BURBANK, California — The old drag racer is huddled inside his cozy backyard garage, the place where he has long spun his wrenches on carburetors and crankshafts.
For Bob Muravez, it’s a messy laboratory of sorts. He has spent years there, under autopsy-room-bright lights, grease trapped deep down inside his fingernails, modifying versions of the dragsters that once ruled the racetrack.
His walls are a photographic record of his best checkered-flag memories. Long-wheel-based dragsters hurtle along straightaways in a blur of motion, their fat racing slicks furiously spinning, raising smoke and dust like demons incarnate.
The photos depict a world of super-fast cars and cocky young men hungry for speed, where winners and losers were separated by fractions of seconds, at speeds so fast racers needed parachutes to slow down. Before he retired in 1971, Muravez won more than 600 sanctioned drag racing events across the U.S., becoming one of the most recognizable names in his burgeoning sport. In Muravez’s fastest run of his career, he reached 249.59 mph in just 5.89 seconds.
Yet at age 82, the old drag racer is most famous not for his speed, but for his secret.
For five long years, between 1962 and 1967, Muravez protected perhaps the most closely-guarded mystery in modern sports: An alter-ego who took full credit for his thriving racing career.
Every time he hopped behind the wheel for another wicked-fast run down the track, the wiry 140-pound Muravez became Floyd Lippencott Jr., the name he assumed to hide his real identity from an unlikely foil: His own father.
Ralph Muravez was a Czechoslovakian immigrant and self-made businessman with a third-grade education, a demanding taskmaster who founded a local washing-machine empire. Along with his Maytag repair shop in Burbank, he owned 5,000 washing machines in apartments across Southern California.
In 1958, as part of his retirement strategy, Ralph handed over majority control of the operation to his sons, Bob and older brother Ralph Jr., known as Bud. Ralph wanted to spend his retirement years enjoying the good life, visiting the world’s exotic ports aboard his 42-foot motorized sailboat.
He was his own Sinbad the Sailor, Bob recalled. But when it came to his son’s racing, he was more like Captain Bly. The last thing he wanted was to lose his rebellious younger son to a fatal dragster wreck. “In his eyes,” Muravaez recalled, “he was building something good for the family and he didn’t want to come home to find that one of his only two sons had died on some racetrack.”
The father issued his son an ultimatum: Quit racing or leave the family business.
Muravez devised a solution that would be unthinkable in today’s hyper-connected world of smartphone cameras and competitive press. With the aid and consent of reporters, photographers, publicists and even drag racing officials, Bob Muravez invented an entirely new identity.
Photographers never took his picture without his face being covered with a helmet and mask. Floyd never did interviews. Bob did those later. Joked Muravez: “Floyd did the driving and Bob did the talking.”
The National Hot Rod Association even issued Muravez a professional driver’s license in Lippencott’s name, the only one without a picture. In the winner’s circle, friends-turned-imposters donned his protective fire suit and kissed the trophy girl while a smirking Muravez stood in the background.
Decades later, wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans and a thick mop of hair, Muravez could still be mistaken for one of those lanky car-crazy kids racing as a teenage rite of passage. Yet the need for speed has dissipated for Muravez, like air seeping from a leaky tire. He hasn’t had a speeding ticket in 40 years.
Now he uses the garage to relieve the stress of running the Maytag repair business his father started during World War II. He’s more often concentrating on honey-do projects than fixing dragster engines.
But Floyd Lippencott Jr. motors on. Both Muravez and Lippencott were inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. And Muravez scribbles down two names whenever he’s asked to sign his autograph.
While Muravez no longer races, his mind still lives in the cockpit. He’s nervous by nature, hands fidgety, bolting his food like he’s rushing to start another race. “I’m a drag racer,” he said. “I’m either idling or going full throttle.”
The years have brought Muravez perspective, but some feelings never pass. To keep both his racing career and his alter-ego alive, the old drag racer admits that he paid a steep price.
Muravez came of age in the 1950s, a lifestyle captured by the film American Graffiti, when he and his buddies lived for their street rods. They’d cruise around the parking lot of Bob’s Big Boy, attracting looks from both the popular girls and less-popular cops, both of whom hounded them incessantly.
Muravez loved both cars and women. Before he was married in the 1970s, he was engaged seven times, and bought seven rings.
And yet, while he nurtured a James Dean persona on the street, his home life followed a different script. There, his demanding immigrant father called the shots. Ralph wasn’t a drinker, he was just mean, unvarnished. He was also a respected businessman.
In the Muravez household, Bob was relegated to second-son status behind Bud, a golden-haired boy who excelled in school and was his father’s favorite. As a child, Bob spent years confined to a sanitarium while suffering from tuberculosis, which also afflicted his mother Edith. He also struggled with dyslexia, a yet-to-be diagnosed condition that confused his hard-charging father.
Family friend John Moore calls “Uncle Ralph” a product of his time. “Ralph was hard-nosed. Lots of men of his era were like that,” he said. “I think Bobby felt overlooked as a boy. His father was busy building his business and he had one healthy son — there just didn’t seem to be time for Bob.”
Ralph lost his own father at a young age. One of five children, he entered the U.S. through Ellis Island in 1908. Not long afterward, his alcoholic father went out one night to play poker and never came home.
Relatives say the experience hardened Ralph towards his own two sons. “He mistreated those boys,” recalled cousin Glenn Clifford, now 84. “He could be cruel.”
To survive the Depression, Ralph sold Hoover vacuum cleaners door to door in Beverly Hills. In 1944, he opened a Maytag sales and service shop in Burbank. An old photograph shows him posing jauntily, leaning against the last in a line of retired washing machines. A sign reads “Keep Out. WASHING MACHINE GRAVEYARD. Let them rest in pieces.”
Ralph loved boats. He built them and took them out on ocean trips, often with Bob in tow. Whenever the boy became seasick, the disgruntled father would drop him off at the nearest point onshore and order him to walk back to the harbor.
Bob worked in the repair shop from age 10. Ralph’s brand of you’ll-do-as-you’re-told discipline was stifling. “My father would always say, ‘When I tell you to do something, you start doing it before I even finish,’” Muravez recalled.
Bob would accompany his father on service calls, carrying the tool box with its hoses, screwdrivers and pliers, learning the washing machine repair trade. Wearing his Maytag hat, Ralph imposed rules that were Depression-era tough. “He’d say, ‘Don’t ever let me hear you say, ‘I can’t.’ If you tell me you don’t want to do something, fine, but never tell me you can’t.’”
In 1954, when Bob was 16, the old man asked if he wanted his own car. Here was a wide-eyed teen growing up in post-war Southern California, at the time of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, when politicians dreamed of going to the moon. The automobile had begun to dominate American life. Seemingly every new product featured sleek aerodynamics, from lamps and toasters, to bullet bras and cars with snazzy hood ornaments and elongated rear fins.
You bet he wanted his own ride.
Ralph called a Hollywood automotive dealer, who told him about a used car for sale. Days later, father and son pulled up outside the Beverly Hills estate of actress Betty Grable.
In the garage they marveled at the sort of car that might frequent a teenage boy’s dreamscape: a white, six-cylinder 1953 Corvette convertible with red interior and a mere 1,800 miles on the odometer.
The kid saw it this way: His father never hugged him. There were no parental pats on the back. That just wasn’t Ralph.
The Corvette was as giving as the old man would ever be. And it was perhaps the greatest gift anyone could give Muravez — a chance to go fast, a chance at status.
Of course he’d take it.
Muravez had just died and gone to automobile heaven.
That Corvette changed everything.
It took an awkward kid forever on the periphery and put him centerstage, behind the wheel of a sleek, sexy performance car.
The Corvette became Muravez’s calling card. He show-boated around town, and joined a local car club called the Road Kings, where members paid dues and worked on race cars.
Muravez also street raced.
He settled grudge matches mostly at night, on lonely River Road near the Forest Lawn cemetery, or on the gritty concrete bed of the LA River beneath the Sixth Street bridge. Those quarter-mile contests were replete with kids giving the go-signal at the starting line, and onlookers ready with buckets of water to douse engine fires.
It wasn’t long before an unwanted observer began to appear in the racers’ rearview mirror: a Burbank cop the boys knew only as Officer Stanley. On weekends, he’d lurk in the gas station parking lot across from Bob’s Big Boy, in the heart of a two-mile teenage cruising stretch.
“He’d write you up for anything, even a bad lightbulb on your license plate,” Muravez recalled. “We didn’t like his attitude.”
When he was 19, Maravez joined fellow Road Kings member and future drag-racing star Tommy Ivo in a teenage prank to spite the dreaded policeman. Muravez snuck beneath Stanley’s patrol car and tied a rope around the rear axle, affixing the other end to a nearby pole.
Then they hopped inside Ivo’s T-bucket roadster, revved the engine and took off past the gas station. Stanley gave chase, but not for long. The pole stopped the cop car dead, and Officer Stanley lurched forward, breaking the steering wheel. “We hid Tommy’s car in the garage,” Muravez recalled. “And we didn’t bring it out for a very long time.”
But by then, those Burbank glory days were nearing their end. One night, Muravez ducked into a back alley to ditch a pursuing black-and-white. The cop later stopped him, warning that the next time he ran, he’d shoot. “That scared me,” Muravez said.
By that time, Muravez had amassed an astounding 28 speeding tickets. His license was suspended for a year. His father took away the Corvette.
At home, tensions mounted. By the summer of 1957, Bud was married and Ralph was fixated on his younger son, who had graduated high school the year before. “We butted heads,” Muravez recalled. “He didn’t think I had any direction. I didn’t like him telling me what to do.”
Eventually, Muravez moved out. He slept inside his hand-me-down 1956 Chevy Belair convertible, and later sold the car to afford living expenses that included $8 a week to rent a room over a friend’s garage.
He got a job working at a buddy’s family machine shop and was doing well. He’d even gotten a few raises. Nearly a year after Muravez left home, Ralph approached him about coming back to the Maytag shop. They reconciled in part because they recognized a shared flaw: Their stubborness.
“He realized where I was coming from and I realized where he was coming from,” Muravez recalled.
Still, Muravez never fully returned home. He only saw Ralph when he showed up at the repair business. And while the young Muravez no longer had a car, the kid still had an incurable adrenaline addiction.
Those days, along with a lot of other Burbank kids with hot cars, Muravez hung out at Ivo’s garage, where he performed grunt work like wiping down tires, washing engine parts and polishing cars.
“He was a footloose and fancy-free kid who tripped over his own feet when he walked,’ recalled Ivo, now 83, famous for his light-hearted putdowns. “But he loved cars.”
Muravez went to the racetrack as Ivo’s gofer. He’d run his Corvette there before, but now he was ready to launch a new chapter of his racing career in earnest.
His relationship with his father was seemingly mended. Ralph had come to terms with his son’s wild side.
That peace would not last long.
Muravez loved the drag strip scene, with its camaraderie and testosterone-laden competition, being able to put pedal to metal without a cop car in sight. Racers were a colorful, braggadocious crowd, boasting nicknames like Sneaky Pete, Wobbly Wheels, Snake, Mongoose, Zookeeper and The Hunter.
Soon, Muravez built his own dragster and started winning races.
Then he got lucky.
In 1961, he began driving for John Peters and Nye Frank, a Santa Monica, California, team that owned the sport’s top racing car. In the years before, they’d developed a twin-engine dragster later known as the Freight Train for its sheer ferocity and the way it belched locomotive-like smoke while crossing the finish line.
What followed catapulted Muravez’s racing career: Peters took a foolhardy kid and helped turn him into a professional driver. Said Peters: “We won a lot of races.”
One old photo offers a closeup view of Muravez in the Freight Train’s cockpit, looking as much like an aerospace test pilot, or cosseted Hazmat worker, as an ambitious risk-taker seeking new speed records.
He wore circular goggles, a dual-cylinder breathing apparatus and facial heat shield to protect him from the spatter of hot oil thrown off the up-front engines by the brutal G-forces. And that helmet? Well, that wasn’t going to protect him much in the event the good Lord decided that he’d flirted with nearly-inhuman speed too many times. If that unfortunate eventuality occurred — if the engine exploded, or he flipped that dragster — nothing could save him.
Back then, as the saying went, drag racing rules were written in blood. “Gee, another guy got killed?” a driver would say. “Sorry to hear that. When’s the next race?”
In the late 1950s and 1960s, the mounting death toll in the sport led car builders to innovate, like adding a parachute when they learned mere brakes could no longer slow down a speeding dragster, and shoulder and lap harnesses to keep drivers from being thrown out of tumbling cars.
While Muravez was serving as one of drag racing’s guinea pigs, he still worked five days a week at the Maytag shop, racing on nights and weekends. Ralph barely took an interest in his son’s career, and never once saw him race.
Then in March 1962, Muravez won his first major championship race in the so-called Top Gas category — in which dragsters used the same gas as street cars — at the Bakersfield Fuel and Gas Championships.
Well, that got Ralph’s attention.
By then, Ralph had given each of his sons a 40 percent share of the business and dreamed of sailing on his boat, stopping just long enough to cash his profit-sharing check.
A dead son would ruin that dream.
Within days of Muravez’s first major racing victory, Ralph approached his 24-year-old son and gave him a choice: Either quit racing or lose his share of ownership in the family business.
Choose family over dreams.
Appease the father.
So Muravez made one of the most difficult choices of his life. In June 1962, he abandoned his passion. He continued to go the races as part of the team, but served only as a crewmember, not as a driver.
For the next five months, without Muravez behind the wheel, the Freight Train did not qualify for a single race, despite being piloted by such famous names as Mickey Thompson, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen and Craig Breedlove. Several drivers complained that the powerful race car pulled dangerously to one side, and there was talk of scrapping the dragster altogether.
Muravez begged to differ. One night after the Freight Train failed to qualify at Lions drag strip in Long Beach, Muravez accepted a dare from driver “Wild Bill” Alexander to slip behind the wheel himself. He took the dragster for what he called “a nice easy pass” down the quarter-mile track.
Seconds later, when the run was done, he heard the distant roar of the crowd. He lit a cigarette from the dragster’s glowing disc brake. Back at the pit, he learned that he’d set a new world speed record of 185 miles per hour.
That settled it: Muravez would go back behind the wheel, against his father’s wishes. He soon captured the National Hot Rod Association’s 1963 Winter Nationals trophy, under the name “John Peters.” The Freight Train was the No. 1-rated Top Gas dragster in the nation.
A drag racing legend was born.
One day, a young sportswriter named Steve Gibbs was filing a story for the weekly racing publication Drag News on the race results at the San Gabriel track.
Muravez asked that he not use his real name. “When he won the race, I thought, ‘I’ve got to make up a name,’” recalled Gibbs, who later became competition director of the National Hot Rod Association.
The author of one of his college textbooks came to mind — Lippencott. Gibbs couldn’t recall the first name, so he improvised — Floyd. In a final flourish, he added a Jr. “I had no idea the name would become a major piece of drag-racing trivia,” he said.
Muravez immediately ran with the alias, even adding a middle initial “J,” later explaining that it stood for “genuine.” “I was a lousy speller,” he laughed.
Convincing people to keep his secret wasn’t as difficult as Muravez — Lippencott — imagined.
He often bought pictures from moonlighting photographers, so they were eager to keep him happy.
And frankly, he added, racing officials didn’t care what name he used, as long as he continued to draw fans to the track.
Just to be safe, Muravez made sure there were no cameras around when he slid behind the wheel of his dragster. After races, he did interviews with his helmet and facemask still on.
In February 1963, Muravez won the Winternationals in Pomona, California, his very first race since returning to the sport as a driver. With Muravez in the game, The Freight Train was finally back.
In the winner’s circle, his roommate, Rex Slinkard, donned Muravez’s leather racing jacket and stepped up to accept the top award, his arm around the trophy girl. The real driver laughed in the background, knowing his secret was safe for yet another race.
Floyd J. Lippencott Jr. continued to win races, hundreds of them. But perhaps one too many.
In May 1967, after winning the Springnationals competition in Bristol, Tennessee, Muravez made a mistake: Flush with victory, sitting inside The Freight Train’s cockpit with his helmet and facemask off, he was approached by reporter Keith Jackson from ABC’s Wide World of Sports. “You’re really popular,” Jackson said, thrusting a microphone in his face.
“Yeah, we have a lot of fans in the South,” Muravez answered.
On the long drive home, he realized what he’d done. While his father was not a regular viewer of the show, Muravez had nonetheless put his face on national television. There was still a chance Ralph would somehow see it on the boat’s TV while out on a weekend fishing trip.
“I thought, ‘What am I gonna do?’” Muravez knew the segment wouldn’t air for a week, so he hatched a plan. He borrowed the TV from Ralph’s boat — saying his was broken — so his father wouldn’t catch the Saturday sports show while out on the water. Not only was Muravez’s racing career now in jeopardy, but so was the tenuous relationship between father and son.
But Muravez couldn’t control every factor. Ralph liked to relax after a fishing trip with a few boilermakers at Burbank’s Elks Club bar, where a drinking pal broke the news that his son Bob had actually been racing as a professional driver for six years — all behind his back.
At first, the old man wouldn’t believe it, until the friend returned with an Orange County Raceway program that pictured his son.
The next day, Ralph stormed inside the Maytag repair shop showroom, surrounded by two dozen new washers and dryers.
It was early in the day and there were no customers. Just Ralph and his two sons.
The old man was furious. He was already going through a painful divorce, and now this. He thrust the racing program at his younger son, after making an X with a pen like it was Exhibit A in a trial.
There was Floyd Lippencott Jr. — Muravez — staring up from the page.
Ralph and Bob faced each other.
“Have you been driving all these years?” the father asked.
“Yes, I have,” the son replied.
“You’ve been lying to me,” Ralph said. “You’re no son of mine.”
When Bud spoke up in his brother’s defense, their father banished both from the business. He threw a hammer through a window and reached for another before both sons stopped him.
A neighboring merchant called the police. It was a messy scene. Ralph finally roared off in his 1959 El Camino, but not before threatening both boys.
“I built this business,” he said. “And I can destroy it.”
He vowed to never speak to either one for as long as he lived.
He kept his word.
What happened next was a family car wreck.
Ralph and Edith finalized their divorce. He wanted to keep sailing. She wanted to stay close to her family. The boys battled for control of the family washing machine business while the father made threats. He eventually remarried a woman half his age and moved into the bungalow the family had kept for years on Catalina Island. He later became Avalon’s assistant harbormaster.
He started to get drunk regularly.
“He was tired of it all,” Muravez recalled. “His world was crashing in around him and that’s how he dealt with it.”
Bob’s wife Sharon is more harsh. “Ralph was a bastard,” she said.
Without Ralph’s looming shadow, Muravez kept racing, but he did not retire Floyd Lippencott Jr. He even added the letter “e” at the end of the name to make it look fancier, more French. Years later, he played along with humorous public campaigns sponsored by racing cronies that promoted Lippencott as a candidate for California governor and U.S. president.
At the track, Muravez liked to taunt competitors. “Have a good race,” he’d say. “But if you beat Floyd, you beat nobody. He doesn’t even exist.”
Muravez retired from drag racing in 1971 when the National Hot Rod Association discontinued the Top Gas class of competition. He briefly returned to take part in exhibitions over the coming decades, but the final flag had fallen on his racing days.
He married Sharon in 1974 and raised two sons, Michael and Peter. He was always careful not to be overbearing like his own father, to let them pursue their own lives.
After his brother sold his share of the business to pursue an equestrian career, Muravez continued to run the shop under its original name, “Ralph’s Electric.”
Muravez spotted his father a few times over the years. When his paternal grandmother died in 1975, Muravez saw Ralph at the funeral, but kept his distance.
One day, Bud passed his father on the Avalon boat dock.
“Hi Dad,” he said.
Ralph ignored him.
In the early 1980s, a possible truce loomed. A drinking pal of Ralph’s walked into the Maytag repair shop, saying the old man would like to see his sons. So Sharon sent Ralph a letter with a picture of baby Michael. “It was a very welcoming letter,” she recalled. “I went into detail, extending an olive branch.”
A week later, they got their response — a handwritten letter. “It was full of hate, saying ‘I no longer have a son and therefore I have no grandchildren,’” Sharon said. It included a copy of a letter Bud’s wife had sent after having the couple’s first child, with the same invective response.
“I thought, ‘You bastard! How dare you?’” Sharon said. “I threw the letter at Bob. I was upset, but he kept things inside. He just accepted it.”
The two rarely, if ever, mentioned the letter again.
Ralph died in 1993. Muravez was never told of the funeral. He doesn’t even know where his father is buried. Both Bud and Edith are gone, too.
Now, there’s just Bob. And Floyd.
“Ralph died a bitter, lonely, broken, miserable person, alone in his motorhome or camper or whatever the hell it was,” Sharon said. “There was nobody around him, nobody who cared about him. Bob could have been there.”
These days, when Muravez talks to groups, the audience gasps when it hears how Ralph disowned his own son. But Muravez slowly came to terms with the pain through stoicism.
He understood that old family stubbornness. Amid that last faceoff in the Maytag shop, before Ralph threw the hammer through the window, Muravez knew something very important had come to an end. “I realized at that moment that there was nothing I could have done or said to bring back my father’s final words to me.”
They hurt, of course, but Muravez also felt a sense of liberation. He no longer had to do something he truly loved in secret.
The lies were finished for good. Ralph could control his son no more.
While the father never forgave the son, the son has forgiven the father.
“I carry my father right here,” Muravez said, pointing to his head. “I understood him. I was the second-born son and I knew what that meant to him. He believed that the father was the ruler of the family, no matter what.”
Inside the garage where he bonds with friends like a teenage gear head, Muravez still quotes Ralph’s homilies. He considered what was left unsaid with his father.
He likened the loss to seeing colleagues die in dragster crashes. “The racetrack is like a war zone,” he said. “You tell a friend, ‘Be safe,’ and he goes out and dies. You wish you could have said something.”
For years, Muravez has kept a slip of paper inside his wallet, which he consults whenever he is overcome with a sense of loss — of long-ago racing friends, and Ralph.
“The clock of life is wound just once,” it reads in part. “And no man has the power to tell just when the hands will stop, at late or early hour.”
There are also words Muravez tries to forget. For years, he kept Ralph’s spiteful last letter in his office safe.
So where is it now?
Inside the garage, he moves his hands as though crumpling an imaginary piece of paper, and tosses it over his shoulder.
He flashes a look of hurt and sadness. “You only have one father in life,” he says.
Suddenly, he has to go. There is work to do.
Those machines aren’t going to fix themselves.