Presented by Racemaker Press

"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Remembering Bill Alsup, a good man

by Gordon Kirby
Bill Alsup died with his boots on last week while operating a crane at a remote backcountry site in the mountains near Silverton, Colorado. The crane rolled while he was accelerating up a steep hill and the 78 year old Alsup was killed instantly. Alsup won both the SCCA's Super Vee championship and USAC's Mini-Indy series in 1978 before moving up to Indy cars. Running his own car he was CART's first rookie of the year in 1979 and drove in 57 Indy car races through 1984.

Alsup's best year came in 1981 when he finished second to Rick Mears in CART's championship, driving a third Penske entry in most races and his own car in the others. He finished third twice in 1981 making the podium at Riverside and Watkins Glen. Alsup also made half a dozen attempts to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, but made the field only once, in 1981, finishing 11th.

Born in Honolulu on July 15, 1938, Alsup was raised in San Francisco and built his career in Woodstock, Vermont amid the burgeoning recreational skiing business. He became the American importer for Poma lifts and was a renowned master cable splicer and stringer. Alsup started his racing career on moto-cross 'bikes and moved up through Formula Fords and Super Vees. He also raced long-distance sports cars with some success.

I had the pleasure of first meeting Alsup back in 1971 when he and his friend Robbie Patterson were racing a pair of Caldwell Formula Fords. My friend David Loring was a fast-rising FF1600 racer in those days and also raced a Caldwell with some factory support from Autodynamics in Marblehead, Massachusetts where the cars were built. In 1971 David enjoyed a stellar year winning 21 races and four championships, including a Quebec-based Jim Russell Championship.

© Paul Webb
In theory, the winner of the Russell series would earn a factory Lotus Formula 3 ride the following year so Loring was particularly motivated to win the championship. At mid-season he was on course to achieve his goal but a tire war had arrived in Formula Ford that year and in practice for a race at St. Jovite it was clear that David's Goodyear tires weren't as good as new tires from Dunlop and Firestone. Because of his relationship with Autodynamics, Loring was committed to running on Goodyears and things were not looking good for the weekend.

That was when Alsup stopped by and suggested that David and he switch tires so that Loring raced on Alsup's Dunlop tires while Bill ran on David's less competitive Goodyears. We were worried that Ray Caldwell would be unhappy when he heard of the switch but Alsup said he would finesse the matter with Caldwell. Bill insisted David race on his tires and so he did, winning the race and adding to his championship lead. In my forty plus years of covering racing I don't believe I've witnessed a more selfless move than Alsup's that day.

Alsup went on to race Super Vees with considerable success. In 1978 he won both the SCCA's and USAC's Super Vee championships showing his prowess on ovals as well as road circuits. At 40, it was time to make the big step to Indy cars and with CART breaking away from USAC in 1979 Alsup found himself courted by both groups.

For Bill it was a no-brainer. He chose CART because he believed in what the team owners were trying to do and had great faith in CART's founders such as Roger Penske, Pat Patrick, Dan Gurney, Jim Hall, Teddy Mayer and Tyler Alexander.

"Those guys were my heroes and I thought they were trying to do the right thing," Alsup said. "They were trying to make racing more professional, more business-like. I was proud to be part of CART."

Alsup bought an aging Offy-powered McLaren M16C and a well-used transporter from Roger Penske and went racing with a lively group of amateurs who worked for Alsup in the ski business and changed tires and fueled his race car on the weekends. Bill's old friend Robbie Patterson built the engines while Alsup hired experienced race mechanics including Ron Baddeley, John Anderson and Laurie Gerrish to prepare his Indy cars over the next few years.

During these years I often drove to and from the races with Alsup and his guys aboard either Bill's motorhome or truck. Traveling in the truck with Alsup's ace highwayman Reggie Murphy was always an adventure. Reggie did most of the driving while I rode shotgun. He would occasionally allow me to drive relief for a few hours as he caught some shut-eye in the sleeper behind the cab. But it wasn't long before he was stirring and ready to go again.

In the McLaren Offy at Trenton, 1979 ~ © Paul Webb
Reggie kept himself fortified with large cups of iced rum and Cokes and I never saw him make a single driving mistake. He had a favorite liquor store stop just off the interstate in St. Louis, the halfway point on our cross-country drives. More than once we made it from Woodstock, Vermont to the Ontario Motor Speedway in under 60 hours.

Bill's wife Andrea was an attractive, wise-cracking blonde who had majored in English lit in college. Andrea and Bill had two young sons Nipper and A.J. who came to all the races in Bill's motorhome and became successful in their own right in the automobile racing business. Andrea could party with the best of them and was also a very good writer, penning a piece called 'Fire and Rain' for an early issue of Indy Car Racing magazine.

In his rookie Indy car season aboard his McLaren-Offy, Alsup finished all but one race with a trio of ninths his best results. He was fifteenth in points and an easy winner of CART's first rookie of the year award. An enterprising fellow, Alsup was able to sell Polaroid on sponsoring him and with Polaroid's support he bought and raced a Cosworth-powered Penske PC7 in 1980. He finished seventh in the season-opener at the old Ontario Motor Speedway and followed that up by taking fourth in the Pocono 500 and third at Mid-Ohio.

Bill was seventh in CART points in 1980 and his steady, smooth driving caught Roger Penske's eye. Penske was running three cars for Bobby Unser, Rick Mears and Mario Andretti, the latter still primarily occupied with Formula 1. Penske had a good sponsor for Andretti's car in A.B. Dick and needed someone to drive the car in most races when Mario was busy in F1. RP chose Alsup for the job and Bill came through in style.

In 1981 he finished fifth in the season-opener at Phoenix, took fourth in July's Michigan 500 and was a fine third at Riverside the next month behind Mears and Gordon Johncock. At Michigan in September he finished fourth again before taking another third at Watkins Glen and fifth in Mexico City. He finished all but one race and was able to beat Pancho Carter, Johncock and Johnny Rutherford to runner-up in the championship behind Mears.

"I had a lot of teammates throughout the years and Bill was one of the best," Mears said. "He was definitely a team player. He worked well with the team, with myself and all the drivers and engineers. Bill was a racer. He was a good racer and teammate, but all that's secondary to the type of person he was.

"The main thing about Bill was he was just a good guy and that made it fun to be his teammate. We had a lot in common. He loved riding moto-cross 'bikes and we always saw each other and often ran together on Wally Dallenbach's Colorado 500 'bike ride. Bill and I did a lot of bench racing between races and we had a great year together in 1981. Bill will be sorely missed. My condolences to the family."

© Paul Webb
For 1982 Alsup retained A.B. Dick as his sponsor and reverted to running his own car. He finished fifth on the high banked Atlanta Speedway in May and was eighth at Riverside. His best race came at Michigan in September where he qualified fourth and finished sixth.

A.B. Dick pulled out at the end of the year and the next two years proved to be a struggle as Alsup tried to race the one and only Argo Indy car. He switched to a March for the last four races of 1983 but finished only one race and earned no points. In 1984 he again raced both the Argo and his March but started only three races.

He was 46 and the sport was getting too expensive and too technical for a true independent like Alsup. He continued to dabble in sports cars and even did some stock car racing but his serious racing days were over.

Alsup continued to live in Vermont for a few years but for the last twenty-five years he lived in Silverton. He loved the western mountains and enjoyed snowmobiling in the winter. He was voted Silverton's Citizen of the Year in 2002. Bill was also a part-time firefighter with the Silverton San Juan Fire Department and was a member of the San Juan County Historical Society Board.

Wally Dallenbach shared Alsup's love of the Rocky Mountains. A longtime resident of Basalt, Colorado, Dallenbach grew up in New Jersey and was a successful Indy car driver in the late sixties through the seventies. After retiring at the end of 1979, Dallenbach was CART's chief steward from 1980-2000.

"Bill was always a gentleman," Dallenbach said. "He was a quiet guy who was very focused on anything he was interested in. I first met Bill when he started his ski lift business in Vermont and then I got to know him when he raced Indy cars. He also competed on the Colorado 500 motorcycle ride and through that event he fell in love with Colorado and decided he was going to move out here.

© David Hutson
"He first went to Durango, then he found a nice place in Silverton, which is one of the most beautiful mountain areas. It's a small town, an old mining town, very quiet. We always got together with Bill at his place once a year and on the Colorado 500 we would donate some money each year to the Silverton school. We made a presentation at one of the old hotels in town, the Grand Imperial, and Bill was the key guy in making all that happen.

"So we stayed connected through the Colorado 500 and Pepe and I were fortunate to spend some time with Bill at Indianapolis this past May. He was just a good guy and we're going to do something in Bill's memory next week on this year's Colorado 500. I will always remember a lot of good stories about Bill riding with us. He was a gentleman off the track and you never had to worry about him on the track."

The Alsup family will hold a memorial service for Bill at the Silverton school gym next Saturday, August 20 at 2.30 pm. Food and drink will follow at the Silverton San Juan Gilbert Archuletta Fire Station. Nipper and A.J. invite their father's many old friends who are in the area to attend.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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