Special Feature: At age 72, Benny Rapp still strapping into the driver's seat
14 April 2000By Don Radebaugh
Toledo's got ARCA, Corporal Klinger, Tony Packos, glass, the Beales......and Benny Rapp
From inadequate Cromwell helmets to the finest head-gear Simpson Safety has to offer; from Toledo Raceway Park to the tip of South Africa, Benny Rapp, at 72 years young, is still gettin' it done.
Toledo, Ohio--In 1946, World War II was over, 'give 'em hell' Harry Truman was president, neither NASCAR nor Dale Earnhardt were yet born, the Daytona 500 would not be invented for another 13 years, George Robson won the Indy 500, Midgets and Sprints had no roll-cages, and Benny Rapp, with his favorite Cromwell helmet, first climbed aboard a race car. Now in his 7th decade of racing and winning, this particular road warrior is still cinching up the safety belts.
Benjamin Franklin Rapp was born in Toledo, Ohio before the Great Depression on March 11th, 1928. Now, at an age when many are most concerned with negotiating their next step, Rapp celebrated his 72nd birthday in victory lane in South Africa aboard his #14 winged sprinter to an adoring standing ovation. "I couldn't believe it," said Rapp. "Or maybe they couldn't believe it; I'm not sure which. I guess nobody was expecting this old man was gunna win. But when we did, the people went bonkers. It felt great. They even drove me and my wife around the track as sort of a victory parade lap. We won 3 races over there out of, I think, 20-some races."
With a profile that few in motorsports can match, Rapp's amazing career, which began in a Midget at the old Fort Miami Speedway in Toledo, has seasoned him like no other. Most always aboard his own equipment, the rising star was a perennial threat to win anywhere he roamed; and roamed he did far and wide within the ranks of AAA, ARCA, IMCA, USAC, SOD, URC, All Star Sprints, Indy Cars and more. He won his first race in an Offenhauser-powered Midget at the old 3/8ths, high-banked Jackson, Michigan clay oval in '47, and never looked back.
Through the 60s and 70s, IMCA, USAC and the URC kept most of his attention throughout the Midwest, up and down the Eastern seaboard and West to Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. As an IMCA Sprint star, Rapp finished in the top-10 in points in 10 different years competing against local legends Bob Kinser, Jerry Richert, Bobby Grim, Jud Larson, Dick Gaines and countless other IMCA circuit riders. When it was USAC in the late 60s and 70s, names like Foyt, Bettenhausen, Unser, Beale, Dickson, Parsons and Rutherford were his closest challengers. "I can still remember the day in '66 like it was yesterday when Rutherford (Johnny) sailed over the backstretch wall at Eldora and broke both arms."
Having been a regular on the USAC sprint trail for 5 seasons, Rapp got offered a ride in an Indy Car in '77, a Ford-powered rear engine ride that carried sponsorship from Encyclopedia Britannica. '72 USAC Sprint Car champion, the late Sammy Sessions, had driven the car that same season at Pocono. "We had engine trouble at Milwaukee and Michigan and finally blew it up at Trenton. She caught fire down the backstretch, and I remember the firemen chasing me with fire extinguishers but I wasn't about to stop and let the fire catch up to me. I let it burn out before I stopped. The firemen weren't too happy but I climbed out clean." Through one of the most hazardous eras of racing, Rapp has somehow, someway emerged virtually unscathed. "Hell I got hurt worse at work than I ever did in a race car." Unfortunately, so many from that treacherous era cannot make the same claim.
To many, the renowned Little 500 at Anderson Speedway Indiana is a perennial favorite, and has always played a part in the ongoing Rapp racing tour. Rapp sat on the pole in the Little 500 on 2 occasions breaking the track record there in '65 and finished 2nd in the event twice. In every 500 he has started, and there were many, he is proud to say he finished everyone. Not for the faint of heart, the Little 500 starts 33 sprint cars 3-abreast for 500 grueling laps around the tight Anderson 1/4 mile bullring.
"Against my doctor's wishes, I was back in a race car 5 months after my heart bypass surgery. It sounds crazy I know, but it was the perfect medicine for me. I haven't felt this good in a long time. Overall, I just feel great. Now if I could just get someone to sponsor me, I'd feel a whole lot better."
Rapp, like he most often has, sponsors himself. At present, his crew consists of himself and his son Mike.
"Telegraph Brake Service gives me all my fuel and Lyden Oil supplies us with all our oil. Other than that, it's me and Mike. We're not opposed to sponsorship though, and we've got plenty of room on the wing and everywhere else if anyone's interested. Our Tognotti's up for sale," said Rapp as he leans over to work on his brand new Beaber-Built chassis in his one-room garage behind his home. "Johnny (Beaber) just finished this for us. We have a new Shaver engine too. Although it was built for dirt, (AVSS is all pavement) so we may have to swap cams. I've got my Dowker engine getting rebuilt too. We expect to be ready for the season opener at Auto City (Speedway) on May 6th."
Being ready this year means a full assault on the Auto Value Super Sprint schedule, a tour that, at present, has 26 events on it - not exactly a cake walk. Interestingly enough, the AVSS schedule will take the crafty veteran right back to his roots with stops at Winchester and Salem Speedways, Angola Motor Speedway as well as Berlin Raceway, the Indianapolis Speedrome and Kalamazoo to name a few, and even as far as Cedar Rapids Iowa to Hawkeye Downs Speedway.
But unlike many in the business, Rapp's victory tours ain't no dog and pony PR parade. He's in it to win, and amazingly, he's still proving he can. Last year at Toledo Speedway, in a Pennzoil Winged Super Sprint show that saw 29 first-class sprinters on hand, Rapp set quick time and finished 3rd in the main event. The night after, Rapp checked in through the back gate at Flat Rock and finished 4th. Flat Rock, a punishing 1/4 mile where you're always coming out of the seat, is not exactly the place you expect to see 70-something drivers buckling up.
Rapp's last championship came in '90 at the ripe young age of 62. After 1 feature win coupled with unbelievable consistency, the ageless veteran conquered the SOD (Sprints on Dirt) championship. And it was in '90 that SOD was at its height with driver talent with the Fedewas, the Tylers, Hank Lower, Chuck Wilson, John Naida, Gary Beale and many others. In doing so, Rapp earned the distinction of becoming the oldest person in the history of major league sprint car racing to win a championship in a sanctioned touring series. He was then duly inducted into the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame in '91. Of course he was. It's a no-brainer.
In '94, Rapp traveled to the prestigious Knoxville Iowa Fairgrounds for the Legends Hall of Fame Classic. At 66, he was the oldest to start the A-main of which he led more than half of.
"We were way out in front when the caution came out about half way through the feature. My right rear went from hot to cool in a hurry. It sealed over shinny as a nickel and wouldn't hook up anymore, but we still finished 4th." Rick Ferkel won the event. When Rapp climbed out, and as the cameras clicked away at the old warrior, the momentary silence was broken by a lone voice. "Hey Benny, when did you learn to drive like that?" And as the casual onlookers strained an ear to hear what he'd say, "1946," came the snappy reply.
His name is familiar to many, but probably relatively few realize the breadth of Rapp's contribution to, sacrifice for and accomplishments in 7 perpetual decades of racing. The Michigan Hall of Fame? Hell, he belongs in the Smithsonian. But Rapp has never sought the publicity, but it, rightfully so, dutifully seeks him. Add to what he's done to what he's still doing at 72 and you get one of, if not the most amazing motorsports stories of all time. And if you ask Benny, he'll simply say, "I'm just a racer, and I'm just getting started."
Editor's note: Is this man/program not extremely marketable? And couldn't he be in the running for some sponsorship? Is there anyone who would be at least willing to help with tires?, although complete sponsorship would be more effective for the sponsoring entity. Benny can be reached at www.rappracing.com or (734) 847-1585. Thank you for your consideration.