By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
When I read the news this morning that Bill Alsup had died, I was rather shocked. I had just spent some time getting to know him this past May, and he was energetic, vibrant and in good spirits. I realize that he is pushing 80, but I sure didn’t expect to read that headline today.
Upon reading that it was a freak accident that took his life, and not natural causes, it made a bit more sense. The fact that he was out there on a job site operating a crane at 78 years of age corresponded with the Bill Alsup that I met, full of life and energy. Making sense of it makes it no less tragic, as I know Bill had a large family that adored him.
Bill Alsup was an SCCA national champion who debuted in the CART series in 1979. He was the first ever Rookie of the Year for the series, and collected three podium finishes over six years in the series. His career included a season with Team Penske alongside Bobby Unser and Rick Mears. While victory eluded him, an interesting career footnote has him known as the first driver to carry an in-car camera for ABC-TV.
As a writer, I have had the opportunity to speak with and interview numerous drivers, and I enjoy that tremendously. But, I truly enjoy interacting with some of the older drivers and, in particular, some of the lesser-known ones. Sure, I’ve exchanged pleasantries with Mario, Parnelli and J.R. and God knows I’ve listened to Bobby Unser drone on and bitch about the series.
These guys are used to the attention. Some of these other guys, whose careers were not as big for various reasons, are absolutely thrilled to be recognized. These are the conversations that I truly enjoy. Over the past few years, my favorite day of the year has become the day before the Indy 500.
On Saturday’s Legend’s Day, my media obligations extend to covering the public drivers meeting in the morning, leaving me free for the rest of the day. The Speedway invites many past 500 participants for an autograph session in the afternoon. Now, I’m not an autograph collector, nor do I like to queue up in a line for two seconds of a drivers time.
However, once the event concludes, the bigger names like Fittipaldi, Unser, or Rahal are swept away, but many of the other drivers can be found milling about Pagoda Plaza in relative anonymity. In the past I’ve been able to have nice relaxed conversations with the likes of Mel Kenyon, Dick Harroun, Claude Bourbonnais, and Dominic Dobson.
This year was no different. I had just finished chatting with Dick Simon, and I turned around and saw Bill Alsup.
“I remember watching you in Super Vees when I was a little kid,” I said.
That made the old man’s eyes light up. We must have talked for close to an hour, and he introduced me to his kids and grandkids. As he was telling me about getting bumped out of the 1980 500, I noticed the teenager rolling his eyes.
I had to chuckle. “Typical teenager,” I thought. I understood, I have a teenaged son myself. To me, this is a guy I grew up watching race. To him, this is Grandpa telling stories he’s probably heard numerous times.
But, I enjoyed listening, and Bill enjoyed talking, in similar fashion to many of the old timers that I have chatted with. There is something very genuine and pure about these candid conversations. I’m not looking for a scoop, they’re not looking to get their name out there and attract a sponsor. It’s just two guys talking racing on a Saturday afternoon.
The point I’m trying to make here is that, while there are lesser-known drivers, there is no such thing as a lesser driver, at least in my mind. Every driver that has buckled in, donned a helmet, and hit the track has a story to tell. Some of the stories are amazing, some heartbreaking, and some just plain funny. Every one of those stories are a part of motor racing history.
My heart goes out to the Alsup family, and all the lives that he touched in the town of Silverton, Colorado where he was a pillar of the community. While I only knew him briefly, that conversation we shared is a memory that I will cherish.