Bobby Witkum blasts the
concrete at Thompson, CT, with the ‘Clipper City Rocket'
Nickel Photo, Witkum Family Collection)
Most racers will tell you cars aren’t just
metal objects. There can be some kind of strange personality thing
attached to them, too. Even in this day of mass production, two
chassis welded up identically and side by side can end up being
Jekyll and Hyde. The one will never seem comfortable and never take
a set while the other will handle seamlessly and just keep on
truckin,’ no matter what happens.
A car known along the way
as “the Clipper City Rocket” is surely a case in point. There has
been a spirit around it, one that has never known how to quit.
Twenty-five winters ago, Freddie Graves was designing and gluing
up class-of-the-field supermodifieds in the Oswego, New York, area.
One of his pieces came East to Joe Barry’s Oil Company in
Wilmington, Mass., and Joe hired Bugsy Stevens’ then son-in-law,
Bobby Fitzpatrick, to drive it. They had their stout runs, but never
were able to seal the checkered deal.
The car caught the eye
of Bobby Witkum of the impressively successful Witkum racing family.
Bobby bought it, dedicated it to ‘Clipper City,’ his hometown of
Newburyport, Mass, and dedicated himself to taking it to the front.
The concentration and mechanical massaging paid off, and he had the
Clipper in the winner’s circle in four weeks.
Racing will be
racing, though. Bobby recalls coming off the second turn at the
banked 5/8 mile at Thompson, Conn., one afternoon in the injected
big block. “You had to get the car’s attitude just right to get over
that bump. Sometimes it could lift the wheels right off the track. I
think that’s what happened. When it slammed back down, I broke a
brand new U-joint on the drive shaft. I thought I had blown the
You could see why. Bobby flew down the backstretch a
ball of fire before hitting the wall hard. It was a scary mess.
Bobby was sunsetting his driving career at the time, but not so
with his buddy Paul “Ricochet” Richardson. Paul says, “There was
just something different about that car. I followed it a lot and
watched the way it handled. I said, ‘Bobby, let me have a shot at
Armed with one serious power crew including Dave
Johnson, Tommy Howell, and Scott Scherborn and a flashy new blue and
yellow paint job, the Clipper was transformed into the ”NAPA Super”
for its new sponsor. The combination was magic, the very top of the
New England supers in the nineties.
The Clipper was never more glamorous or
successful than when Paul Richardson
Witkum campaigned it as the ‘NAPA Super.’
The team won widely until August
1997 when the go pedal stuck in warm-ups at Star Speedway in New
Hampshire. (See TEAROFF dated Oct. 1, 2009). It would be hard to say
whether Ricochet or the Clipper was more badly wounded. Some were
saying that, if Paul lived, he would never walk again. And surely
the car was off to the junk heap.
Not. Opening day at Star
the next Spring, both fully rehabilitated, Paul and the Clipper once
again danced to the win, the beginning of a wildly successful
When Ricochet went Busch North racing, Bobby passed
the car over to his younger brother Joey, quite the character.
Though never a driver, Joey was an enthusiastic – if
under-funded – owner. He towed the ol’ girl with a tired Cadillac
and an open trailer. He concentrated on Oswego and picked up
part-time chauffeurs such as Danny Soule, Randy Ritskes, and Ohio’s
Gary Albritain. At Thompson, he even engaged the services of
legendary modified throttle jockey Ted Christopher.
was competing at Oswego, he would often keep the car at young Danny
Kapuscinski's garage. Danny is now the PR man, part of the amazing
current revitalization of the track. Danny says, "I remember sitting
in the car at 16, dreaming of one day racing it....It holds a very
fond place in my heart, as it became the first supermodified I ever
Clipper fulfilling Danny Kapuscinski's daydreams.
Photo. Danny Kapuscinksi Collection)
And somehow the Clipper just kept on motoring. It was next in the
garage of Jim Shampine’s nephew, Keith Shampine, once a starring
upstate New York driver who now is a racing webmaster in North
That was the time that newer designs were in the
pits at Oswego. Keith took a workaholic approach, cutting off and
rebuilding the whole rear of the car, installing a new cell, and
doing lots of exacting aero work. He ran strong, saying his favorite
moment was “starting the ’06 Classic in 7th spot, right next to
Bentley Warren.” He and the Clipper ran in the top five before
breaking late in the grind.
Shampine had the Clipper topped and tailed for the
2006 Oswego Classic.
(Keith Shampine Collection)
Keith eventually sold the car to
Joe Chillemi, a very veteran super runner. Quite amazingly,
its last appearance was at Classic Weekend, just this past
Bobby Witkum summed the aging Clipper up
best. “You know, everyone has these high-tech cars now. But
that car can still win. It really can. I know it. You just
have to put a little money in it, pay attention to it – and
talk to it.”
Almost sounds human.
© 2011 Lew
Boyd, Coastal 181
If you were interested in this
Tearoff, you might enjoy the books below: