For those of us in the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine racing without the technology it’s endowed with today. All we have to do is kick our feet up on the couch on a Sunday morning, and we’re showered with information: lap times of every car, the gap from the leader down to a millisecond, pit deltas, and tire strategies. We’re pretty damn spoiled.
Last month, I sat down with timing and scoring legend Judy Stropus to chat about her experiences in racing, hoping to get a little better grasp of the brainpower that timing and scoring required in the 1960s and 70s. Hell, I even read her book, The Stropus Guide to Auto Race Timing and Scoring in the hope that I might be able to pop out to the track with a stopwatch one day and try my hand at it.
My friends. Fellow Jalops. I will admit to you here and now that it would take a superhero to time a car accurately in order to give, as Stropus calls it, “instant information” to a team of people counting on you. Even after Stropus lays out the timing and scoring equipment she uses, how to use it, and how to tackle cars at different tracks across America, it still felt like I was looking at the world’s longest calculus problem wondering why the heck there are so many letters in this number question.
Chatting with Stropus gave me a new appreciation for racing in its heyday. Without people like her behind the scenes, constantly monitoring a stopwatch and staying sharp even through the longest endurance races, motorsport would have been a real hot mess. We take all that computerized information for granted today; back then, lap times and a car’s position were determined by a fleet of people like Stropus, jotting down numbers and doing math all day long.
(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Elizabeth Werth: My first question is, how did you get into racing?
Judy Stropus: Oh my, that’ll take the next few hours. When I was a teenager, I’d come over from Europe, in Long Island I had my first boyfriend. I didn’t drive yet, but he was into sports cars. So, he had a 120 Jaguar, and I learned to drive on that. And he had a ‘57 Chevy—which wasn’t old, at the time. Racing was his interest, and of course I just followed along and got very much involved in it.
We joined the Queens Sportscar Club—that’s a county in Long Island and that’s where I learned how to time. The wives and girlfriends were doing the timing while the guys were out racing. So I learned from Lee Sorrentino who was the big cheese in timing at that time. She even went to Le Mans with the Ford team back then. I found it relatively easy, which surprised them because they didn’t think it was that easy. But somehow my brain, my hand-eye coordination, similar to race car drivers—it worked for me. I just said, okay.
Then I became editor of the newsletter for the Queens Sportscar Club, and also for the SCCA Regional paper. So, I’d go to races and cover all the local Long Islanders at the races. I’d go down to Virginia, Maryland, Sebring, Daytona. At that time, I was timing at Bridgehampton and Lime Rock for the local clubs. I went to Maryland. I had just crashed my Alfa Romeo in the late 60s, and I had no car for the time being. So I took a bus down to Maryland Marlboro. My friend, Duke Manor and his girlfriend—Duke used to write for Autoweek—and they were living in New York City at the time. They picked me up, took me to the race, and were my chauffeurs for the weekend.
I went there and timed the under 2L race on Saturday for my friends, about four hours or whatever, and covered it also. Because of Duke and Charlie, we went to a cocktail reception that night. Bud Moore, Fran Hernandez, all from Lincoln-Mercury, the Cougar team from Ford. They were standing around in conversation. It was a five hour race the next day for Trans Am, and we’re standing around drinking, and Fran says, “We really need someone to time and score the race the next day.” And I’m just standing there, y’know, all going over my head. Duke says, “Well, Judy does that, and does that well.” Oh, yes! Yes, I could do that if you’d like. So, they paid me $25.
In my book, there’s a picture of me sitting up under the ramps on a toolbox with a chart in my lap. I covered the entire five hours, and I knew it was perfect.
What’s missing in this story is that I’d done enough racing in 1967 that I was ready to quit! I’d crashed my Alfa and I had a scar on my chin—and Charlie and Duke took me back to New York City where I was working as a legal secretary. The next day, Fran Hernandez calls, Bud Moore calls, and they say, oh, well, you must come out to our next race in Colorado. And I said, oh, okay.
So, I went out there, and the rest is history.
At the end of that year, I quit again. When they went to the Mustangs, they had the Nixons. The Nixons were very close to Ford, so they had to hire the Nixons and not me any longer. So I said, fine, and I quit again.
But then the Javelin team, Jim Jeffords called me and said, “we keep hearing about you, you must come. We’ll do the east coast races.” So we did the east coast races, and they said, well, we need you for the west coast. So I did the whole series.
In the middle of that, Roger Penske says, “Why aren’t you working for me?” and walked away.
So, the one year, I did CanAm for them and Trans Am for Javelin. At the end of the year, both teams wanted me, but I went with Penske and was with them for many years. They cut back and let me go. Computers weren’t quite coming in yet, but they decided to let me go. Peter Greg picked me up, and I set up a system of working for many people. They wouldn’t have to pay that much, but collectively, I made a lot of money from each team. And I was always paid. I never did this as a volunteer or for fun, I was always paid.
I set up a system where I’d put tables into each pit. If you paid me, you got a monitor, and I worked on a system guy in California where it was still manual, but the gal next to me would punch the numbers in and they’d show up in order on the screen. That was the only part that was close to computerized.
But then that became such a problem to me, with equipment. People would run up to me in the middle of a 24 hour race and say it’s not working, I forgot to turn it on—I couldn’t deal with those things. I had people as best as I could, but it was too equipment-intensive for me. Luckily, computers came in, and I retired.
At the same time, Karl Ludvigsen said, “you should work for me” because he thought I could cover races for him. I covered Chevy accounts PR-wise, but I wasn’t very good at covering races. My funny story is that, he sent me to Watkins Glen. He’d write these stories for European publications, and he asked me to cover one or two races when he couldn’t. I covered Watkins Glen, it was a six hour race. Huschke von Hanstein from Porsche, you remember him? He was a good friend of Karl’s. The article appears in some publication, maybe a German publication, and Pushke writes to Karl, “Karl, when I read your article, I was so sorry I missed seeing you there at the race. But once I read the article, I knew you hadn’t been there!”
I tell that story all the time because I was not good at covering races. So, when Karl had a conflict of interest, I started my own company with Chevrolet. I was doing PR at the same time as timing and scoring. Some years, timing would take over as being profitable, some years the PR. When I quit timing, then the PR just took off.
EW: Can you describe a little what timing and scoring was like? Because I feel like these days, most of us just can’t understand the complexities that would have to go into recording everything.
JS: A layperson will never understand unless you’re able to actually see it happen. How do you explain it? For timing, you have one watch, with a hand that goes around, and you can stop the one hand, read it, write it down. You need the timing sheets—I designed my own sheets where I had twelve columns per twelve cars on a page, and I’d have four or five pages. So I’d have forty cars that I’d be timing every single lap.
You write the time down at the bottom and go up because you subtract. You see the car, you write it down in the column, you see the next car, you write him down in his column, and you have to have it exactly precise every time they hit the line to be accurate.
How do you explain that? Not everybody can do that. You have to see it. Anybody can time one car, two cars, three cars. But can you time thirty, forty cars every lap, and be accurate, and provide the information to your team? You have to have the eyes and the brain and the photographic memory.
You have to estimate. If you have two or three cars, you have to estimate the car in between accurately. And the estimations at each track depend on how fast they’re going by you on that straight. Every track is different. But, once you have the number of the first car and the third car, you can estimate the car in between.
EW: That’s really interesting.
JS: In the race, you have to keep track of every single car. It’s the only way you can tell your team how they’re doing. If you look in my book, you can see the system of how it’s done. You just have to write fast. You write without looking at your sheet.
The officials had a system where people would write the car numbers and other people would write that onto the lap chart. I’d write directly onto the lap chart. There was no time. You’d have to have two experts. In order to work for teams, you have to have immediate information.
EW: How did you manage to stay mentally sharp during endurance races? Those are long, long races to be focusing that hard.
JS: You just have to do it. You have to be determined, to be focused, to be paid so you don’t let people down. You have to want to do it. You have to absolutely want to be right and to not let anybody down.
When you’re young and ambitious like that, when people are relying on you, you better do it right. I couldn’t do it now because I don’t care now! But I really cared back then! You just have to do it. And once you find you have this ability, you have to make the best of it and refine it.
I had the sheets. You’d learn you couldn’t use white paper because it’s too bright in the sun. So you’d put it on blue paper. You have to look away from the lights during a 24 hour race. You have to look away, but then you have to read the numbers.
Today, you couldn’t do it. It’s not the same. It’s all computerized, so the numbers are very small. They don’t need timing people recording them. I don’t even think they have human backup. Now, the pit walls are much higher, you just couldn’t do it manually at Le Mans now because of how they set up the track now.
EW: Why do you think timing and scoring clicked so well with you?
JS: I don’t know!
EW: That’s fair enough!
JS: I just had this ability that, well, who knows where it would have manifested itself if it wasn’t that. People say, oh, well, air traffic control. Yes, because there are lives involved so you have to be very accurate. I had to be very accurate for my teams because that was critical for their performance.
But that’s the only other thing I could think of. Maybe a brain surgeon. My father was a surgeon, my mother was in a medical career also. But I had no interest in medical at all. So, who know?
EW: Exactly. So, you mentioned that you were planning to retire before timing and scoring got ahold of you. What were your future plans at that point?
JS: I had none! I bumbled along through life, I had no plans.
EW: That is definitely fair, too. [laughs]
JS: Coming over from Europe and having to learn the language, just being fortunate enough to be around people who had ambitions, I just followed along. My boyfriend had the car thing, so I went with the car thing. I could have been somewhere else, but next thing you know, I’ve moved so far past his interest in motorsports because he became an architect and a lawyer.
He was the smartest man I knew, so I was challenged, always, by him. He challenged me, I challenged him. That was a great relationship for as long as it lasted, and he’s the one who really made me who I am today. He taught me so much. So I just did what he did, and next thing I knew, people were paying me, so that’s my profession.
So, I was going to retire. I’d probably have still been working as a legal secretary, or with Karl Ludvigsen. I definitely would have continued working with Karl, since I started the Chevy account in ‘68 or ‘69, my own company. I was probably just going to do PR, but the timing was still valuable for the teams. I kept doing that, and next thing I knew, everybody wanted me. And then it became computerized.
EW: What was it about the racing world that kept sucking you back in? Was it just the fact that those opportunities kept presenting themselves.
JS: The most wonderful people I’ve ever met in my life who are still my best friends today is the reason. The wonderful teams, the respect I received—it was just a fabulous, magical time working for these teams in the 60s and 70s. I always worked for winning teams because they could afford me. And when I worked for individual teams before I worked for many, many teams, it was Bud Moore’s team, it was Penske’s team. I mean, Hurley Haywood became one of my best friends.
You just got to know everybody on the circuit. And it was just such a wonderful experience, traveling all over the country and around the world, just being with the same group everywhere you went. You got to enjoy the food and the country and the ambiance and the friendships… unbelievable.
It’s the same but different now. I’m fortunate that I have all these friends from the 60s, to have these same people, that we still see each other now that we’re retired from going to many, many races. Reunions, awards—we’re getting awards, all of us who were working hard back in the day are being recognized. Like your story. Out of nowhere, that appears. So, we’re not forgotten.
EW: No, definitely not.
JS: Which is great. Because when I retired from going to forty races, from drag racing seven years ago, and I wondered, well what will I do now? And now I’m here, in the Connecticut, New York area with car collectors doing a lot of social things. I have an old car, we do fun little rallies and tours, we hang out. It is so busy around here, it’s unbelievable.
EW: What were some of the unexpected struggles or benefits that you ran into along the way?
JS: Well, the benefits were making all the greatest friends I’ve ever had. I don’t know that I had struggles.
EW: That’s always good!
JS: Yeah! I mean, you’d have a client, and someone new comes in, and they decide to change the program.... But I just don’t feel that I ever really struggled.
I struggled when I went to race cars in the ‘70s! I did well, but the guys were not always happy that I beat them. But if that’s a struggle? Eh! I just got better because they annoyed me so much.
EW: [laughs] I feel like that’s definitely a good attitude to have. So, thinking of that, what was your experience as a woman in the world of motorsport. I feel like it’s still almost a man’s world, even today, but I wondered if your experience differed from your male counterparts.
JS: I consider myself an equal. Most of them who know me just think of me as one of the guys. There’s an article I wrote back in the ‘70s for SCCA Magazine, “Just One of the Guys” because that was how I was treated. But keep in mind that timing and scoring was more of a woman’s job. There was no jealousy, there was no resentment. I didn’t take over any guy’s job. I was respected for that. No problem there.
The only problem was, as I said, when I went to race cars. My name was well known already by that time. I’m running club racing, SCCA Nationals. So, they’re assuming that I have all these benefits from the SCCA, that I didn’t have to go to driving school or take licensing—and they were completely wrong!
Maybe I could have gone that route, but I didn’t. I wanted to go through the schools and not be so good at the start, but improve and get better. I did get benefits in that Al Holbert gave me a race car, my Ferrari dealership friend gave me a trailer to tow it on, and I was working for Chevrolet, so I had vehicles I could borrow to tow the car.
I remember, I had my own driving suit because I was running vintage cars at the time. But I remember joking, I don’t know if it was Skip Barber’s Nomex underwear, Sharp’s shoes, I don’t know. But I had my own helmet and my own driving suit, I borrowed everything else to go through driving school. But that didn’t make me a better or worse driver, it was just equipment! I went through all the normal channels to get my license so nobody could resent me.
EW: Could you talk a little about your actual driving career? What kind of races you were doing, or your big moments.
JS: I went to the Runoffs in ‘79 with the Chevy Monza. I ran prior to that in the Volkswagen. Then, I had to switch to a Chevy because of my relationship with Chevrolet. I had a partnership with Dunlop, and they’d put these ads out with pictures of me and the Volkswagen. The car was more prominent than I was, so I switched to the Monza. I got Bill Mitchell to be my engineer, and we did really well in that. I spun in the first lap and caused some guy to roll over, but I think I finished pretty high. I finished ahead of the guy who won the National Championship the year before.
Then I ran the Volkswagen Cup in the ‘80s. That was a blast! We had so much fun. Total respect from these guys. A couple of guys would get annoyed, but that was their insecure situation. There were a lot of those men I’d encounter over the years. I call them IAMs, Insecure Adult Males. But, generally, it was a blast and did well. I never won a professional race but I got close.
I never owned a race car. I was always sponsored or rented a race car.
EW: I understand that, it gets expensive
JS: Oh yeah. More recently, I’ve been doing some go-kart racing down in Florida. I learned I’m good at and enjoy endurance racing. We put together some really hot teams. Just the guys and me. I don’t do all-girl anything, just Cannonball, that’s it.
EW: Can you talk a little bit about the Cannonball Run? I wrote an article about Donna Mae Mims a few weeks ago, but I’d love to hear about things from your perspective.
JS: Well, I got Donna Mae into the deal! I didn’t know her. All the guys were doing this fun stuff, and I said, I’m going to do it too, because I was always competing with them. Bobby Rinzler, who owned the CanAm team at the time, got me the Cadillac limousine, he just rented it. Mark Donohue got me Goodyear tires. I had all my friends help me with that. Roy Woods was running Trans Am, and he got me money from one of his friends. And we got the Right Bra company at the last minute. The guy from Right Bra called me at the last minute. He was running with another car at Cannonball and thought it would be fun.
By that time I decided it would be all girls because this was a lark, this was not serious racing. Let’s do all girls, that would be fun. And because Donna Mae was “Think Pink”, I got the pink bell bottoms and bodysuits and had fun.
The other girl was the wife of Brad Niemcek, he was running in another car. He convinced me that she would would be good. She was not good. She didn’t have the experience, she was way too excited about doing it, she never slept when she should’ve and fell asleep at the wheel. So we ended up rolling over in Texas.
Donna Mae wrote that in Brock’s book. I didn’t write that because I was trying to keep it quiet, but eventually people found out. It’s part of the story, it’s all good. But it was not fun! But when you look back, well, these were the crazy things we did.
And poor Donna Mae, she was hilarious, I loved her. I only met her when we did that, but she was terrific and was willing to come along to do it. She’s the one who did get slightly hurt in the rollover. She had her helmet on because she didn’t trust when the other gal was driving.
Just think of these three women in a Cadillac limousine with stuff all over the sides of it like a race car, with sponsor names, a gal in the back with her helmet on, upside down on the side of the road. I mean, really!
EW: [laughs] That’s such a good story.
JS: You can’t do it now! It’s too high tech, there are too many helicopters, they’d find you. Y’know, it took some doing to stop you when you’re speeding at 100 mph. They didn’t stop us! Once in a while we got stopped, which was also part of the funny stories they used in the movie, but generally, you could go, y’know, 140 mph.
EW: There were so many unique personalities back then.
JS: Today it’s hard to tell them apart. But that was the beginning back then.
EW: My interest in racing has always kind of been the ‘60s and ‘70s because it’s so rich and so diverse. I think it’s so interesting to see how different it is today.
JS: Well, that’s called progress. Technology has to progress. We were all at the beginning figuring things out. Engines, aerodynamics, now all the cars kinda look the same because they found out that’s what works best. We didn’t know that. We had boxes going 200 mph! The aerodynamics were okay back then, but it’s so improved.
EW: So, recently, what have you been working on?
JS: I represent the International Motor Racing Research Center, so I organize the dinners we honor every year, and they’ve been a success from the beginning. Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, Richard Petty, Mario Andretti, and this year we did the France family. We’ve not been only NASCAR and IMSA, we’ve done the dinner at IndyCar with Mario.
I work with the Road Racing Driver’s Club. That’s something Mark [Donohue] asked me to help with. I quit for a little while in the 80s because I just had too much to do but I was happily dragged back.
I just finished working with Skip Barber on the new Lime Rock book, Sixty Years of Lime Rock. I was the coordinator of getting people together, and I ended up editing photos and writing and being copyeditor, so I did more than I was initially asked to do, but it’s gone to bed now. We’ll have it for Labor Day.
I organize a lot of car collector events around here. I don’t get paid for that. I’ve been helping with the New England Auto Museum that they’re trying to get built in Norwalk, Connecticut. We did a Cannonball reunion event last year, we raised some funds for that.
Evro Publishing, David Hobb’s book is published by them in the UK, so I’m representing those books in the US. Karl Ludvigsen, we go back to the ‘60s, he just wrote a book about Reid Railton’s land speed record.
I’m supposed to be retired, but I’m actually quite busy! I’m just retired from going to 40 races a year, that’s the difference.
EW: What about outside of the racing world? What kind of hobbies do you have?
JS: I’m a foodie! I don’t cook, I like to dine. I get creative for myself at home, but I wouldn’t serve it for my guests. But I do enjoy good food and wine.
I was painting. I kinda got too busy, but I started oil painting, which I’ve always wanted to do. I give away my paintings. They’re all pretty good for an amateur, I feel I have some talent but I haven’t had the time to develop it. I gave one to Sam Posey, that was the last one I did and the largest one I did. They’re all over the country, I just give them away.
I guess, hanging out with the car collectors and doing little rallies and tours with our old cars. We have a lot of meetings and functions, those are totally social functions. Other than that, I don’t know. I don’t have time for much else.
EW: Is there anything else you’d like to add, any questions you’ve never been asked but have wanted to answer?
JS: Oh, I don’t know. It’s funny, when I do interviews, that’s my last question, too, and it’s hard for people to answer that. They always say, “I don’t know”. So I’m doing exactly the same thing!
You’ve done it in your first article. You gave this overall image of me that was pretty accurate, I thought. And you’d never met me, right?
JS: So I’m curious, you just found this all online?
EW: Yeah. Like I said, I’m very into digging out all these details about the racing world back in the day. It’s been my hobby recently, and I’ve been lucky enough to translate it into my work. I’ve been writing about racing figures and especially women in motorsport. I just dive into the Internet and find everything. Lots of old articles and website archives.
JS: Good for you! So you have a calling of something, here. For you to be able to dig up information on me and put it together so accurately is amazing. I think that’s what I wanted to say, when you said women in racing.
I don’t think of myself as a woman in racing. I’m just in racing. I tell people, I didn’t know I was a woman. I just did what I did. I’m not a feminist, but I am opposed to all-women anything, because I’m opposed to all-men anything. And I have to say, the Kelly American Challenge Series that I raced in, I was opposed to it because they paid more money to higher placing women.
People gave me cars to race, and I raced them. I did it. But I didn’t like the concept so much. And there was one time when they wanted to do an all-women series, and I said “Why?”
EW: I definitely don’t agree with that either.
JS: The thing about sportscar racing is that we’ve always been allowed to race against the guys. The argument was that, well, this is the only way we can show the talent of women. Eh. It was a reasonable argument at the time, but you should give that same opportunity and put the women in different series and not altogether. I’m glad it didn’t happen.
EW: Me too.
JS: It happened briefly, but it didn’t stick. At least the Kelly American Challenge you didn’t only race against all women. They were originally going to. Somebody from GM who was going to support it called me, and I said I don’t think that’s a good idea. He said he also asked Janet Guthrie. I said, “Okay, what did Janet say?” and they said she just laughed. So, I said, I think you have your answer.
So they ended up not doing it all women. They just gave extra prize money if you were a women.
EW: It’s so silly to me to have separate categories for women in racing because racing is one of the few sports where physical differences don’t mean anything. You get behind the wheel and you drive.
JS: Look at Danica. To drive a NASCAR, holy cow! That takes a lot of strength. That’s a heavy car to be hauling around.
EW: And she did it well, too.
JS: And people will say, “oh, but she didn’t win”. Well, neither did 30 other guys.
EW: Exactly. There are plenty of guys who haven’t won. Danica was a great driver, she just didn’t always have the package it took to win.
JS: Right. You can’t just have winners, you have to have a full field of cars to compete and make a living in and do well enough that sponsors want to support you. Not everybody can win!
EW: It’s so weird that when women are in racing, they have to win to prove their place. But not everybody wins. Not every man wins. There are incredible drivers who have never won a race, but they’re still legendary.
JS: Exactly, same argument I’m using the past few years. You see it intelligently, not like those IAMs.