Toledo, OH, 8-4-00, by Don Radebaugh - When it comes to dirt track racing in ARCA competition, no driver has mastered the art quite like Fair Grove, Missouri's Dean Roper. And at 61 years young and thousands of race miles later, the all-time...
Toledo, OH, 8-4-00, by Don Radebaugh - When it comes to dirt track racing in ARCA competition, no driver has mastered the art quite like Fair Grove, Missouri's Dean Roper. And at 61 years young and thousands of race miles later, the all-time ARCA dirt winner is still honing his dirt track skills.
And when this year's PAR-A-DICE 100 ARCA classic rolls off at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield Sunday afternoon, August 20th, Roper, in a Mueller Brothers prepared Pontiac, will attempt to become the oldest driver to win in ARCA competition. Currently, six-time ARCA champion Iggy Katona holds that distinction having won the 1974 Daytona ARCA 200 at 56, but not by much. Roper's last ARCA win came in 1994 at DuQuoin. And like Katona, he was 56 at the time but Roper was a younger 56 by a couple of months.
If the elderly statesman can somehow, someway pull it off, he'll add, not only another trophy to his abundant collection, but resounding credibility and hope to the seniors still trying in a sport dominated by the juniors. Now in his sixth decade of burning up the bullrings, Roper is feeling better than ever but is well aware that another ARCA win will be a tall order indeed, but by no means unattainable.
"Last year at DuQuoin we learned in a hurry that we were way out-powered," said Roper from his Missouri home. "And we still don't have a definite motor program together for Springfield and DuQuoin, but we'll get something going and give it our best shot. ARCA is so much tougher than it used to be. There's more money in the series now, and you've got to have plenty of it to run up front. If we can put together enough horsepower, I feel that, with any luck, we can win. But if we don't, I've had a great career, and I'm still having one thanks to the Mueller brothers who have stuck by me through the bad times and the good. In reality, I owe my career to them, and amazingly, they still haven't given up on me. My good friend Ray Bolander comes up from Florida ever year to help too. At the moment, we don't even have a sponsor. If we could get someone on the car, it would help a lot. If you hear of anyone wanting to sponsor this old man, let us know. I know Tommy and Jerry (Mueller) would sure appreciate it."
It was, right from the start, Tom and Jerry Mueller who gave Roper his stock car start in the late 70s. And it was, right from the start, a potent combination that produced three consecutive USAC Stock Car national championships in '81, '82 and '83. It was also in '82 when Roper first steered a Mueller brothers Pontiac to victory lane in ARCA competition. Interestingly enough, it came on the historic Terre Haute Action Track. After winning on the Terre Haute half-mile dirt, Roper proved he was more than a dirt-track specialist when he won on the Milwaukee mile in a co-sanctioned ARCA-USAC event that same year. From there, Roper and the Mueller brothers would go on to win eight more times in ARCA competition with victories at Springfield and DuQuoin in '83, Springfield in '85, Springfield and DuQuoin in '86, the Indiana State Fairgrounds and DuQuoin in '87 and DuQuoin again in '94. In all, Roper has distinguished himself as the all-time ARCA dirt winner since 1974 with nine triumphs total.
From humble origins, Roper began his career in go-karts in '58 before he moved into the supermodified and midget ranks in the early 60s where the newcomer first established himself as a contender. "We won our first track championship in the old supermodified division in Joplin, Missouri in '68," said Roper. "Then we moved up into the late model class and began winning there and won a track championship at Lake Hill Speedway in '71. That was on the pavement. I remember the year because it was the same year that this skinny 16 year-old kid by the name of Kenny Schrader started racing in our area." Schrader, a NASCAR Winston Cup regular, is originally from Fenton, Missouri and cut his teeth on the local Missouri ovals. "Then I was lucky enough to get hooked up with the Mueller brothers in '76 or '77, and we've been racing together and winning together ever since."
Roper's connection with the Mueller brothers also includes a few NASCAR Winston Cup starts including two starts in the Daytona 500, the former Firecracker 400 at Daytona, as well as a couple at Talladega. Up till now the Mueller brothers, when they haven't been ARCA racing, have fielded, from time to time NASCAR Craftsman Trucks for nephew Brad Mueller as well as Robbie Reiser and even once for Winston Cup regular Tony Stewart who finished 9th in the Truck race at Indianapolis Raceway Park in '97. But it was, quite possibly, in the Winston Cup series where the Mueller's got the attention of the entire racing community with a new concept. "Jim Sauter qualified our car into the '88 Daytona 500 through one of the 125-milers," said Tom Mueller. " Michael Waltrip, who was sponsored by Country Time Lemonade, didn't make the race. And all the while there was a bunch of Country Time corporate executives at a dinner party down in Orlando waiting to see where the Country Time car was going to start in the race. Well, Michael didn't make it so we went to them, told them we'd paint County Time on the car, and for X amount of dollars, Sauter would sit out and Waltrip could race the car. We cut a deal on a handshake and had to go find Michael who was already packing his bags to go home. Anyway, I'd have to check the record, but I think Michael finished in the top-20 or thereabouts. But we gave Michael his initial start and we were the first to introduce that concept of renting a ride in Winston Cup. And it's being going on ever since." Buddy Baker, Joe Ruttman, Rodney Combs and the late Alan Kulwicki are other names that have driven or tested in Mueller brothers' equipment.
But for now, the Mueller brothers are focused on Springfield and their driver of four decades Dean Roper. "If we can give Dean the car it takes to win, I know he can still do it." Accoding to Mueller, "Nobody can run the dirt miles like he can. You watch the rookies come off the corners and they're all standing on it, sliding high and sideways. Then you watch Roper come off the corner with the car nice and tight against the bottom easing into the throttle with the perfect finesse, and you can appreciate his ability. He's still got it. I don't doubt his ability for a moment. I'm not sure about DuQuoin, but we're doing everything we can do to get ready for Springfield. If we make it to DuQuoin, it'll be my last race. After 40 years, I'm going to hang it up." With that said, the pressure's on for Roper who fortunately isn't doubting his ability either. "I'm feeling really good this year," said Roper. "Our business (Springfield Air Freight Company) is doing pretty well. My wife Marilyn works it pretty hard so I can enjoy my hobbies' farming and racing." Roper raised beef cattle for years but recently gave that up in favor of rediscovering America in their new 40 ft. Country Coach motorhome. That leaves just one hobby left. "I never learned how to hunt or fish," said Roper. "Racing is really all I've ever known outside of raising beef cows, so we have to go to the races to see our friends, which is just fine with me. I used to spot for my son Tony in Busch but that deal went away, but we still chase him in the Truck Series when he's got something going there. We'll go see my brother (Dale) race too every now and then. He's two years older than me and he just won a modified race at I-70 a couple of weeks ago. We get quite a thrill out that. At the moment, life is good."
And the fans should get quite a thrill out of watching Roper wind it up one more time at Springfield. With the Mueller's announcing their retirement from racing, it remains to be seen if Roper will get another opportunity in the business he helped pioneer. Considering the whole story, one can't help but root for Roper. And even though the senior stock car star claims life is really good these days, one can't help but wonder how good it could be if Roper, ARCA's Dean of the dirt, could win one more time.