- Published on Monday, 25 February 2013 03:00
NORWALK, Ohio – When the crowd heads out after a day of Harley-Davidson drag racing at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, the pits fill with the aroma of a quarter mile of down home family cooking.
“This is a great bunch of guys out here. I love them all to death,” said Stagin Steve LeTempt, Sumter, S.C., a drag racer for 50 years and a race announcer for 15 of them. “This is more of a party than a race sometimes. At night, all you can smell is the barbecue.”
As racing rigs line up on move-in day, Stagin Steve drives by the crews, bleary eyed from lack of sleep and a day’s work worth of driving. Many cradle thermoses of coffee as they wait for a pit assignment.
Stagin Steve calls them by first name, and asks about details since their last event.
They know the routine. Steve LeTempt may weave some of those details into his lively race announcing.
For example, Dave Israel exercised his Rottweiler dog near the rig. She ran up to Steve for a friendly greeting and posed with him for a picture.
“They’re from the North,” Steve LeTempt said. “They named their dog, Dixie, and I’m a Southern boy.”
When Dave Israel revs his Harley and pulls up to the tree, Stagin Steve introduces him, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, in the Budweiser lane we have Dixie’s Daddy, Dave Israel,” easing fans in the stands into a connection with the racer.
Further down in the pits is Bob Drapp, an eight-time National Champion who also teaches at Motor Mechanics Institute.
“They call him, ‘The Professor,’” Steve LeTempt said.
Nearby, Donny Huffman, an eight-time Sportsman National Champion, walked over and shook Steve’s hand.
“Donny is the best of the best in Sportsman racing,” Steve LeTempt said. “These are my children. I’ve known them either when I raced, or because I’ve talked about them.
“They work hard. They put in ungodly hours. No one can appreciate it except another racer,” Steve LeTempt said. “I have been there at three o’clock in the morning putting a starter on. I know what it’s like. And I make them heroes. They’re all my children, so I take care of them.”
In the morning Stagin Stevie LeTempt sings to the early risers as they walk their dogs in the park. And as Harley-Davidson rumble peels through the pits, he calls out over the public address system, “Drag racing! It’s cool! Here we go!”
One of the other ways Stagin Stevie cared for the Harley racers included 18 months of hosting a radio show out of Florida, “Real Racing USA.”
For another 18 months he broadcast a show on Speed T.V. out of California, “Straight Lining with Stevie.”
“I thought it was a nice compliment to my announcing,” Steve LeTempt said. “I could take people I met and help make them stars by putting them on the show. So that’s why I did it.”
The arrival of Top Fuel Nitro Harley racers Doug Horne, 25, Aberdeen, Md., and Tommy Grimes with Ray Price Harley-Davidson, stir the excitement and abandon of youth with racing at the threshold of mechanical ability and endurance.
In a simpler time about five decades ago, Steve LeTempt walked before he raced in Swansee, Ill.
“My Rita,” Steve LeTempt said. “She was my childhood sweetheart, the only girl I ever dated. I met her when I was 15 and she was 14. For all those years she’s put up with me.
“We didn’t meet at the track,” Steve LeTempt said. “She was a little girl who lived down the street. They were a military family. Her father had to go overseas.
“I was walking down the alley,” Steve said. “She was on the back porch with curlers in her hair. I looked. I stared. She looked at me, and quickly got up and went in the house.
“I went down to tell Grandfather and said, ‘I just saw the girl I’m going to marry.’ He said, ‘Before you get a marriage license, you better get a driver’s license.’
“I married her,” Steve LeTempt said. “He said, ‘Now that you married her, promise me, promise me you will always take care of her.’ I said, ‘I will, Sir.’ And I have.”
Steve LeTempt fell in love with drag racing as a 15-year-old kid, too.
“There was a hot rod club down the street,” Steve LeTempt said. “I wanted to be in the hot rod club so bad, but I wasn’t old enough.”
The Asphalt Angels benefitted from Steve’s longing.
“I would go there and wash cars, sweep floors, whatever it took,” Steve LeTempt said. “I got every dirty job there was, and they allowed me to be a part of the club.”
At age 16, Steve packed up his six-cylinder 1957 Chevy for his first drag race in Allton, Ill.
“I won my class and Top Eliminator that day,” Steve LeTempt said. “I didn’t even know what I was doing out there. When I won my class and came back, they said, ‘You won.’ I said, ‘I didn’t even know where the finish line was. I kept going.’”
With every call, Steve returned to go rounds. But a thought also resurfaced.
“My dad told me, ‘Don’t race that car,’” Steve said. “It was the only time in my life when I disobeyed my father.”
Steve’s stealth may have been tripped up by a convention of the day.
“Mom and Dad went on a Sunday drive in their Bonneville,” Steve said. “They heard on the radio, ‘Steve LeTempt won the class today.’ My dad had a heart attack.
“My grandfather is my heart and soul,” Steve said. “I took my trophies to show him. He said, ‘You’re going to show your dad now.’ I said, ‘No way!’ He said, ‘Steve, you have to show your dad.’”
Steve may have been surprised by his wins, but not about the results at home. Grounded to his room, Steve overheard his grandparents’ arrival. They visited with his parents in another room.
“Did you see his trophies? Did you see them?” Steve’s father said excitedly, though the grounding remained.
“The point was that I disobeyed my father,” Steve LeTempt said. “And to this day it bothers me. I can’t shake it.
“He was one of two men who meant more to me than anything in the world: my dad and my grandfather,” Steve LeTempt said. “I disobeyed him and I broke his heart when I did that, because he was upset! And he was proud, too.
“My grandfather was the peacemaker of the family,” Steve LeTempt said. “All through my teen years my grandfather saved me time and time again.”
With a call to war, Steve LeTempt enlisted in the United States Air Force and served as a crew chief on fighter jets. Afterward, he and Rita settled in the South.
In 1967 Steve started work in the automotive parts business.
“There was a man who gave me an opportunity to start this business with him,” Steve LeTempt said. “We had this old building that he owned. I had a card table, a polished chrome wheel in the window, a notebook, and catalogues. I would take orders and he would go get the parts and deliver them. It was crazy, but it worked.”
In 1974, Steve bought the store.
“It’s a Carquest Auto Parts Store in exciting Sumter South Carolina,” Steve LeTempt said. “We’ve owned it for 39 years. At one time we owned two Carquests, a True Value, a machine shop and an auto repair business. That was when I had heart problems.”
A doctor said Steve could keep all of those businesses, but he wouldn’t live long under the stress load.
“Rita heard it,” Steve LeTempt said. “She said, ‘We’re selling everything except one store.’ She looked at me and said, ‘I don’t care, Stevie, I’m not losing you.’”
At other critical times Rita’s decision making saved Steve’s life.
“I was racing Anglias,” Steve LeTempt said. “I’ve had four of them over the years. One of them almost killed me. I have no inner leg and no knee. I was going 140 mph. It decided to turn left, and I didn’t. I owe my life to my Rita.”
By Steve’s side in moments, Rita LeTempt gave instructions during the next critical seconds and on the way to the hospital that made all the difference, Steve said. Somehow she knew what to say and do, and she stayed calm.
Decades of racing recollections include serving as a team member on Bobby Balcomb’s “Rampage” alcohol Funny Car, and as a team member on an alcohol dragster owned by Bob Voss.
He also wrote stories about International Hot Rod Association drag racers for the Drag Review.
“I’ve had a lucky life,” Steve LeTempt said. “From the six-cylinder Chevy to the final race where I helped on a Carquest Top Fuel Team when we won the World Championship in Darlington, South Carolina in the late 1990’s.
“I was the diver that weekend, doing the bottom end,” Steve LeTempt said. “I had the honor of working with crew chief Clayton Harris and the team that built the motors that powered Paul Romine’s dragster to a World Championship.
“At that point I decided, ‘I’m done. I’ve now achieved more than I ever dreamed of in my life,’” Steve LeTempt said. But retirement didn’t last long. “Then the call came from Bill.”
In 1997 Bill Bader Sr. bought the International Hot Rod Association.
“Bill hired me to run staging for the IHRA,” Steve LeTempt said. “I was the first employee he hired. I obtained the name, ‘Stagin Steve LeTempt.' Everyone out here calls me, ‘Stevie.’ I’m the only 65 year old who never grew up.”
For a uniform, Steve wore a bright red jacket and white pants. During a grueling race day, Steve sang over the headsets to the other guys on the track crew, not realizing Bill Bader Sr. listened, too.
“He came up to me one night in a hotel room in Maryland and asked if I wanted to do announcing,” Steve LeTempt said. “I said, ‘I don’t know. I never thought about it.’”
Next came a crash course on race announcing side-by-side with Bill Bader Sr. in the tower.
“Bill is my hero. I just think the world of him,” Steve LeTempt said. “Even my Rita feels the same.
“I rate Bill Bader Sr. right under my grandfather and my dad,” Steve LeTempt said. “Neither my grandfather nor my dad ever saw me race. Dad was never in favor of it. Grandfather, he was always there for me, but that wasn’t his thing, either. He was a great fisherman.
“I was a young kid,” Steve said. “I was in the process of living my dream. And a lot of times you don’t look at things on the side like that.”
Regardless of his role, whether racing, wrenching, or crying out over the loudspeakers, “Children, help me! Help me! Help me! Draggin’ Bagger come to the staging lanes now, please,” Stagin Stevie LeTempt thrills to a race.
“When I get here and I get behind the microphone, it’s like I’m going back in time. With every burnout, with every gear shift, I’m right there.”