Dean And Tony Roper
When his time came, Dean Roper (1938-2001) The Mile Master was right where he wanted to be. Dean Roper began Sunday August 19, 2001 in a familiar place: behind the wheel of a Mueller Brothers Racing Team stock car on the dusty dirt mile at the Illinois State Fairgrounds. By mid-afternoon he had passed away of a heart attack at age 62. The man who won more races on the Springfield mile than anyone - more even than A.J. Foyt - might have wanted it that way.
For Roper the Springfield ARCA event marked the end of a career that had spanned more than 40 years, starting with jalopies in the Ozark hills of his native Missouri. Along the way, he had experienced countless race wins, several championships (including three straight USAC titles), and the death of a son, Tony... His brother Dale (who still races - and wins - in asphalt modifieds) recalled, "Dean started racing before I did. I didn't start racing until I was 25, but Dean started when he was 20, and he had a lot of early success in modifieds. Those modifieds weren't like what we have now - they were the coupes and sedans, like supermodifieds. Anyway, he won several track championships back then at Joplin and St. Louis."
In fact, Dean originally wanted to be an open-wheel driver, and dreamed of running at Indianapolis. But, as he commented in a 1984 interview, "It soon became evident to me that the Brickyard dream was just that: a dream. One thing that hurt my early career was living in the Missouri backwoods. I won a lot of races, but they just never got reported anywhere. Nobody had ever heard of me."
Eventually, Dean switched over to stock cars, competing in IMCA, USAC, and some local races throughout the '70s with some success. But his best days came when he hooked up with the Mueller Brothers in the late '70s. The association yielded the 1981, '82, and '83 USAC national stock car division championships, as well as a few starts in NASCAR.
In those years, Dean was renowned for his ability to hustle a full-bodied stocker around the dirt miles, winning an incredible seven of nine races contested at the Springfield mile from '80 to '86. For most of those races, brother Dale was on the other end of the radio. "Now those NASCAR guys have 15 radios per car," Dale said in his Ozark drawl. "Back then we had one. And since the Muellers were from Wisconsin and talked funny, they couldn't understand Dean and he couldn't understand them. So I was his radio man. "That was our best experience together. I wasn't racing much then, so I went with Dean a lot. He just got on a roll then, and won a lot of races."
Although Dean was known primarily as a dirt racer, one of his best wins came in a 1982 USAC event on the Milwaukee Mile pavement. Second that day was one Bobby Allison. "That was one of the few races I didn't go on," Dale recalled. "But I heard all about it later."
Dean first had heart trouble in 1984, after a trip to Daytona. "He'd come right back after the Firecracker 400 [where he finished 21st] and had a mild heart attack," Dale said. "He didn't have any surgery, but he did go to Kansas City and get the balloon treatment. Then he ran ARCA at Daytona the year after that, and had a real bad crash. I thought he was dead after that one, and he was beat up pretty badly. I was down there running a modified at New Smyrna, and I ended up getting him on a plane home. The car he'd driven down was a stick shift, and he wouldn't have been able to drive it, so I drove his car back to Missouri. After that, he kind of cut back on his racing, mainly ran ARCA at Springfield and DuQuoin."
At about this time, Dean's son Tony was starting a racing career. Tony progressed from local modifieds and late models, up to the ASA circuit, and eventually NASCAR Craftsman Trucks and Busch Grand National. But, as Dale remembered, "Even after Tony moved to North Carolina, he and Dean would talk every day on the phone. And when he got the Dr. Pepper ride in Busch, Dean bought a big motor coach so he could go to all the races. He could park in the infield, and Tony could stay in it."
Dean still found time to win a few more races. The last came at DuQuoin in 1994, making him the second-oldest driver in ARCA history to record a win. "I was on the radio for him that day," Dale said, "and it was kind of a fortunate win. Billy Thomas and Glenn Brewer were racing for the lead, and took each other out. Then, on the yellow with about four laps to go, Bobby Bowsher had a tire go down, and pulled in and changed it. Dean got the lead and held 'em off for the last few laps to win."
Meanwhile, Dean spotted for Tony at most of his races. In fact, Dean was the spotter that fateful Texas night when Tony lost his life. "He had a real hard time after Tony got killed," Dale said, "but he didn't show it outwardly. The real big thing I noticed was that he just couldn't really figure out where he wanted to be. He'd take off in his motor coach and go to the races with Kenny Schrader. He spotted for Kenny at the Truck and ARCA races. But then he'd get home and be here for a couple of days, and be restless and want to go again. He just couldn't be satisfied here."
Then came that August day at Springfield. "I tell you what," Dale said with pride, "he looked like he did 10 years ago out on that track. I was spotting for him, and after hot laps that morning, he told me, 'Dale, it's been a long time since I've had a car this drivers.' He qualified 10th, and in the first few laps he'd passed three or four cars. I don't know if he could have won or not, but he was definitely top three."
On lap 17, going down the front straight, Dean's car slowed, scraped along the inside wall, and finally stopped. When rescuers reached the car, Dean was, in all likelihood, already gone. "The coroner explained it really well," Dale said. "He said that the type of heart attack he had, it was like turning off a faucet. He never felt a thing. When we were able to go in and see him, there wasn't a mark on him, and he just looked peaceful, like he was asleep."
The Mile Master passed away painlessly, driving a car from his favorite team, at his favorite track. Dean Roper is now with his son, resting in peace. He is survived by his wife, Marilyn; his mother, Jean Roper; and sisters Lois Davis, Becky Farmer, Jeri Roper, Sue Roper, and Jana Setzer, in addition to his brother Dale. "You know, the way that Tony's deal hit him, I think he died of a broken heart, to tell you the truth," said Dale. "But he probably went the way he would have wanted to."
Tony Roper, 35, (1964-2000) started the 2000 season fresh from signing a two-year deal with Washington Erving Motorsports to race in the NASCAR Busch Series, Grand National Division. He's never run a complete season in the series, but has plenty of other racing experience. Roper drove a partial NASCAR Busch Series schedule in 1999 and recorded three top-10 finishes. He also entered one NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race last year. He raced the trucks three times in 1995, and ran the entire NCTS schedule in 1997 and 1998.
Roper, a native of Fair Grove, Mo., is the son of Missouri racing legend Dean Roper. He started driving in 1986, and for the first six years, learned his craft in Modifieds and Late Models on Midwest dirt and asphalt tracks. In 1992, he moved to the American Speed Association and was the runner-up for the rookie-of-the year award. In 1999, Roper signed on to drive the IWX Motor Freight Pontiac in the NASCAR Busch Series. He ran his first NASCAR Busch Series race on March 20 at Darlington. He remained with the team until Aug. 30, when he left to explore other options. Washington Erving Motorsports soon signed Roper, with the hopes of reaching the next level of competition. "We were able to improve from non-competitive to competitive last season," Washington says, "Now it's time to raise the bar and race with top NASCAR Busch Series teams. I believe all of the elements are in place for this team to achieve that goal in 2000."
Kenny Wallace will never forget the phone call. Tony Roper had just moved to Concord, N.C., after signing with Xpress Motorsports' Busch Series team, and was looking for some advice. "He was so excited that he got that ride," Wallace said sadly Oct. 14. "He wanted to know how to get around Darlington and I talked to him for 30 minutes." A little over a year ago, Roper thought his racing career was falling into place. Instead, family and friends can only ponder what might have been after Roper died Oct. 14, less than 24 hours after he was injured in the O'Reilly 400 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway.
After making contact with Steve Grissom's truck on lap 32, Roper's MB Motorsports Ford veered hard to the right and slammed into the frontstretch wall. The 35-year-old never regained consciousness, and was pronounced dead at Dallas' Parkland Memorial Hospital at 10:55 a.m. "Mr. Roper sustained a severe neck injury which caused blood flow to the brain to stop," said Dr. John LaNoue, the hospital's attending trauma surgeon. "He was left without any brain function."
Roper became the third driver killed in a wreck in one of NASCAR's top three series this season. Busch Series driver Adam Petty and Winston Cup regular Kenny Irwin died in May and July, respectively, in accidents at New Hampshire. Roper, the first fatality at Texas, is the second driver to die in the six-year history of the truck series, following John Nemechek, who was killed at Homestead in 1997. "I'm pretty heartbroke today. I don't know which direction to go," said Winston Cup crew chief James Ince, who grew up 15 miles from Roper's Fair Grove, Mo., home. "I just hope that the family's doing OK more than anything. Tony was a racer, that's what he did. But it's harder for the people you leave behind when something happens. "I've know him my whole life. He and I started racing about the same time and were always around the same places. ... He was a great guy. He was a really determined racer. That's what he wanted to do and he worked real hard at it. He was a lot of fun to be around. He was real easy going, but he was really intense when it was time to get in a race car. He was just a neat person. He was somebody you could enjoy being with."
Texas was just Roper's fourth start in the truck series this season, as he began the year with Washington-Erving Motorsports' Busch Series team. Roper and the team, which has since suspended operations, parted company after qualifying for just three of the first nine events. In August, Roper hooked up with Mike Mittler's Missouri-based team, the operation with which he made his truck series debut in 1995. Racing was a natural for Roper, whose father, Dean... won two USAC Stock Car national championships. In addition, his uncle, Dale Roper, raced locally for two decades. Wallace's father raced Dean Roper, who helped Missouri native Ken Schrader get started in racing. "I'd known Tony since he was just a pup," Schrader said. "... Tony was just like the rest of us (were at one time), doing what we could to get in (racing). He had some things that looked drivers, but didn't really work out."
Tony's wife Michelle, along with Dean and Dale Roper were at the track when Roper was injured. His mother, Shirley Medley, and sister, Kim, were at the hospital when he died. "We appreciate the show of support from the other drivers and teams who came here to be with us last night and this morning," Dean Roper said in a statement. "We appreciate everybody who helped him along in racing and all the friends he has made as a result. "He was a drivers little racer."
Those sentiments were repeated often by those who knew Roper, who began racing in 1986 and ran in the American Speed Association from 1992-96 before moving to the truck series with Brevak Racing in '97. He joined Gloy-Rahal Racing midway through the next season, posting a career-best second-place run at Indianapolis Raceway Park. His best Busch Series finish was a fourth at South Boston last year. "Tony was just a race car driver, that's all he was," said Steve Post, who worked with Roper at Xpress Motorsports. "He didn't have all the flash, personality-wise. He was well-spoken, but not really (the type) to walk through the garage shaking hands and meeting people. He was more comfortable working on the race cars, working under the race cars, which made him just fabulous. We were a small Busch team and he was great, he was in the shop working every day with the guys. "He was kind of a student of the sport as far as the mechanics of the car. He did that because he wanted to be a drivers race car driver - and he was. I watched him in the truck series three or four years ago and I said at the time that I thought he was the real deal. His first Busch race for us was at Darlington and he was mixing it up with everybody until another car got him up in the wall. He was (running) 10th, at Darlington of all places, and really racing hard, racing drivers. He was just a fabulous racer. Really, that's all he wanted to be; that's all he was really into."
Stacy Compton competed against Roper in the truck series and, along with fiancee Vickie Younger, became drivers friends with the Ropers and Tony and Sue Raines. While lamenting Roper's loss, Compton says that isn't enough. "We need to do something to slow these things down," Compton said. "I know everybody always says it (following a fatality). It's time to do something. We've lost a driver in all three series. I know it's just a strange incident - all three of 'em were. All three of 'em probably shouldn't have been killed, but that doesn't make any difference. All three of them are gone. It's just a bad deal. I feel so sorry for the families that have to go through this - but I guess that's all part of it sometimes." Like Compton, Barry Dodson got to know Roper while working in the truck series. Roper ran Fords, as did the team Dodson worked for, so Dodson tried to help the young driver when possible. "He struggled a lot, but he never complained," Dodson said. "That's what I'll remember about him. He was just a drivers little racer. If you put him in drivers equipment, he did well. He never complained. He just wanted a chance."
Dean Roper wishes his son had received that chance as well, but understands what it means to choose racing as a career. "He got some bad hands dealt to him in the last few years," Dean Roper told the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. "But I think he would have made it. "In 35 years, he lived a lot of life."
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