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1974 Dodge Dart - Front Man

Johnny Loper Sr.

Photography by Ted Pappacena/dragracingimagery.com

Goodbye Johnny Loper Sr., 1936-2006
My first job in the industry was actually a dream job, and I didn't even know it. I installed speed equipment for a legend with a history that dated back at least 20 years before I was born. The place was Loper's Service Center at Ninth Street and Indian School Road in Phoenix, and the path to that shop had a huge influence on what I am doing right now in this chair, writing to you.

After shunning a university invitation, I left home at 19 when my battles with high school math teachers who didn't understand my way of thinking and English teachers who didn't like new words like swedge and slippage got the better of me.

I enrolled at Universal Technical Institute, mostly because my parents paid for it after having a premonition of my coming conflagration at the wheel of one of my stupid cars and because they told me I could work on cars for a living if I stayed interested. Clueless, I ignored a Pac-10 school, packed up a U-Haul with a couple of equally rudderless friends and a trailered musclecar, and road-tripped to Los Angeles to visit my sister before traveling to Phoenix. There, I got a huge dose of the big city when we accidentally ran into Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee from Mtley Cre hanging out at the Body Shop on the Sunset Strip. No one freaked, and we got to hang at the bar and stare at the Cre's "friends." So far, so good.

About halfway through school, the money ran out, and I had to get a job. At that point, I had one skill, and that was fixing cars, partly because the '74 Dodge Dart I had in high school was such a piece that I knew how to set Slant Six points in about five minutes so I could get to class on time. In 1989, that was a valuable skill. One of the instructors scored me a job at BAP, a VW shop that sold complete boxer engines and a lot of pointless chrome parts for the dune-buggy set. My job was to sandblast the last bastion of crud off each cylinder head that was shoved into the sandblaster. Good thing it was after school for only a couple of hours. I still ache when I see a blasting cabinet.

After the 18 months of UTI, which taught me something about electronic ignition and fuel injection, I ventured into the world with the top half of a Craftsman rollaway, a UTI Fluke meter, and an intro-level set of tools my parents bought me as a graduation present. A tip from a roommate got me a job at Loper's sweeping floors and pulling carbs. John Loper Sr. ran the parts business and leased part of the Performance Center building to the proprietor of Loper's Service Center. The idea was that you could get parts from the speed shop showroom and have them installed the same day by guys who did it for a living.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, John Loper Sr. was a major league Top Fuel Funny Car driver who campaigned the Lil' Hoss Funny Cars in the '70s and '80s. In 1981, the Lil' Hoss Funny Car was one of only eight cars to run a 5-second e.t., with driver Tripp Shumake at the wheel. He also formed a Top Fuel team in the '80s while simultaneously staying in the speed-shop business for 40 years.

I was a broke junior wrench, and John Sr. allowed me to drive the Loper's Service Center shop trucks that were always cloaked in matching black with gold lettering, a signature that carried through to the racing team and all his personal cars as well. Driving the speed-shop truck around town was a huge deal for me. John Sr. would also cut guys like me great deals on new speed parts and extend what were essentially interest-frees loan to buy more while stopping short of letting us go broke. I remember having wheels and exhaust parts for my '68 El Camino for lunch-money prices.

That job, the help, and the stern discipline and professionalism of the Loper family taught me how to make it in the industry I love. Later, after I finished college and was again looking for work, I landed a job interview with industry anchor Jeff Smith and former Car Craft publisher Jim Adolph. As soon as I stepped into Jim's office, I saw a photo of Lil' Hoss on the wall, a connection that no doubt helped me sneak through the door. Without John Loper Sr. and a huge collection of like men, there likely wouldn't be a performance industry to enjoy. So if you see a hero from back in the day, thank him before it's too late.

SOURCES
Car Craft Mag
6420 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles
CA  90048
CarCraft.com
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