A fellow racer remembers the path that Tony Roper took from his local dirt track to the upper echelons of NASCAR.
by Troy Harrison
I didn't know Tony Roper well, but our paths crossed many times in our short lives. Our fathers raced together on the dusty county-fair tracks of the Midwest. My father's career ended in 1977, when Dean Roper's best racing days were still ahead of him. My dad felt a certain pride when Dean won three USAC stock car titles in a row, and then again when Dean qualified for the Daytona 500 in 1983 and 1984.
Tony began racing in 1986, in a modified on the dirt tracks around his Fair Grove, Missouri home. He showed his first real sign of brilliance in his first pavement start, when he won the 1987 Fall Clash at the Springfield Fairgrounds Speedway. From there he claimed the 1988 Fall Shootout at I-44 Speedway, and then ventured to Boone, Iowa, for the tough IMCA Super Nationals. He came away with a fourth-place finish and was named the 1988 IMCA Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, he had found a job as a fabricator with DirtWorks Race Cars and was up to his eyeballs in racing.
Pavement became the obvious path for Tony in 1989, when three major Missouri tracks all rolled the asphalt. Being heavily into dirt racing and girls at the time, I lost track of him. I missed him nailing late model Rookie of the Year awards at Speedway USA and I-44, and winning a number of races in the modifieds. I also missed seeing him finish fifth in the rich World Cup 400 at I-70, at the time one of the crown jewels in late model racing.
In 1991 I got hooked on the pavement racing at I-70 and had the chance to see Tony win features on the fearsome high banks. By now his competition included names like Phillips and Beebe, and it was easy to see his potential. What's more, it was easy to talk to him. Tony gave the impression of a young guy having the time of his life, doing exactly what he wanted to do.
And although he was an intense competitor, he always had fun in racing. Tony's potential was visible from St. Louis, home of John Childs. Childs, having run out of Wallaces to drive his cars, was ready to saddle Tony in his ASA Luminas. Over the next few years, Tony racked up five top-five finishes, including a career-best third at Jennerstown in 1996. By then, the Craftsman Truck Series was established, and Tony had taken his first ride.
Fellow Missourian Mike Mittler had given Tony a shot in a couple of races in 1995, and Tony found a home in the trucks. By 1997, he had a ride with an old competitor of Dean's, Bob Brevak, with whom he recorded two top-10 finishes. In early 1998 he caught the eye of Tom Gloy, who with Bobby Rahal operated one of the best-financed teams on the circuit.
Through all of this, I had watched Tony on TV and from the grandstand. Around the time that he got the Gloy ride, I had embarked on a fledgling career as a writer, which led me to the pits at Heartland Park Topeka in 1998, where I interviewed Tony for a profile.
I was surprised at how little he had changed from the short-track days. During the half-hour that we talked between practice sessions, he spoke of racing on dirt, the new ride with Gloy, and the future. Of particular interest was his desire to buy and restore the old modified that had carried him to those early victories. He knew where it was, and was trying to figure out when he would have the time to work on it.
We had a good laugh over the fact that Dean wasn't with him. Dean tried to accompany Tony as much as possible (their close relationship was evident), but he had forsaken spectating at the road race that weekend for driving an ARCA car on one of his beloved dirt miles. Tony allowed that he would have liked to run the miles "one of these days." As always, he was having a good time. On impulse, I had him sign my T-shirt, though I'm not much of an autograph collector, and the shirt had nothing to do with Tony Roper or NASCAR.
Tony's best result with the Gloy/Rahal team came a few weeks later, at Indianapolis Raceway Park, where he piloted the truck to a close second.
Though a win was not in the cards that year, he advanced to the Busch Series with the IWX Motor Freight team in 1999. The team parted ways that August after three top-10 finishes, and he hooked up with Washington/Erving Motorsports to pilot their Busch car in 2000.
A car that appeared fully sponsored wasn't, however, and the ride came to an end when the team disbanded after only three races. Finally, in late 2000, Tony went back to his Missouri roots, and a ride with Mike Mittler. His career, it seemed, had come full circle.
The last time I crossed paths with Tony was at Texas Motor Speedway, last October 13, when he passed me walking toward his truck as it waited on pit road. He had qualified well, and the truck looked fast in the early going.
The following Monday, columns appeared about Tony's passing. Some talked of the "unrealized potential" that he had in racing. But whatever Tony Roper might have been in racing or ever was in racing pales in comparison to what he was in life: a good guy with a family that loved him, and who always had time for the people to whom he was something special.
This article is reprinted with permission from the February 2001 edition of Speedway Illustrated.
Email the webmaster with any questions or comments.