West Coast Top Alcohol Funny Car pioneer Lou Gasparrelli died April 4 after a long battle with cancer. He was 68.
Gasparrelli earned national event wins and division championships late in his driving career and as an owner after son Steve took over driving in 1998. Fans at Southern California dragstrips from the 1960s through the 1990s have fond memories of watching Gasparrelli race.
Wasting no time after he earned his driver’s license at age 16 in 1959, Gasparrelli took his father’s ’54 Mercury down the strip at San Gabriel Raceway. He bought a ’60 Chevrolet the next year and raced it almost every weekend. He married Vickie in 1961 and established his business, East Valley Brake and Auto Repair in Monrovia, Calif., in 1967.
Throughout the early 1960s, Gasparrelli ran a ’29 pickup in A/Street Roadster at tracks such as Lions Drag Strip, Fontana Drag City, and San Gabriel Raceway. His first serious race car was a ’51 Anglia powered by an injected 413 Chrysler that was later replaced with a blown Rat motor. In 1970, he built a tube-chassis AA/Gas Supercharged Corvette with a blown 392 Chrysler. The Corvette body was replaced with a Mercury Satellite in 1973, and he ran that car until 1975.
One of Gasparrelli’s favorite and most successful race cars was a ’75 Vega that he ran for several years. Though he only appeared on the NHRA trail with the car at the Winternationals and NHRA Finals every year, he match raced extensively with it and won several events, and he reached the Pro Comp final at a Division 7 event in Fremont, Calif. In 1979, he put a Firebird body on it and ran that until he built his next car, a Camaro that was destroyed in a collision on its first pass in qualifying at the 1983 Winternationals. He returned later in the season with a brand-new Camaro that he campaigned for two years. Around that time, the match racing scene began drying up, and Gasparrelli began following the NHRA points-race series.
The Gasparrelli family celebrated Lou's victory at the 1986 Winternationals.
He put a Ford Tempo body on his car during the off-season that led to his first national event victory, at the 1986 Winternationals, one of the biggest highlights of his career. He won his first of 11 division races the following season. Gasparrelli’s next car was a Victory-built Daytona that made its debut in 1988. He bested Brad Anderson, who had won seven of the previous eight division titles, for the 1990 Division 7 crown and scored again when he finished ahead of Gary Scelzi in 1992. He ranked No. 7 in the national standings in 1992, the first of four times that he would place in the top 10.
Gasparrelli scored his second national event win at the 1993 Winternationals, a significant victory for several reasons. He had been diagnosed with cancer Dec. 17, 1992, when he had his driver’s physical and had surgery Dec. 22 followed by radiation treatments that lasted until the week of the Winternationals.
In 1970, Gasparrelli ran this AA/Gas Supercharged Corvette with a 392 Chrysler.
Gasparrelli, with son Steven on his knee, and partner Wayne Koeppe and crew.
Gasparrelli traded his successful car for another Daytona that he drove to his third national event victory, at the 1994 Sonoma event, and his third Division 7 title later that season. He switched to a Dodge Avenger with Orion sponsorship in 1995, and his team was sponsored by Prisms Unlimited for several years beginning in 1996. His last full season behind the wheel was 1997, and he made it a good one by capturing the Division 7 crown again and finishing in the top 10. Steve took over driving duties, though Gasparrelli pinch-hit for him at the beginning of the 2000 season when Steve had a foot injury.
Gasparrelli got to see Steve mature as a driver and carry on his legacy. Steve has equaled his father’s feat of winning four Division 7 championships, the most recent in 2010. Gasparrelli, who provided a guiding hand in his son’s 10 national event wins, was forced into a reduced role in his later years as he battled cancer, though he kept fighting and traveling to races around his chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Gasparrelli will be remembered as one of the pioneers of what became the Top Alcohol Funny Car class, a family-oriented man whose kids grew up at Southern California racetracks. His manner was kind and modest, though his right foot was clearly outspoken. Gasparrelli always got to race the way he liked to; he didn’t run as full a schedule as he might have liked when he was driving, but he always went to the starting line with the best components available.
Gasparrelli is survived by wife Vickie, brother Michael, son Steve, daughter Shari, daughter-in-law Janina, and grandchildren Jillian and Tobin.