Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
The Racing Tripps
One family drives to stay together
all the way to the finish line

by Bob McEowen

Ed Tripp leaves the starting line at the Sikeston Drag Strip while his sister, Kim Lerche and Aunt Carla Tripp photograph the race from behind the line. Race weekends are family events for the Tripps, who race four cars and often have as many as two dozen people gathered at the race track.

A cloud of gray smoke hovers over the asphalt. An acrid odor of alcohol fumes and burning rubber fills the air. When the second of seven lights on the starting “tree” glows bright, the steady thump of Ed Tripp’s idling 496-cubic-inch motor becomes a thunderous roar.

The 30-year-old drag racer smashes the accelerator to the floor and waits for the starting light, his thumb pressed solidly against a control that disengages the transmission. His father, Harry, kneels alongside the track, his fingers held tightly to his ears. Standing directly behind the starting line, camera and camcorder in hand, are Ed’s sister Kim and his Aunt Carla. More members of the Tripp family watch from the stands.

“It’s exciting,” Ed’s sister, Kim Lerche, says of watching her brother and cousins race. “It’s a ball of emotions. You’re hopeful that they’re going to do really good. You’re afraid that they’re not going to do good and, in the back of your mind, there’s the fear that something will happen.”

Mark Tesson (at right) and his girlfriend, Kelly Montgomery, watch as one of Mark's cousins race. The son of Melvin Tesson and Marilyn Jo (Tripp) Tesson, Mark is one-fourth of the second generation of Tripp racers.

As the final yellow light on the starting tree begins to glow, Ed releases the transmission brake. His enormous rear tires spin and then grab the pavement. His front wheels lift off ground, and his car launches forward just as the green start light comes on. Barely five seconds later, the car is down the 1/8-mile raceway.

Lights at the end of the track come on in the opponent’s lane, indicating a loss for Ed. Disappointed, the Tripps turn their attention back to the starting line and wait for another relative to make a run.

Drag racing is a family affair for the Tripps — the nine sons and daughters of Sam and Loretta Tripp, their spouses, children and grandchildren. Between them the family owns four race cars, which they house in a shared five-bay garage near their homes in Fredericktown. Nearly every weekend, from March through October, the family gathers together to go racing.

“That’s just how we were raised. We do everything together, with each other and for each other,” says Kim. “We think that when your family members are doing something, you’re supposed to be there with them.”

Each weekend the Tripp’s four cars occupy the same space at the Sikeston Drag Strip. From left are Jerry and Jerry Lee’s 1968 Super Stock-class Camaro, Roger and Roger Wayne’s 1997 Pro Stock-class Camaro, Mark Tesson’s 1985 Chevy Super Stock S-10 pickup and the Pro Stock 1992 Camaro, owned by Melvin Tesson and Harry and Ed Tripp.

Whether taking pictures, watching from the sidelines or helping the driver position the car at the starting line, the Tripps all do their part as four young members of the tight-knit family vie for bragging rights and trophies at the Sikeston Drag Strip.

Four cousins — Ed Tripp, Roger Wayne Tripp, Jerry Lee Tripp and Mark Tesson — all race. Their fathers raced when they were young and now are part-owners of the family’s racing fleet and help maintain the cars. The moms and wives prepare meals, see that everyone has enough water to drink, watch the small children and generally organize the weekly migration from Fredericktown to the Sikeston raceway.

“Everybody has a part somewhere, whether it’s important or unimportant,” says Kim, a Black River Electric Cooperative employee. “Everybody is involved somehow, some way.”

While Mark Tesson makes repairs to his racing truck his cousin, Kim Lechre, and girlfriend, Kelley Montgomery, chat. Whether mother, sister, cousin, wife or girlfriend, the women in the Tripp family are supportive of the racing hobby. The whole family pitches in to make race weekends possible.

While the drivers and the dads seem to be the stars, the family is quick to say it’s the women who make race weekends possible “The moms are the key to it,” Ed says. “If they weren’t into it, it wouldn’t happen.”

It’s the dads, though, who got the Tripp family racing tradition started nearly 40 years ago. Sammy, Roger, Harry and Jerry were the oldest boys in the family. Together with sisters Carolyn and Marilyn Jo and younger siblings Tom, Clifford and Susan, the family was always close, doing everything and going everywhere together.

The four older boys shared a love for cars. Sammy (his real name is Darrell) sparked the interest by building plastic model cars. Later, he brought home hot rod magazines, which he shared with his younger brothers. When Sammy returned from military service, he bought a 1965 GTO. Roger and Harry saved lawn-mowing money and bought a ’61 Impala when they turned 16.

When Roger and Jerry brought home a ’56 Chevy and began building a race car, their mother was a bit confused by the goings-on in the family garage.

Three members of the first generation of racing Tripps watch as Ed Tripp and Mark Tesson work on one of the family’s racing vehicles. Seated at left are Roger and Jerry Tripp. Standing is Harry Tripp.

“My mom called me. ‘You need to come out here and see what your brothers are doing.’” Harry recalls her saying. “She said, ‘That car was fine yesterday. Now look at it! They’ve got the hood off of it. They’ve got the back end jacked up and they’re pulling the motor. What are they doing?’

“I said, ‘Mom, they’re making a hot rod out of it.’”

Eventually, the elder Tripps (both now deceased) embraced their sons’ racing ways. “They looked at it as kind of staying out of trouble, you know,” says Roger, in a rare spoken observation from the most taciturn Tripp brother.

Each of the boys found good jobs. Sammy, home after a year working for NASA in Houston, took a job with a railroad. Roger and Harry were hired at the General Motors plant in St. Louis. Jerry went to work at Chrysler. In their spare time, they raced.

As the brothers married and began raising families, racing became a luxury that none of them could afford and they quit the sport.

Harry Tripp and his son, Ed, review a computer printout of their speed and elapsed time following a race. Drag racers must predict their performance before each race and post their expected time on their car door. Going too fast results in disqualification.

Skip ahead nearly 20 years. A new generation of Tripps turns 16 and discovers that they, too, liked the thrill of speed. Unbeknownst to their parents, cousins Roger Wayne and Ed were street racing.

“It’s never smart, but we thought we were smart about it,” Ed says. “We’d post people at each end to watch for traffic. We had a couple of two-way radios and one guy bought a little handheld scanner. We’d listen for the police.

“We were going to do it, one way or another.”

Ironically, it was the boys’ attempts at legal racing that landed them in trouble. The cousins began taking their daily drivers to the drag strip, and their parents got wind of it.

“We told them that if you tear your car up, you won’t be able to drive to school. You’ll have to ride the bus,” says Carla, Roger’s wife and mother of Roger Wayne. “We told them that if they were serious about it, we’d try to look for a car. That’s how the second generation got started.”

Roger Tripp listens as a track official explains the reasons for a race delay, while Roger Wayne Tripp waits on the starting line.

With their father to guide them, one by one, the younger Tripps took up drag racing. Nearly 10 years later the sons do all the driving, and most of the mechanical work, but the fathers are always close at hand.

“When that car moves, my dad is right there. If he had two broken legs, he’d go,” says Jerry Lee, adding that despite serious health problems his father, Jerry, continues to make the weekly trip to the track when he can. “It’s something we can do together.”

As much as possible, the cousins avoid racing each other, though their ultimate goal is to line up against one another in the final race of the night. In that case, family members say, they merely hope nobody gets hurt.

Perhaps because the family has such a long history in the sport, there isn’t much talk of danger. In two generations, none of the Tripp racers has ever been injured while racing and they all agree that organized racing on the drag strip is better than outlaw racing on the street.

Carla Tripp helps her son, Roger Wayne, pack the parachute that helps stop the car at the end of a race.

“As long as I know the car is safe and I know he has all his safety gear on, I’m fine with it,” says Carla, who routinely helps her son pack his parachute before each race. “We know where they’re at. They’re not out on the street getting in trouble.”

Besides, drag racing is a sport the entire family enjoys, not just for the thrill of the racing but also for the opportunity to spend time together. And that, Kim says, is a Tripp family tradition.

“We’re all together and we’re having a good time together. That’s just the way it’s supposed to be,” she says.

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