By Holly Cain
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Judy Stropus still gets a kick sharing the story.
A longtime voting member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (MSHFA), Stropus vividly recalls receiving the ballot to decide the Induction Class of 2017. The esteemed list included all sorts of racing greats representing everything from sports cars to stock cars, motorcycles to hydroplanes; from legendary contributors to the hard-working veterans who have left indelible marks on the sport in some fashion.
And there among the sports car nominees, Stropus quietly read her own name. Understandably moved, the longtime pit road veteran – the “master” of timing and scoring, a skilled racer and a highly-respected public relations guru – Stropus did not waver on who she would select.
“When I filled it out, I wrote on the ballot that I’m going to vote for me,” Stropus explains deadpan. “And If I’m not allowed to vote for myself, then I vote for Scott Pruett.
“Of course, he won, and I joked with him, I hope you didn’t win by one vote,” she adds laughing.
Pruett did earn the honor in 2017, but Stropus received word this winter that she will now be joining the IMSA champion as an esteemed 2021 inductee at the Hall of Fame located at Daytona International Speedway.
“I said, ‘No way, this is the sports car category and there are all these famous drivers, how does this happen?'” Stropus recalled. “I was pretty humbled by the news and had to keep it secret for months.”
Stropus is the kind of person, the kind of larger-than-life personality whose real-life story and contribution to the sport can’t be done justice in 1,000 words. She is the intrigue at a dinner party, the personality magnet in any room.
Stropus has worked for racing greats such as Roger Penske, Dan Gurney and Bud Moore, timed the Indianapolis 500 before women were allowed in the garage and has been a respected stalwart at IMSA races for decades.
Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, in 1943, she and her mother emigrated to the United States in 1949, establishing a home in New York. Even while learning a new language and settling into a new way of life, Stropus was smart enough – and motivated enough – to graduate from her New York-area Catholic high school a full year early.
Her boyfriend at that time had a 1950 Jaguar XK120, which he used to teach the teenage Stropus how to drive. And it was during this time, her life would veer into the fast lane. Permanently.
“My boyfriend Paul and I were just standing in line for a movie one time and talking about cars and the people behind us ask, ‘Hey, you guys were talking about cars?'” Stropus said. “We were like, ‘Yeah, we have a Jaguar XK120 and a ’57 Chevy.’ And they said, ‘You should join the Queens Sports Car Club on Long Island.’
“So we got involved. He was racing and I got involved with being editor of their newsletter, and I learned how to time there.”
It was the genesis and development of talents that would serve Stropus well for decades – propelling her into an unexpected career and ultimately into a revered position in the hall of fame.
As with many women in that era, Stropus didn’t pursue a career in auto racing to break barriers for women or to be a token gender representative. She genuinely just fell in love with the sport and, equally so, the people and stories she encountered along the way.
The shorthand she learned in high school essentially raised her profile in racing paddocks – an invaluable tool that Stropus used in timing and scoring. She would regularly amaze teams and officials, scoring as many as 30 cars a race in the 1970s and ’80s before electronic scoring systems existed.
“Before really good computerized timing and scoring, (for) the small teams that didn’t use her services, you’d have to wait for the hourly report to come out,” said former IMSA GTP winning driver Tommy Kendall, who recalls the scene when his father raced in the Rolex 24 At Daytona in the 1980s.
“And the 14-hour reports, for example at Daytona, would come out close to the 15-hour mark so you had to try and figure out what happened to piece it together. You never really knew where you were unless you were one of her clients.”
As Kendall moved up the racing ranks, he and Stropus were often working alongside one another. The respect he holds for her is evident in his voice even today.
“What strikes me about her – and I didn’t even know her remarkable story about immigrating and not speaking the language – she really is a case study in being able to literally do whatever you want to do,” Kendall said.
“To come into a world that is really male dominated, she just thrived and never really made a big deal about it. The thing about racing, if you can help a team be better, you’ll have a job for as long as you want, basically.
“And so, what she was able to do, I think she was a pioneer. To be able to keep a 24-hour lap chart or to time literally 20 cars with a stopwatch. … Not only is she clicking the watch and getting the time written down as the 30 cars go by, she’s doing the math to keep a 24-hour lap chart. She provided a huge value to teams.
“It’s hard for anyone, especially a woman in a man’s sport, even a young man in a man’s sport, you want to prove you know what you’re talking about. For Judy, it was never about her. Always about the job and she led a most interesting life.”
While timing and scoring for the legendary Team Penske in its early days of the 1970s, she had to secure special permission to be able to work in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage. At the time, women were not permitted in the work area. Stropus still has the photo of the letter granting her access to come and go to the IMS inner sanctum.
Although she juggled a full-time Monday-through-Friday job as a legal assistant in the 1970s and ’80s, Stropus decided to go “all in” with her racing career as demand for her timing/scoring talent grew and her burgeoning public relations career took off. She was hired by Chevrolet and BMW to lead their massive public relations efforts spanning multiple forms of racing over decades and has particularly enjoyed her work as a Concours judge all over the country.
Although she is already known in racing circles for her calm, can-do demeanor, the MSHFA honor has understandably taken a reflective pause in her normally fast-paced, up-tempo life. This nod is incredibly significant to her and buoyed by the fact she will be inducted in a class that features an unprecedented three women, including Janet Guthrie and Fran Muncey, too.
“I never felt like a trailblazer,” Stropus insists. “I joke that I didn’t know I was a woman, that I was anything different. I didn’t see myself as being any different than someone else who was doing a job. I didn’t realize that until much later. This was a whirlwind time. I didn’t know any different.
“I just was doing what I did and whatever I did well. I went with the flow.”
From a humble beginning to a thriving present – shoulder to shoulder with all the great names and fellow legendary contributors to the sport of auto racing – Stropus has carved out an impactful career in a meaningful life. Achievement that will be fittingly celebrated and enshrined.
“Judy is always somewhere and always doing something and that something is always important,” said famed driver Lyn St. James. “She’s never a hanger-on. She’s always there in a capacity that’s important, and you never know what that capacity may be.
“Judy is a great representative of the sport, very knowledgeable.
“She has been there and done that with the best.”
As Stropus says, contemplating this great honor, “”All I ever wanted in my life was respect.”
And that, she has aplenty.
The Class of 2021 for the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America will be inducted Sept. 29 in a special ceremony at the event center of the new M1 Concourse – an exclusive community of more than 250 secure private garages set along the 1.5-mile Champion Motor Speedway – in Pontiac, Michigan. It’s part of a weeklong motorsport celebration that will also include induction ceremonies for the Class of 2020 that had to be postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. For information on the week’s activities, visit mshf.com.