Q & A: Norm “Zoom Zoom” Rapp
91-year-old racer and businessman remembers driving, wrenching with George Bignotti and growing up in San Francisco.
Text + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey
Feature | Norm Rapp has been inactive as a midget driver since 1967 but has owned and managed his racing supply business since he started it from the basement of his house in 1953. Until recently he was still selling vintage midget and sprint car parts, including tires and wheels. Along with parts, Rapp also supplied Northern California speedways with racing fuel for decades.
Norm was born in 1927 in San Francisco and was raised across the street from what would become his current race shop.
Rapp’s father, Gene, was also involved in automobiles, mechanics and racing. Several years before Norm was born, Gene raced a big car — a flathead T — at San Jose and San Luis Obispo. He found success winning a main event that summer at the .625-mile San Jose Fairgrounds track, but a crash, where he was knocked unconscious for over a week, ended his career in 1923. Still, it didn’t end his enthusiasm for racing and the automobile, as he continued to attend races in the Bay Area with his infant son, Norm, in tow. In 1936, the elder Rapp also opened a Nash dealership in San Francisco’s Mission District, a place Norm would work as a mechanic a few years later.
After World War II, as midget racing continued to grow in popularity across the United States, Norm began driving a Drake (Harley Davidson-powered) midget in training races in 1948 at the long-gone Bayshore Stadium in South San Francisco. In ’49, Rapp competed in his first full season of professional competition, and by ’51, the driver won his first main event at a quarter-mile dirt track in Marysville, Calif. Norm continued to hone his driving skills and would eventually win 40 main events—on both dirt and pavement—during his driving career. Competing with the BCRA mostly, Norm also raced at special events across the West Coast and Midwest, often traveling with his father.
In commemoration of his lasting racing career, Norm has been inducted into six halls of fame. From the National Midget Hall of Fame, to Balboa High School in San Francisco, where he shares the honor with George Bignotti, another San Franciscan who graduated from the same school a few years earlier. Besides being neighbors, Bignotti and Rapp became racing comrades, competing in BCRA events, early in their careers. Rapp was also part of Bignotti’s Indy team in 1956 and helped build the ’57 Bowes Seal Fast Specials that went on to finish sixth and 22nd with drivers Johnny Boyd and Fred Agabashian.
Laid-back and still a big kid at heart, Rapp spent a few hours talking about his career and his life as a racer/businessman.
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You’re one of the few lifetime honorary members of the BCRA.
Rapp: Yeah, there’s only about six of us. It’s quite an honor. There’s Johnny Boyd, Fred Agabashian, Boots Archer, Johnny Soares Sr. and also Floyd Busby. He’s the present scorer. Years ago, his father was the scorer when I first started in 1947.
And you were inducted to the National Midget Hall of Fame...
Rapp: Yeah, three years ago. They inducted eight of us altogether that day. It was an enjoyable situation. Bobby Unser was there. It was a great day. It was something that I’ll always remember. That’s my biggest highlight. I’m in there with names like A.J. Foyt, Tony Stewart and all the rest of 'em.
Is being inducted to the halls of fame the best part of getting older?
Rapp: Well, yeah; I gotta say, aging is not for sissies.
You were born and grew up here in San Francisco.
Rapp: Yeah, in Crocker-Amazon, right next to the Excelsior District, off of Geneva Avenue.
And your dad was a racer.
Rapp: Yeah, I’d been going to the races since I was two years old. Before I was born, he was racing. In those days they called them big cars, where now you call ’em sprint cars. He just raced for a couple of years and then he got hurt really bad at San Jose [Fairgrounds] in 1923. So when he recuperated from the skull fracture, my mother, who then was his girlfriend, said, “Well, Gene, you have to make the decision, racing, or me...” So he raced once more after that and then he retired from racing, but we went to the races to watch and I always begged him to go in the pits and look at the race cars after the race.
In those days racing was so much more dangerous.
Rapp: In 1923 they killed six guys at the track [San Jose]—in one season. There’s a story about how my dad was in the hospital and there was a memorial race for a close friend of his and he came out to the track with a bandaged head and was part of the ceremony.
What other local tracks do you remember going to?
Rapp: We used to go San Francisco Motordrome, which was down on Army Street. I was a young kid, before World War II. I went to Alameda [Neptune Speedway]. He took me over there a few times. In those days, you had to take a ferry boat to go across the bay. There was no Bay Bridge (laughing).
And there was a mile track over there on Hesperian Boulevard [Oakland Speedway] in Hayward. It was well-known in those days, before World War II. And then during the war, somebody lit the grandstand on fire, or something, and the property became valuable.
You raced a soap-box derby car when you were a kid. What do you remember about that?
Rapp: When I was 11 and 12 years old. That’s what I called the start of my career. In my day we didn’t have any go-karts, quarter midgets and things like that. There was just the full midget.
I raced at Treasure Island [during the World Exposition] in 1940. Chevrolet built this ramp about 75 feet high and you’d tow the car up the ramp. I was fine going down the hill, but when I hit the flat, I didn’t have the weight to carry me and so, I lost the heat race by a couple of inches.
Your dad also had a Nash dealership, right?
Rapp: Right, from 1936 to 1946. It was between 18th and 19th on Valencia [Street]: 740 Valencia. He had a shop as well as sales for the cars. In 1937, he sold 97 Nashes. That was a real good year for Nash. I had a ’37 Nash. That was my first car.
Did you work in the shop?
Rapp: When I was 14 and 15 years old, after the soap-box derbies, I was working for him, yeah. It was a small business and I was doing the parts work, as well as the lubrication. We had a rack there that we’d put cars up on.
You joined the Army Air Corps after high school, right?
Rapp: Yeah, when I graduated [in 1944], everybody was patriotic, much more than anytime in my life. So everybody enlisted in one form of service or another. I chose the Army Air Corps because I wanted to fly and the Army was a little easier to get into than the Navy. So I went down to Market Street and signed up. It took 110 points to go to officer training, and I got 125. Since I was still 17 years old, they didn’t want to send me to army specialized training program, so they sent me to Stanford [University] for two terms. After that I went to Biloxi, Miss., to Kessler Field and then to Lowry Field and Buckley Field in Denver. That’s how I spent my 28 months total.
What do you remember about living in San Francisco during that time, after Pearl Harbor?
Rapp: Neighborhoods were blacked out and the San Francisco Seals used to play baseball only in day games. Everybody had black curtains on their windows; everything was blacked out. We had wardens also, and every block was checked to make sure the windows were sealed. There are still bulkheads out here close to the hospital (points west toward the Pacific Ocean).
How did you get your start driving midgets?
Rapp: After I got out of the Army Air Corps, a friend of my dad’s got me a job at Pan American Airways [as a mechanic], and one of the mechanics there owned a Drake midget. His name was Larry Christensen, and he had Lyle Johnson and some other prominent guys driving for him. He won a feature in ’46 or ’47. He lived nearby. We got to be good friends and I went to his shop every night, almost, and helped him work on the Drake and in the pits. [George] Bignotti’s shop was about a half-mile away, too.
I bought a Drake midget in ’48 and I had Earl Motter, Dick Strickland, all prominent veteran drivers, drive the car. The way I did it was I let those prominent guys run the car in the program and usually they would have warm-ups and I’d go out and run the first warm-up and they’d run the second warm-up and qualify and race the car, and in the middle of the program they’d have training races and I ran those. I ran 20 training races.
In ’49, when I first started driving, I turned 10th fastest at Bayshore Stadium and made the main event. After that, I progressed over the years.
I was really hot for the Drake engine, and it was the main event winner at different times with Jerry Piper and Bob Barkhimer. It was a Drake engine like Billy Vukovich Sr. always ran. It accelerated really good. It could beat the Ford V8-60s and it was a cheaper car.
Where was Bayshore Stadium?
Rapp: There used to be a track right next to the Cow Palace that was built in about 1934 by some gamblers from Chicago. People don’t know about it anymore. The story there is that these gamblers came out here and were going to run greyhound races. So they established this track next to the Cow Palace as well as one down in Belmont and another across the bay. They had four of them and then [the state of] California says, “We don’t want dog racing” for humane reasons. So there was a quarter-mile dirt track and along comes December 7th , and the government took over the Cow Palace and all the surrounding area, including the race track, and put all their tanks and trucks and everything else in there.
Then after the war, all the vehicles disapeared and left the track. So in 1946, BCRA came in and ran programs there until 1950, every Friday night. It was called Bayshore Stadium and it had a covered grandstand.
And you expanded your mechanical knowledge at Pan American?
Rapp: I worked at Pan American for 10 years altogether, in different shops. I first started out in the wheel and tire shop. Then I was in engine buildup for three years. We’d put the engine on a test stand before they put it in the aircraft. And then I had a chance to go to the parts department, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I spent six years there.
How did you meet George Bignotti?
Rapp: George was running the BCRA circuit in 1947, and when I started going to the races with Larry Christensen, I met George. He had a shop at Geneva and Mission and he ran two midgets with Fred Agabashian and Ed Normi driving, running seven days a week (laughs). BCRA was running eight days a week back then.
Do you remember your first main event victory?
Rapp: Yeah, it was at Marysville in 1950. It was a different track than the one that we see now. It was a quarter mile. I started outside front row and Jerry Hill was on the pole. It was a hard, dry track and there were a lot of prominent drivers there like [Johnny] Boyd, [Johnny] Baldwin and Edgar Elder. Edgar had fast time in a Drake. So I got a jump on Jerry on the start and I held the lead for 25 laps and won it. Elder had fast time and he was tangling with Boyd and Baldwin and he hit one of ’em and ended up going out through the open pit gate and he just drove right up onto his trailer. He was a great guy.
Was your dad a part of your racing?
Rapp: He followed me but he didn’t help me. Then after about a year, he said, “I see you’re serious, and I’m going to see about buying this Kurtis Ford.” Johnny Smith had driven it to sixth place in [BCRA] point standings the year before in 1947. It was a one-year-old car, a Kurtis V8-60, with a spare engine and everything else for $2,000. So he bought it and I sold the Drake. I ran the Ford for three years and I kept paying him off and I owned the car when we got done. That was No. 16. It was a really good way for me to get started.
You traveled to the Midwest to race in ’52; you must’ve been feeling confident with your driving and equipment.
Rapp: I hadn’t been driving for very long. The story there is, I was kinda depressed because my grandmother, who used to live with us, died. She had taken care of my brother and me, when we were young kids, when my mother and father were running the auto shop. It was tough times. And my girlfriend, who later became my wife [Dorothea], she decided that she didn’t want to see me anymore. So I was kinda depressed. I thought, "Heck with it, I’d just like to go to the Midwest and race." I went by myself. Bignotti tuned my V8-60 and it was outstanding. I didn’t have a spare engine, just some extra tires and wheels.
But the good thing about the Midwest was that it taught me a lot. I really had to get down to the nitty gritty and learn how to race against those guys, and I was running different tracks all the time. Day race, night race...
Midget racing was a big deal at that time.
Rapp: It was pretty big, but in ’52, back out here, it tapered off a lot. NASCAR came in and Barkhimer was running a lot of races at San Jose Speedway and he had a whole bunch of tracks that he was supervising...
Did you like the pavement, or dirt?
Rapp: When I first started out, I liked the dirt. You got it sideways but sometimes I got in trouble, too. But after about 1953, I started learning how to drive better on pavement and be smooth. I got to be quite accomplished. I got second to Parnelli Jones at San Jose Speedway in ’64, and I’d win a feature here and there. Then I had a good Offy and we really made it perform. For six nights in a row, I had fast time at three different tracks. Two at San Jose, two at Kearney Bowl in Fresno and two at Stockton. I think I won one, got four seconds and a third. In those days, we’d start 18 [in the main event]. So I was coming from last.
The car was No. 10 and that’s why No. 10 is my favorite number now. It set a mark for me. I put No. 10 on my recently restored Offy. It was red and yellow. The current car is the same paint job, more or less. It’s in my store, ready to run. It’s worth 35 grand. It’s a Jimmy Davies car. He only built six cars; mine and one in Chicago are the only ones that I know of. It’s a historic car. It was just a bunch of parts when I got it, and I put it together gradually over five years. I put a lot of new parts into it, torsion bars and everything else.
You must’ve had some close calls in your driving days.
Rapp: I only spent one night in the hospital. I flipped three and a half times at Sacramento [West Capital Raceway] on the half mile in 1955. I hit a rut. (Ed note: see photo below) I woke up in the ambulance with my dad. I felt that flip for six months, in different ways. In those days, we didn’t have a shoulder harness, we just ran the belt and the belt held me in. In fact, the car was upside down and Walt Faulkner was running fast time in an Offy and he had the high groove and he hit my tail right next to my head in the turn and moved the car a couple feet. It just wasn’t my time to go (laughs) ... a lot of guys got killed at Capital Speedway.
You weren’t spooked?
Rapp: No, I was ready to go again. But I remember one guy who crashed at Bayshore Stadium, he hit the light pole outside the track and he never showed up again. In that era, right after World War II, Bay Cities used to lose about two guys a season, plus injuries... . Yeah, it was tough, really tough. You had to watch what you were doing.
Tell me about the leather face masks that you developed as a safety device in the 1950s.
Rapp: Speedway Motors used to buy 100 at a time. I must’ve sold four or five hundred. When I first started out, guys used to put a bandana around their neck, but that wouldn’t help with the dirt and the rocks. You’d get hit. At first I made my own and developed it from there. There was a lady who was a seamstress at Pan American Airways and she helped.
I’d made a lot of different models before I produced the one that you see now. For different reasons it had to be improved. I had a company on 9th Street in San Francisco that was a leather company, and I had them make 'em for me. They made some dies and they’d punch out the product with the die and sew 'em together per my instructions. It was a beautiful piece. I’ve seen used ones sell for $150 today (laughs).
You worked for Bignotti in ’56 and ’57. What do you remember from that time?
Rapp: Oh, it was a real exciting experience. I had been to the [Indianapolis Motor] Speedway before in 1949 as a spectator. [In 1957] I was working for the Bowes Seal Fast Specials that Bignotti and Bob Bowes were partners in. I was a mechanic, doing everything. In the first day [of qualifying], Fred [Agabashian] was fourth fastest; [Johnny] Boyd was fifth fastest. They started side by side in the second row. Agabashian might have won the 500 but the fuel tank split. In those days we didn’t have bladders and the tank wore and cracked. Agabashian was a really shrewd, great driver. He never acquired the achievements that he could’ve.
Bignotti was a good friend. I was helping him put the cars together in San Francisco. I was getting parts from Pan American. Pan American was a sponsor, but they didn’t know it (laughs). Bolts and nuts, whatever we needed for the Indy Cars. Bowes got the cars from Kurtis [Kraft] and we modified them. That was a good deal. They were beautiful cars for those days. Frank Kurtis was a great craftsman. Bignotti just worked out of his basement, just about a half mile from me.
George was the greatest wrench out of a toolbox. That’s the way I put it. Nowadays they have all this tech stuff. It’s altogether different. He was the chief mechanic on seven Indy winners with different drivers. Can you imagine? [A.J.] Foyt, [Al] Unser, [Tom] Sneva. (ed note: also Graham Hill and Gordon Johncock) He made ’em all perform. Nowadays it’s so costly.
After Indy, I had to make a big decision in my life: whether I should stay back there [Midwest] and race. My wife said, “We can stay back here; I can get a job anyplace. Don’t worry about me.” Bignotti was going to run one of the Seal Fast cars over there at Monza in Italy on the high banks, and I coulda gone over there with him. Or I could come home and continue with my part-time business. I had been making a couple hundred a week, or something like that. Not big money. But I decided to come home and I made the right decision. In those days there weren’t many dealers like there are now.
For seven years I worked out of my basement, and about five or seven others in the neighborhood. I was walking back and forth between all the places all day long. So I decided in 1961 that I should get everything in one place. Thats when I acquired the building that I’m in now at 5 Cordova. I leased it for 16 years and bought it for $40,000 [in 1977]. It’s 3,300 square feet.
It was originally a grocery store, right?
Rapp: It used to be the independent grocer. The Safeway moved down to Mission Street where they are now with a big parking lot, and the independent moved from my building to the corner. And that’s where they still are today with different owners. It’s Cordova Market.
It was set up so that I could back my truck and trailer in there after a race, with a big, wide doorway and everything else. And that’s the way it is today... been there all these years. The house where I was born and raised is right across the street from my store, 329 Rolph.
I live up the hill, a half mile, in Southern Hills. My wife and I bought the house there brand new. She died 32 years ago, from cancer. She was a great part of my life, as far as career goes.
Did she go to the races?
Rapp: Before we had kids, she went to the races all the time. But I’ll tell you, it was 1966 or ’67; I was driving for Emery Graham with a Chevy II. The kids were young and sometimes she’d stay home.
So I came home, and the next morning, she asks, “How’d you do last night?” And I said, “I did good in the heat race; I got up to second and in the main and I got on my head.” [She said,] “You got on your head?” I hadn’t been on my head in like 10 years. So she asked, “What happened?” I said, “Well, a guy screwed up ahead of me and I got over him and hit the fence and bent the car up.”
She wanted to know what I was going to do now, and I said, “Well, a bunch of guys are working on the car right now to straighten it out so we can run tonight in Sacramento on the half mile, a 100-lapper.” So we got a fifth in the 100-lapper (laughs). It thrilled me.
It must’ve been difficult to run a business and drive at the same time.
Rapp: Yeah, I used to look at J.C. Agajanian. He was an owner, driver and a dealer. It was pretty tough. My dad was helping in the shop, at the house, going to all the races and pumping fuel. My wife was doing the books. She was a really sharp bookkeeper. She could take care of anything.
It seems like the 1960s was your peak as a driver.
Rapp: I kept winning races into the ’60s. I retired in ’67. The last main event I won was indoors in ’66 in Oakland. I won about 40 main events altogether. Gary Koster and I won the most indoor [BCRA] races. We each won 12.
Did you miss driving when you retired?
Rapp: Not too much, because I was still going to the track with my fuel and tire truck. I was busy. I kept going to the track until the last couple of years. I just retired a couple of years ago.
You were dedicated to your job as a supplier.
Rapp: At Calistoga I got a hall of fame and it wasn’t because I had great achievements there. I got third in the main there one night. I got some other fifth, sixth places, stuff like that. The big thing was I had been hauling fuel and tires there for about 45 years (laughs). We’d bring 15 barrels of fuel for a weekend. Louis [Vermeil] said to me way back in ’53, "I’d like you to bring a barrel of fuel with you," and that’s how it got started.
I gradually built it up. I had a 1,000-gallon tank and then a 6,000-gallon tank in South San Francisco. A friend of my dad’s had an oil company there, and they had all these tanks and I bought a tank. You got a better price when you took big quantities. One year I sold nearly 22,000 gallons of fuel.
To what do you attribute your longevity?
Rapp: Take care of the body by eating the right kinds of food and don’t eat any junk foods. Stay healthy. When I was running a 50- or a 100-lapper, I would exercise every other night before I went to bed. That gave me stamina.
Racing has been my life. And as the saying goes, “Would you like to live your life over again?” I would. Some people wouldn’t, but I would.