I was Raised on Lunchmeat Sandwiches and Nitromethane with Mike Sopko
If there was ever a biography of my life I would like this to be the title. To clear up any misconceptions however, I must add that no, my parents never fed me any nitro, but I have eaten plenty of lunchmeat sandwiches especially while sitting in the stands at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Rather this is a metaphor for the story of my life. I have long come to the realization that our lives all have stories that are made up of various chapters. Chances are if you are reading this drag racing is also a part of your story. And it is the unique challenges, excitement, and the bond drag racing addicts have that makes it such a compelling part of our lives.
For me nitromethane is also a metaphor for drag racing in general. I have unfortunately never driven a racecar, let alone one fueled on nitro, but the fact that nitromethane is pretty much exclusive to the various forms of drag racing I thought would make it a good title. Plus, flames are just cool!
So then how has nitromethane or drag racing played such a vital role in my life? Well I will attempt to answer that while sharing with you the drag racing story of my father and I. Some of you may know us or be familiar with our work. Others of you may not, but it is my wish that this article will serve as a written description of the bond that many of us share, and especially the drag racing inspired bond my father and I have.
My Dad and I share the same name, Mike Sopko, though to keep it less confusing at the races he goes by Mike Sopko Sr. and I by Mike Sopko Jr., though truthfully by the rules we are not really senior nor junior, but hell let’s not squabble over the finer points of name guidelines. As I mentioned we have never really had a “racecar” though my Dad and his best friend partnered on a 64 Impala that they raced for some time and I had taken my 18 second Neon down the track a few times (Dad made it to the finals in his first race and I once had a reaction time of .509 on a .500s tree). Instead Dad has lived his drag racing fantasies vicariously through a camera lens, which meant that I grew up in a house with more drag racing photos than family photos, though there were plenty of both. As I grew my Dad taught me the tricks of the trade just like he taught me how to catch a baseball. The work I referred to earlier is the website my Dad runs http://www.quartermileclassics.com/ which displays some of our best photos from the late 60’s to the present.
I will now share with you how we got to this point and how fortunate we are to be a part of this new drag racing endeavor, Nostalgia Drag World. Part of our drag racing experience has been the music that has served as the soundtrack for our excursions, so I will attempt title the various stories with classic rock lyrics from the multitude of songs that rang out from our car as we traveled the highways from home to strip and back again.
Where the Great Ones Run
I’m a firm believer that many of the circumstances or situations that unfold in our lives occur for a reason that has some correlation with a desired goal or plan, though it may not be easily seen or recognized at that time. Often times this is not realized till much later if at all. I’m not so much referring to this as destiny as I am offering that there was clearly a reason for the events that have preceded our current place in time. For myself as an example, where drag racing is so profoundly a passion in my life, my grandparents who had basically no interest in drag racing whatsoever were the ones that put the proverbial “slicks” in motion. My grandparents could never have guessed what they started when they purchased a nice family home on about an acre of land off of Colorado Street in Merrillville, Indiana. For those of you not familiar with this town located in the Northwest section of Indiana, this home that my father grew up in was literally within walking distance from the legendary US 30 Dragstrip: Where the Great Ones Run.
On an educational note, though the location was most often referred to as Gary, Indiana this is somewhat akin to practice of referring to location by the nearest large city. Other examples include the fact that Indianapolis Raceway Park is actually in Clermont instead of Indianapolis or how Route 66 Dragway is in Joliet instead of Chicago. National Trail Raceway is located in Hebron rather than Columbus. So I’m guessing you get the point. Back to how we got here.
My grandparents further “flipped the ignition switch” on our passion when they chose to send my Dad to a nearby Catholic school rather than the local public school. It was here that my Dad became best friends with a classmate (and current Division 3 Super Street racer) Larry Rzepzcynski. Larry lived even closer to the strip and brought some pictures to school that showed the origin of the sounds that Dad had been hearing. The pictures clearly stoked Dad’s curiosity and with the progression of events he found himself attending weekly events with Larry at the track. Wanting to bring some of the action back home with him, Dad soon began taking a camera. However, in order to do that he would have to ask his mother if he could borrow her Kodak Instamatic camera each week. Grandma usually obliged, but Dad felt bad for having to borrow it so much. So on a few occasions he went without and missed some photos he wishes he could have back now.
From the late 60’s up to its closing in 1984, Dad surely attended hundreds and hundreds of races, including the Wednesday night funny car match races that were popular at the time. And each time he attended he would bring his still camera or 8mm movie camera. These devices recorded a significant amount of Midwestern Drag Racing history.
During the heyday of US 30 Dragstrip Dad worked at the nearby Holiday Inn where many of the racers would stay. The best part was that he was able to see which cars and drivers would be racing that upcoming weekend. Even on one occasion Dad talked to the wife of Gordon Mineo who shared the terrible news that the accident Dad witnessed of funny car driver Billy Grooms had been fatal. Other such unique opportunities that Dad took advantage of was the opportunity of being the tow car for Twig Ziggler’s Pizza Haven Satellite funny car on a couple of occasions. And how many people can say they spent their one year wedding anniversary at a drag race as my parents had (Dad was a little more enthusiastic about this than Mom-but their son ended up doing the same thing).
Dad’s racing adventures weren’t always limited to US 30. In fact he grew up and we both continue to live in a fairly central location to Midwestern dragstrips. We live about 2 ½ hours from Indy, Great Lakes, and Martin. Tracks like Byron and Cordova (though Dad hadn’t attended Cordova until about 10 years ago) are just a little bit further. Dad has also attended the Springnationals at Columbus (I never made it, bummer!). In recent years we have added Eddyvile and Bowling Green to our list of attended tracks. Dad has gone as far east as Reading and I one upped him by attending Englishtown in 2002.
Anyway as you may have guessed Dad had his camera handy and spent a fair share of money and time having his pictures printed and cataloging them. Some of these pictures even were published in National Dragster. Many of you may have even seen them. A couple include Shirley losing her right rear wheel at Martin during the Popular Hot Rodding Meet, and the incredible Tim Grose accident at Columbus. Though those represent just a couple of accident plagued pictures, Dad’s albums are full of great shots that chronicled what to many was a magical time in drag racing. I doubt that Dad ever realized the tremendous impact this would have on his son and the relationship that would transpire.
Welcome My Son, Welcome to the Machine
To be honest neither one of us are Pink Floyd fans, but I have always thought that this line encapsulated what it must be like to bring your child to his/her first drag race. I hope to share the same experience with my 3 ½ year old son this year.
March 21, 1981 I was born to my parents with the proclamation from Mom to my Dad that “Your little drag racer is here.” I don’t think Mom could have ever envisioned at that time just how true that would be. At about 2 ½ years old my parents began taking me to the races. One of their favorite stories that they like to retell is how I managed to sleep through a night session of Top Fuel and Funny Car at US 30, while sitting approximately 25 feet away from the track. Some may think that must have meant that I was a pretty sound sleeper or had an exhausting day at the track. I like to believe that just illustrated how comfortable I was there.
Growing up I poured over my Dad’s pictures with him, memorizing many of the drivers and cars that all seemed so legendary to me and that many may have forgotten about after their cars were parked for eternity. For me it wasn’t just the Garlitses, Prudhommes, Jungle Jims, or the McEwenes. It was the Color Me Gone of Roger Lindamood, the Creasys with Animal Al Marshall, Fearless Fred Goeskee, Dick Custy, Mike VanSant and the Invader, Cliff Brown in the Chicago Kid, Gary Bolger’s Gold Digger, Ron O’Donnell’s Damn Yankee, and Lee Austin’s beautiful front engine dragsters that I was well versed in (there is actually a side to me that wonders how many of today’s young drag racing stars would recognize any of these names and feel that it is somewhat disrespectful to the sport to not know its history-but that’s another point for another day).
I grew up in a house where we never had the resources for me to get my hands dirty tinkering on our latest project or hot rod. I never had a truck and trailer parked at my house ready to go to the next track. Instead, we recorded every race we could on our VCR (how ancient that seems now with DVRs). The early years of my drag racing life seem as if they were narrated by Dave McClelland and Steve Evans as I nearly wore out the tapes of all the races we recorded. Though we didn’t have a racecar Dad taught me the finer points of building models, and we had a slot car track from Dad’s childhood that we would race and play with. Unfortunately, he never let me do a fire burnout as he had done in his youth-I try not to hold that against him. Hot Wheels also were in abundance in our house and I routinely drag raced them on our tile kitchen floor often resulting in crashes that would take the finish off of the kitchen table base. My bedroom walls were covered with drag racing hero cards with them even hanging from the closet doors. I even remember fellow contributor Rick Krafft’s Jay’s Potato Chip Arrow with the GINORMOUS injector scoop hero card hanging up behind my door.
One of the more unique aspects of my house other than the pictures was a gift my Mom gave to my Dad many years earlier. My Mom was fairly adept at painting ceramic sculptures as I was growing up and she painted a 2 ½ foot tall cobra for my Dad as a replica of the stars and stripes snake that adorned the side of Prudhomme’s Army cars. Yeah, we were and are just that addicted. cont...on next page