting the job done. And a lot of times I was out to win the race, I didn’t care about the Championship.
I think that’s the story of your career….
Yeah, that’s were I was.
I think that’s why you have the most wins but only one championship.
Yeah, my goal was to win then most races. And that’s what we tried to do, we always tried to win, so a lot of times I crashed. I’d be running second and I’m going to win the race. Well, sometimes it didn’t work!
Where as Shuman was racing for points?
He was a point’s racer. He was a money racer.
Were you friends?
Yeah, we were for a while and then you know the competition got a little different and then we weren’t so good of friends anymore.
Was it ever uncomfortable?
No, not really. Just never talked to him much. We used to talk but something happened along the line, I don’t even know what it really was…
Bubby still around then?
Uh, you know, no, he was working for Gaschem, he was at the BKK landfill. And then he went down and built Perris. He was involved in Perris so that was 96, the first Perris, wasn’t it? Yeah, that’s how it went. So, he designed that thing so you could park the rigs in the infield and still see over the top.
Who was your crew chief?
Rich Atkins, he was with me since ’78.
Is he still with you?
No, he comes by a little bit but he retired, he worked for the water district, he retired there and he just decided he was going to play golf and screw around.
’98 seven wins, ’99, 9 wins, but now, now it’s the Griffin years….
What about Richard Griffin?
I got along great with Richard. Yeah.
Yeah, good race car driver, never bugger you.
Really, give you room?
Yeah. Always gave you room.
Is that important?
Yeah, real important.
A lot of what I see in racing is that there’s not a lot of that nowadays…
It’s all about putting slide jobs in and don’t worry about who is behind you on that slide job.
Years ago that was not allowed! That was an unwritten law, you didn’t do that, you did that; somebody was going to put you over the fence. You had to be a good race car driver years ago. You couldn’t slide somebody. They wouldn’t put up with it.
When and how did it change?
You know I think a lot of that changed when, uh, they went to owner/drivers. When they started putting their own kids in the cars. I think that’s when that started. My opinion. Before, even the owners, if you gave someone a slide job, you did a bad slide job and ruined somebody’s car, you were out of a ride.
You were out of a ride?
Yeah, they’d fire you in a minute. If they didn’t like something you did, you were done. Take your helmet back, walk along and try to get another ride.
Because there were plenty of guys ready to take your place!
Yeah, a lot of good racecar drivers, that fact kept a lot of guys in line. But now, if someone’s got a big wallet and they don’t really care if you tear the stuff up, then that’s what happens.
But it was always, you know, you didn’t mess with people.
Griffin would give you plenty of room?
Oh yeah, Griffin….me and Griffin had a lot of great races. Me a Shuman had a lot of great races, there’s a lot of people that still come up to me and say “you know, some of the best races they ever saw was me and Shuman!”
Mostly Ascot, some Manzanita….
Perris. El Centro…there’s a lot of races, you know a lot of those years I won the most main events and I think he won one and won the championship.
He won in ’96 and ’97….
Yes, but you had the most wins.
I only lost like by 12 points and 25 points. Something like that…Most of the time my car would win the Championship but I wouldn’t because Shuman would get a ride. If my car broke, they wouldn’t give me a ride….(laughing)…. That was the difference. Because we were both driving the same car all year, but his car would break, he’s get in somebody’s else’s car, and that’s how he’d win. My car broke, I’d used to get out and try to get a ride, nobody would give me a ride, I used to give guys tires all year and I’d say hey, if I need your car, you know I’d give them all the used tires, if I need the car you let me drive it, yeah, yeah, yeah….and when it comes down to it wouldn’t work. They’d say no, I want to drive it tonight. So I would just, after a while, my car broke, I just got dressed and watched the races. You know, I wasn’t going to walk around and ask them…
And then on and on and on… the Griffin years were happening… you were winning more races than anybody, but other people were piling up more points. But then in 2004 you made it happen.
Now SCRA is ending and USAC/CRA is beginning…
And you won that first year; you were the Champion, five wins…plus the Owner’s Championship…
Yes. That was how we started out and we started going pretty good, and everyone kept telling me, you need to win one of these you know…and so, we kind of became a points racer that year and made sure we got things right…
Yeah, so I didn’t take all the big chances and I wasn’t a crowd pleaser that year but…
You had 99 victories under your belt when you won that championship, that’s amazing to me. Because it’s all about….that’s the very essence of persistence.
When I was ten my dad and mom divorced. Then he would just come over and hang out with us, you know. He didn’t live with us so, when you split a family in half and there’s not a lot of money and now there’s half as much.. (laughs) So I lived with my mom and that’s why I always saved my own money. Like the first time I ever bought the TQ, I called him up and said “Hey, you ready, I’m going to go and buy a race car, you want to go with me?” He didn’t even understand what I was talking about, and then he finally figured out that “Hey, he saved his money! That’s his money.” He didn’t have any money to give me. So that’s when he knew I was serious. When we got the sprint car at that time Bob Hogle had about sixty wins…he said “If you really want to make a mark here, you need to win a hundred”. I says “A hundred! Are you serious?” I thought that was way out there. And I’ve always tried to do what we set out to do. That’s why I’ve always tried to win the most races.
That’s why you weren’t a point racer.
You wanted to win races.
I want to win races. And all those years that Shuman won the championship, I won way more money. Way more money. For the win.
And you had a really strong fan base. Reading the old articles, you were a popular driver, because you were going to win it or wear it.
Yep, I was a pleaser. (laughs)
What were some of your favorite tracks?
The only track I didn’t like was Putnamville, Indiana.
The biggest, the worst track I’ve ever been on in my life. I got hurt there, but that’s not the reason…but in’85 I stuck a throttle down the back straightaway and broke my wrist.
I liked El Centro, me and Shuman had some good races down there.
Ascot was fun.
Was it your favorite?
Um… I think so, because it was just different, it was really tacky and…
Did you like Ventura?
Yeah. When we first went there, we won more than our share.
You’ve done well at Ventura.
Yeah, I’ve crashed at Ventura too (laughing)
Me and Mike Kirby were both trying to win a race and we’re both running side by side and we split a lap car getting into one and the lap car happened to see him first and so when he saw him he went like this (indicates turning away from Kirby) and I ran over his right rear and put me up into the chain link fence, it took forever to get the car down. We were splitting cars, it was a hell of a race…and then he got to the lapped car before I did and lapped car just saw him and moved over and it wasn’t anyone's fault.
How about Santa Maria, do you like that track?
Oh yeah, love that track.
Did you know Forte.
Oh yeah, Doug…
Oh yeah. He knew how to prep a track. It was always the same.
That’s the tackiest track I’ve ever seen and some people tell me that the only track they ever saw tackier than that was Ascot.
Ascot was tacky (chuckling)…That’d pull your shoes off when you went from the grandstands down.
Where’d they get their clay?
At the cemetery across the street. They’d stockpile the dirt and they’d haul it over.
From digging graves, you gotta be kidding me?
The first loads came out of Hollywood, from what I understand, came out of Hollywood somewhere. But they used to stockpile the grave dirt over there and put it on the track.
It was black clay, really dark.
How about Hanford?
I like Bakersfield.
How about Perris?
I like Perris. Most tracks are fast through the corners, Perris is kinda slow right in the middle of the corner…where like Manzanita, or some of the other tracks are fast all the way around….Perris is fast down the straight-aways and then the corners are kinda slow compared to other tracks…It used to be real technical when they had good clay on it, the clay is not as good as it used to be anymore.
Just a couple of things more I want to ask you before I run out of tape here…What about drivers, do you have any favorite drivers? I mean, you’ve been at it a long time, who stands out in your mind?
Bubby. He was just so effortless driving a racecar. It was amazing. Even when he came back, he retired and he came back he could still whoop everybody.
What do you mean by effortless?
He used to just sit back and it looked like he wasn’t even driving it. He’s just sit back and drive. Look at me, I’m all hunched over the wheel and stuff and you know, I’m trying to get it done and he’s just kinda sitting back…(chuckles)
What about Tony Simon, didn’t you have a strong relationship with him?
Yeah, Tony Simon helped me build engines and stuff when I first started. I knew how to build engines; he helped me put the camshaft in, and told me what we needed to do. Yeah Tony Simon, he was the first guy to help me…he helped me with chassis’ and stuff like that. But in ‘81 Bub showed up, that’s when it really took off.
Did you race against Tony?
Oh yeah, the first race I ever won I beat him; he was driving for the Tamale Wagon. I was driving my own racecar and I beat him.
That was at Ascot?
That was Ascot.
He lost his arm, didn’t he?
Santa Maria, were you at that race?
No, that was early, that was ’73 maybe, I’m not positive, somewhere around there. Yeah, I never knew him when he had his hand. They said he was something when he had both hands. He was pretty good with a hook! I’ll tell you that.
So now you got two kids, soon probably three kids racing with you.
Yeah, we got Logan, he’s running, he used to run Victorville, I don’t know what he’s going to do with that track, I’ve heard it’s not going to happen..
It still might, I don’t know. Hopefully it does because that’s where the kids really learned how to race.
Good track. I forgot to ask about that one.
Yeah, good track. I ran there twice. You can run her down in turn three as hard as you want.
Now, you broke your foot in 2008?
Broke all the metatarsals on the left foot and broke three of the four toes.
And ironically, you have been winless since then…
Before that crash was your last win.
Is that tough, being winless? Or are you satisfied with your run?
Well, the focus has changed, because when I was hurt, Jack Jory, you know I told Jack after I got hurt, I got out of the hospital, I came down here and I said “why don’t you hire a driver? Put him in the car and I’ll still do and let’s go race. And he looks at me he says “why don’t we just put Cody in the car?” I said “He’s going to be a rookie, Jack.” I said He’s young and doesn’t know how to do it very good yet, and he’s got a long way to go and there’s going to be a lot of crashing” and he says “Put Cody in the car”. I said “All right (slowly), are you sure?” He says “Yeah.” So Cody ran all that year and when I came back I said “Ok, we’ll get Cody out of the car and he say’s “No, we’ll just run two.” “Jack”, I said, “it’s going to cost you a fortune. I said are you sure you want to run two? He says yeah. And then the next year, during the winter, he said “What are you going to do with Austin?” I never thought about it. He says “Why don’t we build a car for him?” “Man”, I said, “you want three race cars, Jack?” and he says “Yeah”. I said “You’re crazy”.
What kind of guy is Jack?
If you came down here, walked in here and there’s ten guys in here working on cars, you wouldn’t even know who he was, unless you’ve seen his picture. He might be sweeping the floor. Just a regular guy. Loves racing.
Why, what is about racing?
(softly) I don’t know….I don’t know.
Why would you invest your whole life in racing, what is it about it?
I don’t know. Good question. I don’t know, I just always loved, the part that I always liked the most was coming down to the shop, being with your friends, all week, being with your friends on the weekend…a lot of people aren’t with their friends, they may be with their friends two weeks from now, back with one of their friends….I’m with my friends the whole time. I think that’s the major thing, and then when you go to the racetrack…and we all win together, there’s nothing like it. That’s what I get out of it, is seeing everybody have fun. That’s it.
I distracted you, what you told me is when you broke your foot, the focus changed.
Yeah, we’ll the kids started racing. You know, Cody was racing, I was helping him, then I came back and there was both of us racing together and you know I put more focus on him, and then when Austin came along, now I got focus on two cars and I just drive mine. Because I used to concentrate, I was really focused and everything and now it’s a distraction like, and I think that’s the biggest part, I’m more concerned about making them go good than me. So whatever’s left over, yeah, put it on my car, I’ll drive it…(laughs)
So it’s not bothering you if you’re not winning now?
No, not really…softly…It’s all about the kids now. You know, I did it. I already did what I did, so I enjoy racing with them and I enjoy racing, but to get out there and win you have got to be more focused, I am more focused on them.
Are you going to retire from racing?
I don’t know.
What do you want to teach your kids, what is the most important thing?
Just to drive, just drive safe and don’t bugger anybody, bad slide jobs and stuff like that, old school…give em room, if they squeeze you and mess with you, then take care of it, but other than that….
So it sounds like you are saying be a clean racecar driver?
That’s what I think. And I’ve been labeled as a dirty racecar driver my whole life, but…
Pretty much…I was really super aggressive.
It was a fair label?
No, because a lot of times when some guy crashed, they had done something to me. It might have been a year ago, that they didn’t see, but I never gave anybody something they didn’t deserve. You gotta stand up for yourself. It might have been two years later I got the guy back. But I did. It doesn’t matter.
Looking back, do you think racing for yourself or racing for your kids, which is better?
I like to see them go and I like to see the progression, that’s exciting to me.
See them grow?
Yeah, see them grow, that’s enjoyable. They got a ways to go, they aren’t by any means at the top of the list yet but they’re getting there. I don’t push them real hard, it all comes from inside…if you got to push somebody, they’re probably not going to be a racecar driver. You got to push yourself; you got to want to do it yourself.
Could you describe Cody’s style.
He’s like Shuman, careful, calculating, smart. Austin’s more like I am.
Aggressive. Trying to get the job done. Both styles win races. Both styles win championships. It doesn’t matter.
Without diminishing the danger in racing, it’s a lot safer now; you saw a lot of people die early in your career.
Ascot, they used to kill two a year. It was not; it’s still not a safe sport.
But it’s a lot safer!
Yeah, it’s safer. Like I tell the kids, the first thing you have to think about is when you leave and the door slams behind you, you don’t know if you’re coming home. If you don’t like that, then don’t drive them. (very softly) Don’t drive them. If you can accept that, then drive them.
I saw an interview once where you said that you didn’t mind your kids racing with you because it was better they got hurt then they got in trouble. It’s hard to fix trouble but you can always fix bones. That’s an interesting philosophy.
Well, I know a lot of guys who spend a lot of money getting their kids off drugs and stuff. My kids are with me four nights a week in the race shop and then on the weekends they’re with me, there’s not too much time to get in trouble. I think that’s worth whatever comes in the racecar.
Does your wife come to the races?
Oh yeah. She probably, she hasn’t missed very many.
Is she in the pits or in the stands?
She goes in the stands.
It’s a beautiful lifestyle.
It’s been fun. We traveled all back East; we raced back East for about three to four weeks out of every year for, I don’t know, ten years. That was fun. Take off and go racing. Can’t do that anymore, but….
CRA, SCRA, USAC/CRA, I don’t know what’s next. Was one any better than the other?
I would think the best years of sprint car racing was when Gary Sokola ran CRA. Gary Sokola, you know, he was perfect because he was an asshole to everybody. He had no favorites, he wasn’t going to give you a break, he didn’t care who you were, he didn’t care what you’ve done, it’s all the same. Ascot was the home track, seventy to eighty cars in the pits…Just trying to make the show. Because you had top four in the heat race, otherwise you had to go to the semi. So let’s say you’re in the top eight in qualifying, that means you’re in the last row of the heat races. You got eight cars in the heat race and they’re all good drivers. That’s why I was in a lot of semi’s. You know, couldn’t make it, couldn’t get through there. And a lot of times if you couldn’t make it safely through the heat race, then you ran the semi. Especially if you had a pretty good (qualifying) time, you start in the front.
And you were determined to make the show, so you were the King of the Semi’s.
I wanted to make the show. Last thing I wanted to do was crash in the heat race. A lot of times if you couldn’t get by, sometimes Ascot was really tacky and hard to pass, so a lot of times you had to take what you got. And so that’s why, if you qualified in the top eight, chances are, the semi’s would have Bubby and Dean and all them guys in there, they couldn’t make it through all the time.
If you go back, no one’s ever done it yet and I’ve mentioned it to some people, if you go back to all those Pacific Coast Opens at Ascot, there’s a whole lot of Hall of Famers in there. A lot of them. And you look at the semi, that didn’t make the show, there’s some there too. I mean that’s how it was, if you weren’t on you’re A-Game, you didn’t make the show. It was hard. Challenge, it was a challenge to make the show. And I enjoyed that, trying to make the show.
Did you hate starting in the back of the Main?
Just start me. Someone asked me one time, I think it was the one of the big races, “you’re starting dead last”. Better than not being in the show. You can’t win if you don’t start, that’s the way I always looked at it. Just start me. I don’t care where I start. If your car is good and you’ve got it together that day, you’ll go to the front. Like that Vegas race that you mentioned, I crashed Jory’s car in the semi, and then Mark Priestly and English, we used to haul their car in our trailer. And so, I was running for the championship and stuff and they offered me the car and I started dead last. I came from last, I got in another crash, I was really dinged up. I walked away and I came back and I was going to tell English to drive the car, because I wasn’t feeling good. I go in the back and he’s already undressed. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have drove, because I would have told him “just drive it”. But he was already undressed, so I can’t tell him to get dressed again, so I drove the car and there was about an eight-car pileup on the back straightaway. It took like twenty minutes to clear all the stuff out. And I walked around and got something to drink and felt better. About halfway through the race, I’m starting to count, I’m about eight, I’m starting to think I can win this! I was content just going around in circles because I wasn’t feeling that good. Well I just got on the gas mode and went to the front and won the race. That was probably the most memorable race that I ever had, it was fun. And it’s a car I’d never driven.
Postscript: On March 31st, 2012, Mike Spencer defeated Nic Faas in what is considered one the greatest races ever at Perris. Rip Williams was in the hunt the entire time, working his way up to fifth before a mechanical problem took him out. Austin Williams was hard charger that night going from eighteenth to fifth. Cody Williams had a spectacular crash early in the main event. At fifty-six years old, Rip Williams shows few signs of slowing down.