By: Luke Bogacki
Much like the first featured DRR Legend of 2011, Sam Biondo, most sportsman racers nationwide and virtually every competitor on the West Coast is familiar with this months Legend, Ted Seipel. In a racing career that spans six decades, Ted has achieved great feats behind the wheel. Some of his achievements include 6 NHRA National Event victories, 5 NHRA E.T. Finals crowns, numerous divisional event titles, and countless bracket racing wins. Although he’s proven himself behind the wheel of various hot rods in several classes and categories, the majority of his success has come behind the wheel of one particular race car: an Austin Healey Roadster that he’s owned (and raced) since 1958!
Ted’s wife Georgia also had success as a driver prior to her career as a track manager. Over her thirty-plus year tenure in the industry, she’s earned her own reputation as one of the most recognizable and reputable track managers in the country. Most are also familiar with the racing exploits of Ted’s son Kyle, who is arguably the most decorated sportsman competitor in NHRA Division 7 history.
Over the course of this feature, it’s our intention to share some of the details of Ted’s storied racing career. Like our past and future LEGENDS, we’ll focus on some of the things that made Ted successful, and some of the knowledge, adaptation, and innovation that not only led to his success but left his stamp on the sport we know and love. In doing so, we’ll tell the story of his racing career, his family’s involvement in the sport, and some of his thoughts about sportsman drag racing’s past, present, and future.
How It All Got Started:
Ted Seipel was introduced to the sport of drag racing in 1952, when he attended his first race in Belmont, CA (South of San Francisco). At that time, races were conducted using a rolling start system and flagmen.
He briefly toyed with a flathead combination as a teenager that was quickly made all but obsolete by the emergence of the Chevrolet V8. After spending two years in the service, Ted purchased an Austin Healey Roadster in 1958, and drove it on the street and in local drag racing competition. Little did he know at the time that the roadster would eventually go down in history as one of (if not the) longest running drag racing vehicles and/or winningest cars in the sports history.
“The frame of these Austin Healey’s was originally developed for Taxi Cabs,” explained Seipel. “I guess that’s why they’re so strong, they were built for abuse. Naturally, that fit in well for what I’ve used it for; racing.”
When Ted purchased the car, it had the original Austin Healey engine, but he says that expired almost immediately. Given the limited availability and high costs associated with rebuilding the original powerplant, Seipel made the logical decision to replace it with a Chevrolet V8 283. Ted focused his energy on the newly developed bracket racing classes, where he competed mainly in the Austin. The car has been a bracket car since 1961.
“For the longest time, I ran the car with a Doug Nash 4-Speed,” Seipel explained. “Then I went to the powerglide transmission in the late ‘70’s. The car has always had a small block Chevrolet of some variety in it. It’s still the stock Austin Healey frame, believe it or not. We back-halved the car and put a ladder bar suspension under it. Dan DiVita put a rack and pinion on it for me. But for the most part, it’s had very few modifications.”
Although he drove the car in Super Gas in the early ‘80’s Seipel says the Austin has run in the mid-10 second range for most of those years. He estimates that he’s made between 7,000 and 8,000 passes in the Austin Healey during it’s tenure on the race track; and is quick to note that his wife Georgia and son Kyle have made several laps in it themselves. Ted still drives the car in competition today, as it’s currently outfitted with a Chevrolet 377 that pushes it to low 11-second E.T.’s.
When asked about Georgia’s brief racing career, Ted noted “Georgia won a lot of races in the Austin, she was a good racer. It seems like everyone that’s ever driven the Austin did well, it’s always had a knack for winning races.”
Ted’s son Kyle shared a little more colorful story about his mother’s racing career.
“I remember when Dad would lose, Mom could be pretty tough on him,” he laughed. “She’d just berate him for getting beat. Finally, Dad just had enough. I think he put her in the car just to prove to her that it was a little tougher than it looks!
Mom did have a lot of success racing, but it wasn’t immediate. I think she lost first round about 12 weeks in a row when she started out. She got the hang of it though, and did really well before she started working at the track.”
As a result of circumstance, Georgia was asked to help out working the gate at Baylands in the mid-‘70’s. One thing led to another, and she became the track manager there in 1977, and held that position until the facility closed in 1988. She then got a call to perform similar duties at Sears Point Raceway (now Infineon Raceway), where she is still the track manager today.
Like previous DRR Legends, Ted Seipel is revered as a pioneer within the sportsman racing community, and when speaking retrospectively those interviewed say that Ted was very much ahead of his time in terms of innovation, race strategy, and understanding the intricacies of the sport.
“Back then, we bracket raced on a 5 amber tree,” explained Ted. “Technology has come a long, long way. We didn’t have reaction timers, and we didn’t have scoreboards; much less display boards for your dial-in. In fact, the tower operators couldn’t even enter the dial-ins into the timing system for the tree. Rather, they had to enter the difference in the two dial-ins to handicap the start. So if I was dialed 11.00, and you were dialed 12.50, they had to do that math and input a handicap of 1.5 seconds. It made the process long and drawn out, plus there were always a lot of mistakes in the process. The worst part was that once you left the starting line, there was no way to see the mistake. There was no computer record like today. All the time slips were hand written, so you couldn’t go back and say ‘Hey, this wasn’t right.’
With the 5 amber tree, you had a lot of time between the tree starting down and the green light. I’d actually focus on the handicap first. If the tree was coming down like it was supposed to, I’d turn my focus to the bottom bulb and leave the starting line. When the tree didn’t come down like it was supposed to, I’d just stop right there and wave the starter over. I’d tell them ‘check the handicap, something’s wrong.’ Well, of course normally I was right, and we’d have to re-run. But think about all the guys who didn’t know any better. There’s no telling how many times the dial-ins and handicaps weren’t correct, and you’d never know!
Well, one time I knew the handicap wasn’t right, and I flagged the starter over. As it turned out, they only had it wrong by .1 of a second. The starter asked me ‘How’d you do that, you can’t see a tenth!’ Well, it wasn’t rocket science, and you had 5 bulbs to figure it out. So I kind of mouthed off; ‘A tenth, I can see a hundredth!’
They called me to the starting line after the race to challenge me. They put .01 handicap in one lane and dropped the tree. It came down and I said, ‘the handicap is in the right lane.’ I was right, but they said it was a lucky guess. So we did it again. I said ‘the handicap was in the left lane,’ and I was right again. So they did it one more time. On the third one, I said ‘Well, you got me. I couldn’t see the difference.’ They looked at me like I was crazy; for that third one, they didn’t put any handicap in the tree.”
The Glory Years
Ted purchased a second Austin Healy Roadster in 1977, and turned longtime friend Dan DiVita on to the cars at the same time.
“Dan had been running Modified, but he spent more time under the car than he did in it,” Ted laughed. “He was always tearing stuff up. I told him to get in the roadster and race, and have fun. Our first day at the track, it seemed like he was going down the track every time I looked up. He was hooked. Almost immediately, he told me that he was going to build one of his own, and run it with a big block Chevy and a powerglide.
That was unheard of at the time. I had switched to the powerglide and had success, but everyone said they wouldn’t live behind the big block. The Clutchflight (Chrysler’s Torqueflight transmission with a clutch) was popular back then, and I told Dan, basically just because everyone had told me, that the powerglide just wouldn’t work.”
DiVita proved everyone wrong. He assembled the combination, and save for shelling the occasional high gear hub, he had little attrition and great success. The duo’s use of the powerglide helped pave the way for the acceptance of the 2-speed automatic, eventually leading to the multitude of aftermarket parts and pieces that make the powerglide the transmission of choice for so many sportsman racers today.
Throughout the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s bracket racing was done on a .4 Pro Tree. While there were no reaction timers, it didn’t take long for competitors to realize that they couldn’t red light easily, so deep-staging was prevalent. At that time, deep-staging presented a lot of the same issues and complaints that the practice endures in today’s Footbrake categories; as tracks and sanctions had a hard time policing and monitoring the practice. Their answer came in 1982, when NHRA and all associated tracks banned deep-staging in bracket competition and the newly developed “Super” classes.
“Back then, we had transbrakes, but they were brutally slow,” explained Seipel. “Dan and I knew that if we could figure out a way to get the cars to react, we’d have a huge advantage. Georgia operated Baylands at the time, and we had the opportunity to test quite a bit. Dan developed a vehicle reaction timer, and we started playing with ideas.”
Seipel credits DiVita with the development of an external dump valve on the powerglide, which paved the way for today’s fluid release transbrake valve bodies.
“He came up with the external dump valve, and suddenly we could red light, or get real close. Most of the bracket and Super Gas cars of the day would have .5-something reaction times. Meanwhile, we were working with Dennis Reid (who went on to establish Dedenbear) to develop a very primitive version of today’s delay box. Our opponents couldn’t get out of the .5’s, and we’re working to make sure we wouldn’t go red on the .4 tree. It was an incredible advantage.”
During the same time period, as the Super Gas category gained popularity, most racers with faster cars were either adding weight to their machines or using a dead-stop to keep the throttle from going wide open in an effort to slow the cars to the 9.90 index (in the original Pro Gas class, the index was 9.80). While this helped the cars hit the E.T. mark, it did nothing but multiply the issue of having competitive reaction times (by taking away power at the starting line).
“As far as I’m concerned, Dan developed the first throttle stop as well,” said Seipel. “We actually used the baseplate off another carburetor, and put it between our carb and intake manifold. We didn’t have timers like the ‘Super’ class cars of today, but we operated the throttle stop off of vacuum. That way, we could leave the starting line under full power to get a good reaction time. Then the vacuum would bleed off and shut the butterflies of the throttle stop to our desired setting for the rest of the run. We’d run the same MPH as everyone else; at that time everyone went 130-135 mph, but we had full power at the starting line so we could get a light.”
With those innovative resources at their disposal, Seipel and DiVita enjoyed their greatest season in 1983. Seipel earned his first NHRA national event victory at that seasons Winternationals. DiVita would go on to win the NHRA Super Gas World Championship that year, and claim the prestigious Quaker State Cup, awarded to the sportsman competitor who accumulated the most points in any category. DiVita’s record point total still stands as the highest total for any sportsman competitor in NHRA history.
“People want to give me credit for that stuff, and I guess I had a hand in it,” said the ever humble Seipel. “But Dan was always the innovator between us. He still is.” Ted and DiVita remain close friends today, as Dan works at Infineon Raceway with Georgia.
Pictured left to right - Dan Davita, Unknown, Chad Langdon (Shawns Father), Graham Light, Ted Seipel, Gary Cooke & wife.
“It’s funny. Back then, we didn’t want anyone to know what we were doing. We had a better mousetrap, and we didn’t want to let the secret out. Plus, we figured the market for some of that stuff was pretty small. Now, I see a Dedenbear throttle stop with the serial number on it; and I see serial number 10,000+. Just think about all the ‘pro-tree’ powerglide valve bodies that racers have purchased over the years. Maybe we should have been a little less secretive and gone into business!”
All in the family
As Ted enjoyed monumental success, his son Kyle, who grew up at the race track between Georgia’s job and Ted’s racing, was getting the bug to compete himself. In his youth, Kyle says he worked every job you could imagine at the race track; from waterbox man to the timeslip booth, tower controls to the starter. In 1984, at just 13 years old, Kyle was ready to take the wheel himself. This preceded the advent of NHRA’s Junior Dragster category by a decade, and as a track operator Georgia and Ted felt the need to “play by the rules,” which stated that Kyle couldn’t compete until he received his drivers license.
“We sort of found a loophole, to be honest,” Ted said. “NHRA rules said you had to have a drivers license to drive a car. But they didn’t have any rules for motorcycles at the time; they just adhered to the AMA rulebook. Well, AMA didn’t have an age minimum or a drivers license requirement.”
Kyle’s career behind the wheel actually started behind the handlebars, as he rode a 20-second Honda for three seasons, racing mainly at Fremont Raceway.
“I did just about everything you could do wrong on the race track on my bike,” Kyle said. “That was my Junior Dragster, it was how I learned to race. I was really fortunate growing up at the track, because I got to watch and learn from so many great racers. Obviously, my Dad was at the top of that list as he coached me and taught me what to do and what not to.”
When Kyle turned sixteen, he graduated into a Nova, and the rest is history. The father-son duo expanded to a four car team throughout the late ‘80’s, with each racing in both Super Gas and Super Street in NHRA competition. Kyle’s on track success has been well documented; he’s won 10 NHRA Division 7 Championships within the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. That mark is trumped by his unprecedented 12 NHRA Division 7 E.T. Finals victories. That is not a typo, the younger Seipel an incredible 22 Division crowns.
The father-son team shared the winner circle at the 1999 Division 7 E.T. Finals, where Ted won Super Pro and Kyle won Pro. They also met in the final round of Super Gas at the NHRA Northwest Nationals in 1992. At that time, Kyle was involved in a heated world championship battle with Jeg Coughlin, Jr., and Ted elected to idle down the return road and give Kyle the win.
“We didn’t even talk about doing that in the final. He just took it upon himself. He later told me that I was winning the race regardless, because I had seven more contingency decals than he did,” laughed Kyle.
Ted Seipel is still at it. He races his familiar Ferarri in Super Gas (this car was built in 1987), and a Super Stock machine for car owner Larry Scarth in NHRA competition. And of course, he still races the Austin Healey in weekly bracket competition. At 74 years old, he’s still extremely competitive; he picked up his most recent NHRA Wally in 2009 with a Super Gas win at Las Vegas.
"The Ferarri" has seen many final rounds over the years with Kyle and Ted both driving.
“Today, he races more than I do,” said Kyle Seipel. “It’s really come full circle for him. Back 25 years ago, he really kept to himself: he didn’t share his secrets with anyone. Today, he tries to help just about everyone. He’s got a group of younger racers that would put two different size tires on their car if he told them to.”
Alan Reinhart speaking with Ted after his National Event win in Las Vegas.
“Drag racing has been good to me,” said Ted Seipel. “I enjoy so much about the sport: the competition, the challenge of it, but most of all the people I’ve met along the way. There was a time when our area here on the west coast was cut throat, when we were on the verge of all the latest technology and this was a hotbed for drag racing on all levels. Now, it’s not nearly as intense as it used to be. Between the NHRA circuit and local events, I’d say I only get to race every other weekend on average.
It’s still a lot of fun, but it’s different. Back in the ‘60’s it was so cheap to race and be competitive, and I think that’s one reason it was so enjoyable. I remember racing in events that were $25-to-win, and if I won, I made money for the day! Nowadays, the cost of racing has been driven up so much I fear that it really inhibits new interest, especially from the younger crowd. It’s just a sign of the times I know, but I don’t think it’s good for the sport.”
Regardless, Ted is still out there racing, winning, and having the time of his life in the same car he was having the time of his life in over 50 years ago.
“When I look back on my fathers racing career, and the way he influenced me,” Kyle Seipel paused for moment. “I don’t know if I can really put it into words. I’m an only child, and I literally grew up at the race track. My Dad was my hero, my idol, my father, and my coach. I think if there’s one thing that stands out about his racing career it’s that he’s done so much with so little. I mean, he’s raced the same car for going on six decades! And he still wins with it! In an age where we all know that it takes a really good race car to be competitive, and we all get caught up in the cost of ‘keeping up with the joneses,’ he never did. He always did it his way, he never had the equipment that most would consider ‘top-notch,’ and yet he was always at the top of the field. If people associate any one thing with his racing career, I hope that’s it.”
Ted and Georgia back in the day. Still together today enjoying what they love.