By: Luke Bogacki
The name George Rupert is synonymous with sportsman drag racing, as the legendary competitor’s life has been intertwined with the sport in a variety of ways. Along with fellow legends like Johnny Labbous, Don Young, Sam Biondo, Ted Seipel, Edmond Richardson and countless others, Rupert has played a vital role in the establishment and growth of E.T. bracket racing and “big buck” bracket racing from its infancy, through its glory years, and into the present day. Rupert earned a reputation within the arena he helped to create as one of, if not the most successful pioneers of big dollar bracket racing. Along the way, he capitalized on his recognition, his network of racers and friends, and his mechanical ability to establish Rupert’s Carbs, one of the most respected carburetor modification businesses in the sportsman racing industry.
How It Started:
The tale of how George Rupert initially became interested and involved in the sport of drag racing is typical to many in an era in which muscle cars were cool. Rupert’s father constantly tinkered with automobiles; repairing cars for friends and family, and junking cars for spending money. George raced go-carts at an early age, and worked in a lawnmower shop during his youth, festering an interest in small engines and picking up some general mechanical knowledge. In his teenage years, he worked for a local gas station, whose owners were involved in stock car racing.
“I helped them out with the stock cars,” George said. “I never got into it myself, and it’s not like I was the head mechanic; but I went with them quite a bit and I learned a little about it.”
When George turned 16 years old and earned his Pennsylvania drivers license, he was able to fulfill his desire to race himself, though he admits that the bulk of his early racing was done on the street rather than the dragstrip.
“It was a different time. That’s what we did. I’m not condoning it, I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s what we all did back then.”
George served a 2-year term in the service, 1968-1970, stationed in Germany. There, his mechanical background and ambition served him well.
“My Sergeant Major asked us one day if any of us were MOS maintenance. No one raised their hand. There was a Jeep broke down in town. I told him I might be able to fix it. So he drove me down there, and the next thing you know I fixed the Jeep. I was in maintenance from then on.”
Shortly after his deployment, George purchased a 1970 Chevelle, and over time it went from daily driver, to a street and drag race car. Throughout the mid-70’s, Rupert raced a camaro mainly at Cecil County Dragway. During that time period, George worked managing a nearby truck stop. Eventually, he talked the owners into renting him a bay of the shop to do some general automotive and high performance work.
Notice the Number "ONE" on the windshield!
As he enjoyed more success at Cecil County, George began venturing out to other nearby facilities, like Maple Grove Raceway, Beaver Springs Dragway, York U.S. 30 Dragway, and more.
“At that time, Maple Grove was really looked at as the place with the best racers and the most competition. Winning anywhere was great, but if you won at Maple Grove you really did something. So I started going up there some, and I’ll be honest: they kicked my butt. But I learned from it. It made me a better racer.”
By challenging himself against the best competition in the area, George’s racing program improved by leaps and bounds, as evidenced in 1979.
“I won the Bracket Finals in 1979, at York. There were hundreds of cars there; the top racers from all over the country,” Rupert said. “I got a bunch of prize money and contingency money; unheard of money back then. I won a trip to Hawaii for winning that race. It was wild. That’s the first time I remember thinking ‘I’m really enjoy this.’”
The 1979 bracket finals at York U.S. 30 Dragway proved to be the last event ever contested at the famed facility. Rupert and final round opponent Lloyd Mauney were the last two cars to ever go down the southern Pennsylvania track.
That event win proved to be the catapult for Rupert’s racing career, giving him the resources and desire to chase the first wave of big dollar bracket races in the region and throughout the country. That season, he won the Money Trail championship at Maple Grove Raceway (his first of 4 such titles). He also frequented Beaver Springs Dragway that season, much to the dismay of the Beaver Springs regulars. In 1980, Rupert won an unprecedented 11 consecutive races at Beaver Springs. Not surprisingly, he earned the honor of Driver of the Year, not only at Beaver Springs, but also in the NHRA Northeast Division.
A little ink from back in the day.
Rupert cemented his growing reputation as a top competitor when he ventured across the country to the inaugural U.S. Cash Nationals, held at Byron Dragway in Byron, IL. The event, dubbed at the time as the “Biggest, Richest, Bracket Race Ever Held,” paid an unheard of $10,000 top prize. Rupert took the money back to Pennsylvania. “That was my first big, out-of-town race. I met so many people that weekend that I’d call friends for the rest of my life: the Folk’s, Sheldon Gecker, the Iarussi’s, and more. It was such a great experience. I’d say the bracket finals win in ’79 gave me the confidence and desire to go racing, but the Cash Nationals win in ’80 cemented the idea that this was what I wanted to do.”
Late in the 1980 season, Rupert ventured south to a race at a small track in South Carolina. He won, defeating fellow sportsman racing legend Don Young in the final round. “I came into this little track, and I didn’t know anybody,” said Rupert. “That’s where I met Don, David Rampy, David Simmons, Larry Dogget, and some others. They all knew one another, and somehow I just fit right in. The next I know, they’re saying ‘Hey, there’s a race in Commerce, GA tomorrow, let’s go.’ So we went to Commerce, but the fun didn’t stop there. We left Atlanta and headed south to Florida for the winter series. I honestly don’t remember if that was the first winter series or not; but it was the first time I went down there. I’ve been back just about every year since.”
In the meantime, George’s performance work back home in Pennsylvania snowballed, and he moved across town where he started his own speed shop.
The Glory Years:
In the early 1980’s, NHRA introduced the Super Gas category (originally called Top Gas in many areas). The 9.90 index class fit Rupert’s racing operation well, and he added several NHRA appearances to his bracket schedule for the better part of the decade. He enjoyed success in both venues; winning multiple Super Gas divisional and national events in NHRA and IHRA competition, in addition to continuing to dominate on the bracket level.
In 1982 Rupert ventured to Stanton, MI for a big bucks event and owned the weekend. He earned both a $3,000 triumph on Saturday, and the main event purse of $20,000 on Sunday. In the semi-finals of the $20,000 race, Rupert defeated legendary bracket racer Johnny Labbous.
Rupert and Labbous Sr. in their semi final race in Stanton, Mi back in 1982.
“The first time I remember meeting George was in Stanton, MI in the early 1980’s,” recalled Labbous. “This was back before delay boxes, and George was driving a black Vega. We ran in the semi-finals. Back then, we just got individual time slips; you didn’t get to see what your opponent did. You just got your own reaction time, your dial-in, your E.T., and whether you won or lost. I remember it like it was yesterday. We raced, and they hand me my timeslip. I had a .01 light and ran .01 off my dial-in. In bottom bulb racing today, I’d take that! Back then, you just didn’t lose with a run like that. But sure enough, they said he beat me. I went to his trailer and demanded to see his timeslip. He had a .02 light and ran dead-on. The margin in our race couldn’t have been a few thousandths of a second, but we didn’t even think in those terms back then.” “I told him right then and there,” laughed Labbous, “If you ain’t cheating, you’re the best damn racer I’ve ever seen.”
Years later, Labbous has more perspective. “I was right,” he said. “George wasn’t cheating. And he is the best damn buttom bulb racer I’ve ever seen.” Rupert was a force throughout the early ‘80’s, first in that black Vega, and then with a red Corvette Stingray. He continued to accumulate Super Gas and big buck bracket victories throughout the Northeast, and all down the east coast.
Another legendary competitor and Rupert’s longtime friend, Tom Dauber shared his memories of George’s early success: “Back before delay boxes, there just weren’t as many winners as there are today. The parity wasn’t there. In that day, there were a few guys that really had it figured out, and everyone else was way behind. In our area, George, Royce Miller, and Sam Biondo were the ‘big 3.’ They really figured out the bottom bulb. They understood rollout and how to make adjustments long before anyone else. And they won. Boy did they win.”
By 1986 Rupert’s Speed Shop had grown into a successful and profitable business that both provided for the Rupert family and placed huge demands on George’s time. When the opportunity presented itself, George sold the shop and his business assets. With the newfound time and money, he decided to pursue the sport of drag racing with even more vigor.
“I had some offers to partner on other business ventures, and to run some shops at the time, but I told them I wasn’t interested. I had sold my shop; we had some money, and I was tired of working 16+ hour days. I told them I was going racing!”
With the day-to-day business concerns no longer a burden, Rupert focused his energy on the race track. That was not a welcome sight for the competition. He was a force on the bracket tour: he won his second Mid-Michigan $20,000 event, he claimed the Dixie Bracket Nationals title, and he scored back-to-back $5,000 wins at the opening leg of the 1987 Florida Winter Series (contested at Orland Speed World). In addition, Rupert enjoyed his most successful Super Gas season as well. Driving a Don Hardy-built ex-pro stock Camaro, Rupert won the Division 1 Super Gas championship, and fell just one round short of the world championship, which went to Sheldon Gecker.
George's domination in 1987 was behind the wheel of this Super Gas Camaro. The "InstaGator"
“That was a great year,” recalled Rupert. “I went all the way out to Las Vegas trying to catch Gecker. We both lost the same round at that race, and I needed to outlast him by a round to win the championship. We had a lot of fun in Super Gas, and there was a lot of prestige to it. But, much like it is today, it just didn’t pay the bills. I won the division and finished 2nd in the world; but if it hadn’t been for bracket racing I would’ve lost money that year.”
“Honestly, of all the accomplishments we had that year, the two wins in Orlando are what I remember most.” He continued, “You have to understand that back then the winter series got so many cars; I’m talking 300 or more at every race. And they were good cars and good drivers; the best. We won the first two days of the winter series, and that was just unheard of. That’s still one of my favorite memories.”
His success in 1987 led to another great accolade: Rupert was voted as NHRA Division 1 E.T. Driver of the year. He was also nominated for the prestigious Car Craft All-Stars team as a finalist for the 1988 Super Gas/E.T. Driver of the year, along with Gecker and Bob Fordyce. Gecker eventually won the award.
“Sheldon earned that, he deserved to win it. But it was an honor just to be nominated and recognized,” Rupert said.
Rupert’s on-track success continued throughout the late 1980’s, although he shied away from the Super Gas ranks and focused more on his bracket racing. Eventually, he went back to work, managing an automotive shop for a friend. Rupert also began building carburetors on the side.
“I had built my own carburetors for years,” Rupert said. “My cars were usually real consistent, so some of my friends wanted me to mess with theirs. I did that for a few years; I just did work for myself and about 4 other racers. That’s how my carburetor business got started, and it just kind of snowballed from there.”
Meanwhile, success on the race track just seemed to come easily for Rupert. He won the Maple Grove Money Trail Championships in 1991 and 1992. He was the Maple Grove Raceway Driver of the Year in ‘91, and also drove his dragster to the Race of Champions crown at the NHRA Division 1 E.T. Finals.
“That was a different time,” Rupert said. “I really just focused on racing locally, because it made so much sense. When I won the track championship in 1992, it really paid off. We got $5,000 from the track, and $1,000 from Pepsi. I got a set of slicks, and a new trailer; plus we won a trip to Disney World. With an incentive program like that, why would you go anywhere else?”
Of course, on the “off” weekends at Maple Grove, Rupert found enough time to pick up a $10,000 triumph at M.I.R. and earn an NHRA Super Comp victory along the Division 1 trail. He also ventured south to Florida in November for his annual trip to the winter series.
Stories of Legend:
In researching this story, we found that there were no shortage of racers prepared to offer up a George Rupert story or two. From tales of his domination on the track, to his sense of humor away from it, to his dedication to customers; friends and competitors are always willing to share some insight on George.
In our research, we did find an article (not dated) detailing a 22-round win streak for Rupert at Maple Grove. He bested fields of roughly 120 Super Eliminator entrants for three consecutive weeks in an 8.40 dragster. When his streak came to an end, in the quarterfinals of week 4, he fell despite a significant reaction time advantage when the rear end broke in his dragster.
Rupert says that feat occurred in the late 1980’s. At that time, delay boxes were available and becoming prevalent across the country, but top bulb racing wasn’t welcome in NHRA Division 1.
“We all had delay boxes by then, but Division 1 was still fighting the top bulb deal. So, the tracks up north would scramble the top bulb on the tree; making it so that you couldn’t consistently let go on the top bulb. So, most of us had delay boxes with just a few hundredths of delay: so that we could hit the bottom bulb in a comfortable spot. That’s when I was at my best, before everything opened up and everyone started hitting the top bulb.”
When asked about the transition from bottom bulb to top bulb racing, both for himself and the sport as a whole, Rupert offered candid comments.
“Top bulb racing… I’m just not good at it,” Rupert said. “I could hold my concentration on the bottom bulb. I could anticipate the bulb, and push it right to the point where I couldn’t red light. Back then, before LED’s and real high powered cars, you had to anticipate it a little bit; the guys who saw the last yellow were late. I used to go to the track early and make a bunch of time trials, to find out just how hard I could push it without going red. I’ve always worked to have really consistent cars, but back then I won a lot of races on the starting line.”
Rupert’s self criticism is pretty harsh, as he’s obviously proven to be a great top bulb racer over the years with multiple big bucks wins over the past two decades. He’s still extremely competitive at age 63, and has found his way into the late rounds at several marquee events in recent years despite a very limited schedule. With the recent increase in interest of footbrake and bottom bulb events, we asked George if he’s done any bottom bulb racing lately.
“Very little. I took my Camaro to the World Footbrake Challenge in Bristol a few years ago, but I struggled. It’s one of those things; it’s not like you forget how to do it, but you have to practice to be good at it. I haven’t done any bottom bulb racing in years, heck I just don’t do much racing anymore, period. I still go to Florida, but outside of that I’m lucky to get to go a handful of times a year.”
Dauber and Labbous shared several colorful Rupert stories of yesteryear. Dauber, a New York resident, recalled how he, George, and Tom Elliot used to travel together to the Tenn-Tuck events in Bowling Green, KY. The trio would follow one another down the highway from Pennsylvania to western Kentucky.
“This was back before mobile phones. CB radios were the popular thing,” Dauber recalled. “George and Rick had radios, and I was the lone holdout, not wanting to spend the money to buy one. George called me a few weeks before one of our trips and reminded me that I needed to buy a CB radio, so I went out and got the cheapest thing I could find. It was this little handheld walkie-talkie, and it didn’t work very well. George went nuts, laughed at me, and called me a tightwad.”
“Well, George won that weekend at Bowling Green, and on the way home we stopped at a truck stop. When we walked back to our trucks, George produced this CB radio that he bought me. The tag was still on it, it was like $350! So I said, ‘OK, you got me. What do I owe you?’ George never would let me pay him for it, he just said ‘Buy me dinner.’ Well, George and Rick mounted this radio in my truck and hooked it up for me before we left the truck stop, so we could all keep in touch on the ride home.”
“We were riding up the road, talking and shooting the bull. Then one of the two would bring up a topic that they knew would get under my skin. They would start talking about women, other racers wives, and how I’d been messing around with them. They knew none of it was true, but they knew it would get a rise out of me; I’ve never been too good at taking a joke. I’d start getting mad, and right when I hit the boiling point, the CB would cut out, and I couldn’t hear anything. It would be silent for awhile, an hour or so, and I’d calm down, and then the thing would start working again and we’d talk.”
“This went on a couple times, same sequence… They’d get me all worked up about something, and then it was ‘Tom, you there… We can’t hear you, you’re cutting out…’ Then silence. So we stopped for fuel, and I tell George, ‘Something is wrong with my radio, it keeps cutting out.’ He actually faked it really good for several minutes; to the point that he and Rick were laying in the floorboard of my truck looking up under the dash at the connections for the radio. Then they both just started laughing hysterically.” “They’d set me up. They would bring up these topics that they knew would get under my skin; and they had a code word. When they’d say the code word, they’d both switch channels on the CB. And they’d laugh about it for half an hour while I simmered and calmed down; then they’d flip it back to my channel and get me all worked up again. They really got a kick out of it.”
Longtime friend and customer Johnny Labbous told several stories about adventures with Rupert, both on the track and away from it. He talked about meeting racers like Rupert, Young, Rampy, and others at Byron for the U.S. Cash Nationals, which were contested on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. The group would leave Byron, and travel together to Indianapolis to watch Monday’s final eliminations at the U.S. Nationals.
Labbous and Rupert have long been a fixture within the annual Florida Winter Series, not only at the race track, but on the golf course. The original foursome, Labbous said, consisted of Labbous, Rupert, Randy Folk, and Ted May. They were even featured in a National Dragster column by Kevin McKenna in the ‘80’s for their high-stakes and humorous golf outings. In years since, notable racers including Bob Harris, E.J. Womack, and many more have joined the golf outings, which are an ongoing tradition.
“We used to golf all day,” said Labbous. “Some days we’d play 36 holes. By the time we got back to the track, they’d be running first round. We’d hop in without a time trial and go racing. I remember a couple of years when they had 400 or 500 cars, we’d time it so we could get to the track right at the end of time runs, and we’d be the first few cars in line for first round. Then we’d leave and play another round before we came back for round 2. It’s a little different today, but we still play a couple times a week down there. We’ve been doing that for 30 damn years.”
In 1996 George, his wife Kathy, and their son William relocated from Pennsylvania to Cookeville, TN, about an hour east of Nashville. Rupert says the family made the move to get away from the snow and bad weather of the Northeast, but the Southern hub also made most of his racing travels a little bit more convenient.
Despite the new address, Rupert enjoyed similar results on the race track, and Rupert’s Carbs continued to grow. He became a regular at the prospering B&M Racer’s Appreciation Series, and continued to support the long running Tenn-Tuck Triple Crown Series (Beech Bend Raceway Park was now just a couple hours from home). George enjoyed continued success, highlighted by a $15,000 B&M Series payday (no split) after Saturday's $7500 race was rained out and combined with Sunday's $7500 race in Huntsville, AL in 1998. He snagged another $15,000 check at Memphis Motorsports Park in 2003, and collected several Tenn-Tuck victories during that span. He’s also had great success at bracket racing’s richest event, the Million Dollar Drag Race. “I’ve never won the Million,” Rupert said. “But that race has been good to me. I’ve been down to the split four or five times, and made a pile of money. That’s always an exciting weekend.”
Rupert has fielded many cars in his career including this 4-link dragster back in 1999.
Since the move south, Rupert has also scored repeatedly at Bristol Dragway, Piedmont Dragway, and of course along the annual Florida Winter Series. As his on track success continued, Rupert’s Carbs steadily prospered.
“We’re not a huge shop,” George explained. “It’s just me, my wife Kathy, and my son William. We’ve had a handful of other employees, but for the most part it’s a family business. We take pride in our work, and we’ve got a bunch of successful customers. I think our biggest selling point is our customer service. We’re not a huge shop. You need something, you call and you talk to me. Have a problem? You talk to me, and I’m going to help you figure out how to fix it.”
Rupert’s Carbs can be found on the cars of some of the nations most successful drivers. Johnny Labbous, John Labbous, Jr., Peter Biondo, Tom Dauber, and Brian Jones are just a few of Rupert’s long time customers.
George was quick to point out that some of his most recent on-track success could have been a little sweeter were it not for one particular customer. “In 2010, I made two big finals. I don’t race too much anymore, so that was pretty good. I was in the final of a $12,500 race at the Spring Fling in Bristol, and then I made a $10,000 final at the 5-Day in Bradenton. But John Labbous, Jr. beat me in both finals. I might have gotten somewhere if it weren’t for him!”
Last season, despite running a very limited schedule throughout the year, Rupert once again made his presence known at the Winter Series. He advanced to the door car final at South Georgia Motorsports Park’s $50,000-to-win 64-car shootout before falling to Jon Siegel. He continued south and made another semi-final appearance at Palm Beach International Raceway behind the wheel of a tube chassis Beretta.
George and his wife Kathy have been happily married for nearly 40 years. After a six year courtship, the couple wed in 1972. Their son William, now 36, has worked in the family business for years, but never had much desire to race himself.
“Years ago, Kathy had gotten to the point where she wasn’t real interested in racing,” Rupert recalled. “I was on the road a lot racing, and I hated to leave her and William at home. So I started making them both a deal. Kathy got 10% of my winnings, but she had to come to the track to get it! Once Willie was old enough to understand it, I started giving him 2%, but the deal with him was that he had to determine his cut correctly. If he didn’t do the math, he didn’t get his money! That got them to the race track, and we had a lot of fun. Plus, the extra money was great for both of them. I remember William buying RC cars and all kind of cool stuff with the money he saved up from racing.”
George’s father passed away in 1971, when George was 23 years old. His mother still resides in Pennsylvania.
Contributions to the Sport:
Beyond his on track success, Rupert has earned a reputation as one of the greatest mechanical minds in sportsman drag racing. His propensity for making bracket cars more consistent and predictable is well known throughout the racing community.
As Tom Dauber attests, “George has always been a great driver, no one can dispute that. But driving ability is one thing. He is by far and away the most knowledgeable guy I’ve ever met in terms of knowing what a car needs and making it more consistent. Still, to this day, I call George and go over my log book. He asks some questions, pinpoints where the variances are, and tells me what changes to make. He’s so precise it’s incredible.”
Obviously, Rupert’s skill in that regard has been developed over his 40+ years in the sport. There are plenty of racers who have been involved in the sport for a long time, however most do not have that reputation. When asked what he can attribute that gift to, Rupert replied humbly.
“I learned that stuff by making a bunch of mistakes and trying not to duplicate them. In most cases, I learned the hard way. That came originally in my own racing, then as the carburetor business has grown, I get confronted with so many new issues and problems everyday. By dealing with those customers, helping them develop their combinations, and tinkering with my own; that’s how I learned that stuff. More than anything, it’s just from being around it so long and paying attention to what doesn’t work!”
When asked what he’d most like to be remembered for in the world of drag racing once his career comes to a close, Rupert was caught a little off guard by the question. “I don’t really know how to answer that.” After a lengthy pause, he said: “I’d like to think it’s that I tried to help everyone, that I tried to better the sport. That wasn’t always the case. When I was racing full time, a lot of people thought I wasn’t very personable or helpful at the track. It’s not that I was stand-offish, I was just focused. When that was brought to my attention, I tried to pay a lot more attention to helping other racers around me. It’s gotten me in trouble from time-to-time; there were times I was ignoring my own customers because I was elbow deep in another racers car trying to fix a competing product! So, I’ve had to be careful there too. I will do anything I can to help our customers at the track and away from it. At this point in my career, I get more joy out of seeing other people win with our products than I do in winning myself.”
Whenever the story of big dollar bracket racing is written, it will not be complete without a chapter dedicated to George Rupert. He was one of the most successful pioneers of big dollar racing, and has won some of the sports richest events for over 3 decades. He has enjoyed success on the national stage, and was one of the most feared local competitors in the history of the sport. Along the way, he developed a reputable company that shares his talents with racers across the globe and provided for a happy and healthy family. His story is not finished. Although his current racing schedule is limited, anyone in sportsman racing knows that George Rupert is likely to add more notable race wins to his ledger before hanging up the helmet. DragRaceResults.com is proud to shine the spotlight on George Rupert and to recognize him in his rightful place within our sport: Legend.
George's domination in the late 80's caught the media's attention with this skit between Mark Oswald and Dick Lahaie