It’s a sad fact of life that we don’t often enough get to tell people how we feel about them or to truly appreciate them before we lose them. I’ve felt that way numerous times, and every time that I write about someone we’ve lost – be it last week or 20 years ago – I always get that same twinge.
I remember sitting down in late 1996 with Blaine Johnson’s family – Mom, Dad, sister, brother Alan -- for a lengthy series of interviews to share his life story in National DRAGSTER after we lost him, and even though I thought I knew Blaine pretty well, I learned things about him I never knew, and my appreciation for who he was away from the racetrack grew enormously.
And each time that I do a “Remembering …” column here, I get a ton of email and comments from people sharing their great memories and thoughts that only again make me wish I knew the subject better. Such was the case with Tripp Shumake. There was an outpouring of comments on my Facebook page after I posted a link to last week’s column, which included touching comments by his daughter, Heather, and, of course, the ol’ Insider Inbox runneth over with similar comments. Below are some of the best.
Al Booton sent this memorable pic of Shumake enjoying a less-than-great moment at the 1982 Southern Nationals, a year after his breakthrough win there. Recalled Booton, “After it ran in SS&DI, the next time I saw Tripp, I asked if he had seen it. He said yes and he would like to have an 8 by 10 and gave me a business card that had Johnny Loper's shop address on it. The next race, I asked if he got it, and he said, ‘Heck no; it's hanging on Johnny's office wall,’ so the next print went to Tripp's house. Now they are both gone, as are many of the great early racers.”
J.R. Ybarra had a great memory of Shumake running Loper’s car and Joe Pisano's car at Orange County Int’l Raceway.
“I distinctly remember one qualifying run in the Pisano Camaro where the car was drifting towards the centerline, and he absolutely refused to lift and legged it to a 6.03, which, if I remember, was low e.t. for qualifying at the time. I just stood there and shook my head in amazement. He is very much missed by SoCal Funny Car fans."
Conveniently, Ybarra found a video of that exact run – lensed by prolific OCIR videographer Dwight Guild in June 1983 -- which can be watched at right. Dig those dry hops! I believe that’s the late Richard Schroeder making the call.
Kim Engstfeld, who currently serves as a crewmember on Twig Zeigler’s Nostalgia Funny Car, recalled meeting Shumake in 1976 while working on Zeigler’s original Pizza Haven flopper. “He was a great guy and very knowledgeable to a cocky 18-year-old,” he remembered fondly. “No matter how much of a smart mouth I had, he was determined to be nice to me. At the 1977 Fallnationals, he was driving the Powers Steel Camaro with Dan Geare tuning it. It was only the two guys, and they needed help servicing the car. I went over to say hi, and Tripp drafted me and my brother to help with the car. They made it to the semi's and fell short, but every time he was in Seattle after that, he and Mr. Loper had my brother and me doing odd jobs for them. So just to say he was a great guy is not enough; he was a great man that left us way too soon.”
Don Thomas had a brief but similarly pleasing encounter with Shumake in the 1970s. “The thing about Tripp that really stuck with me was the quality within that time he gave to me,” he wrote. “I asked him that sort of silly, cliché question that nearly every fan asks a Funny Car and/or Top Fuel driver: ‘What's it like to drive one of those machines?’ Most drivers that I posed this question to in the past would usually give me a quick, blow-off kind of reply like, ‘Feels great’ or ‘Fast,’ but Tripp actually took the time to stand with this wide-eyed teenager and give me some reasonable explanation of what it was like.
“This is what he said: ‘Physically, they're not that hard to drive. The real skill level comes when you get into trouble. Fire, tire shake, or the car getting squirrelly and out of shape, that's when your abilities are really tested in one of these things, when something goes wrong. Outside of that, they're not that difficult to handle.’ The fact that Tripp took the time to give such an in-depth answer to somewhat of a stupid question to a young, naïve teenager really moved me. I remember how good and proud I felt that Tripp Shumake actually took the time to talk to me!
“Sure, in the win/loss column, he wasn't known as one of the superstars, but I didn't care about that. I didn't even know he'd won any national events at all until reading your article. Heck, the man drove a nitro-guzzling, fire-breathing, 1,600-horsepower freak machine, and that was more than enough to give him superstar status as far as I was concerned. Being the ultra-nice person he was only compounded that. Rest peacefully, Tripp. I’m still and forever a fan.”
I was asked by several people if the police caught the man who took Shumake from us, the reckless hit-and-run driver who fled the scene, and Heather said that they did.
“Some of the people driving next to my dad on the highway when the accident happened chased after him and got his license-plate number,” she said. “Police found him two days later, and he was sentenced to 22 years, but he was released for overcrowding after just six years.” Justice only partially served.
Shumake, during a brief driving gig for Dennis Fowler's and Don Green's Rat Trap
(Steve Reyes photo)
Even though Heather had done a pretty solid job of recounting Tripp’s racing lineage, I still was compelled to dig through the National DRAGSTER archives for more info to see if I could find any more gems because he’s not here to speak for himself, and I came across a couple of features we had done on him.
The first, in 1978 – just after he had joined forces with fellow Arizonian Loper -- recounted that in his then-12-year driving career, he had already driven 37 machines and that he had great optimism about what lay ahead with Loper. And with good reason. In their short time together, they had already challenged some track records on the match race scene and qualified No. 1 at the 1978 Winternationals. He finished the season a career-high fourth in points.
And as previously mentioned, he crewed and drove for the great Dickie Harrell until his death and wrenched Connie Kalitta’s Mustang (and once even drove it at a match race; Kalitta didn’t show up because he thought the race was going to be rained out, so Shumake saddled up but only got a red-light and a wheelstand for his efforts) and drove for the likes of Larry Christopherson and Kelly Chadwick. It was in Chadwick’s car that he suffered a nasty wreck in 1973 at Great Lakes Dragaway. A freeze plug came out of the engine, sending him across the centerline and, ironically, into Kalitta’s path. Kalitta’s mount punted Shumake’s car over the guardrail, leading to a broken arm for our hero.
He joined Dennis Fowler and the Sundance team for a couple of years and showed well in 1976; he ran at 65 match race dates and earned the championship in the Coca-Cola Cavalcade series. By mid-1977, the finances began to run dry, and he finished the season in the Powers car before Loper came calling.
Shumake had "the heater on" in Billy Meyer's Firenza at the 1988 Winternationals.
After Loper's car came the Pisano Camaro (in which he famously set the last track record ever established at Orange County, 5.749) and the aging but competitive Bill Schultz-tuned Over the Hill Gang/In-N-Out Burger Charger, then he went back to drive for Billy Meyer – in whose “blocker” car he had won the 1982 World Finals – in the Chief Auto Parts Firenza (which included a memorably toasty ride at the 1988 Winternationals). He was let go from the team in April 1988, fired by crew chief Dave Settles, who, ironically, had signed Shumake’s nitro license in 1969 when he drove for Joe McKee in Top Fuel.
Shumake later went to work for Lou Patane, both on his part-time Top Fueler and as service manager at Louis Dodge, got his pilot’s license, and enjoyed spending more time with his family.
“I had lost the drive to race seriously,” he confessed. “To be a good driver, you have to want [to drive] more than anything. You have to be willing to put almost anything else aside and concentrate on getting and keeping that ride. That was going away for me; I’ve thought about coming back, but I really don’t see it.”
I would have loved to have seen the guy people affectionately called "240 Shorty" continue his racing career. It never happened, yet he still managed to leave us all with a lot of good memories. It sure would be nice to tell him that ...