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Junior Pippin—They Broke the Mold

story, photos (except where noted) and video by Tim Hailey

 

Junior Pippin—racer and raconteur

I first got to know Junior Pippin as a voice on my answering machine. “There’s a message on there you have GOT to hear,” said Nicole, who’d been housesitting and walking the dog for me while I was out of town. 

So I did, and out of the speaker came a very southern, melodic and theatrical voice that identified itself with the equally fanciful name of Junior Pippin. I sat in my Brooklyn storefront trying to picture this Pippin guy. Junior’s phone voice is always exceptionally polite and usually a touch higher pitched than his “outdoor voice.” Because of the name I thought of the Hee-Haw comedian Junior Samples. Coupled with the joviality of his delivery, I pictured a chubby man.

I was totally wrong of course. Although not a jockey in the Jeremy Teasley mold, when I met Junior in person he was anything but a chubby man. Fit and wiry, Junior looked every bit the man he was—someone who worked every day driving his dump truck despite the fact that he owned over 30 of them and could have just sat at home while others were out doing all the work. That’s what men who own a fleet of three-dozen trucks generally do.

But Junior Pippin was not like other men. Along with hard work, Junior found plenty of time to play hard—very hard. In his outdoor voice—more gravelly and reminiscent of Foghorn Leghorn—Junior could tell an unstoppable stream of hilarious stories about racing and high living unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met. And that, my friends, covers a lot of people who’ve led exceptionally colorful lives.

It was back in the very early 2000s when I met Junior, and at the end of the day at All Harley Drag Racing Association (AHDRA) events all across the country he could usually be found drinking cold beers with his racing buddy Gene Lummus. Gene succumbed to cancer in 2010, and a few years before that Junior had to give up drinking because of hepatitis C.

But it wasn’t the cold beer or even close friends that kept Junior the happiest guy in the room, it was just his nature. “I can’t understand it,” he told me while discussing one of our nation’s many mass shootings. “I couldn’t hurt anything.”

The AHDRA also died and Junior made the leap from their Pro Modified class (I think he won 7 AHDRA championships) to NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle. A life-long Harley-Davidson racer, Pippin did not take kindly the way the Motor Company exclusively worked with the Vance & Hines team and he was not shy about letting anyone and everyone know how he felt about it.

Junior at the NHRA US Nationals in 2010

So like every other PSM racer whose heart pumps in a V-Twin configuration, Pippin got himself a Buell, and like his fleet of trucks his Buell arsenal grew to four. He soon started working with “some guys from Richard Childress Racing” who cast some magic on his cylinder heads. Pippin also began to recast himself from a lifelong street and sportsman racer into a middle-aged PSM rookie.

But then the scourge that would try to define his last years came down on the Pippin household—cancer. First struck was his longtime girlfriend Lisa Holtzclaw, with a serious case of breast cancer. Junior and Lisa married, and he took a couple of years off from racing to focus on her fight and recovery. Watching her fight the terrible disease brought sad stories to Junior’s repertoire for what seemed like the first time in his life.

Junior at Charlotte in 2013

Lisa’s fight was proving successful and, like Junior, she longed for a return to their life at the dragstrip. He partnered with sponsor PiranaZ to produce breast cancer fundraising t-shirts and gave their racing return real meaning.

Junior at Charlotte in 2013

Junior realized it was going to take some additional talent to capture a Wally against the likes of the Vance & Hines/Harley-Davidson team and he brought Jeremy Teasley to ride at the 2015 Four-Wide race at Charlotte. Teasley didn’t make the field, but with the bike showing big mile-per-hour, the problem lay in clutch tuning.

Junior and Jeremy Teasley at Charlotte in 2015

Pippin’s fan base had mainly been connected to Harley-Davidson racing, but hiring Teasley earned Junior the attention of sportbike drag racers the world over. Jeremy couldn’t do the whole season, though, because of NHDRO commitments and conflicting schedules. And Junior knew he needed help with the clutch.

Chip Ellis with Lisa and Junior at Norwalk in 2015, just before Lisa was pronounced cancer-free and Junior was diagnosed with cancer

Junior was able to fill both vacancies with one guy—Chip Ellis—and the love affair between the sportbike drag racing world and Pippin was complete. The new pairing was immediately quick, and by Norwalk the Junior Pippin Trucking Buell was surrounded by the enquiring eyes of the competition. What made this black and pink Buell so quick?

It was just after Norwalk that Junior was diagnosed with a rare and inoperable form of sinus cancer—just as Lisa was given a clean bill of health. Junior was bombarded with 35 radiation and 8 chemo treatments, reducing him to under 130 pounds. Perhaps more cruelly, the tumor pushed hard against Junior’s tongue, rounding off the sharp edge that gave so much tone and color to his story telling.

But there was no diminishing Junior’s great spirit. I visited him on my way north from the Manufacturers’ Cup race in November, and although he never moved from the couch, his spirit filled the humble room for two hours of laughter and stories.

By April of the next year, Junior and I were roaming the grounds of his Conyers, Georgia compound, a Dasani bottle his constant companion as the radiation had killed his saliva glands. But the stories rolled—tales from the Cabbage Patch, stories about his lifelong buddy Fat Job, and colorful interactions with the local police.

Soon Junior was back at work bouncing around in his dump track—the one he had decorated in pink during Lisa’s fight. He was planning a return to the seat, planning on qualifying alongside Chip.

But there was a small matter of cancer found in his lung, and a chunk of that organ to be removed. Junior’s plans were merely delayed, never canceled.

Lon Moyer, Chip Ellis and Brad Moore on a very happy day in Charlotte

Those RCR guys were Lon Moyer and Brad Moore of Competition Engine Services, and their work with Pippin Power eventually carried them way deeper than the cylinder heads. Now the pirate Pippin was fighting S&S in addition to H-D.

It all fell together for the team at Charlotte in September and Ellis was able to deliver a Wally to Junior, who wasn’t able to make the trip as he recovered from his lung surgery. I could hear his tears through the phone.

Then the sinus tumor was back, and with so much damage done in the previous barrage of radiation, doctors dared not direct anymore. Immunotherapy was the only thing left on the table.

And still, Junior Pippin operated as if there was everything to gain, nothing to lose, and all to be enjoyed.

Lisa and Junior in Atlanta this past May

I always had a scheduling conflict with the NHRA race at Commerce, Georgia, where Junior Pippin Trucking kept a suite and the national event was an excuse for Junior to throw a big party. Finally, this year, I had that weekend free and went to the race. Junior was in top form—greeting his admiring public at the trailer and the suite, and overseeing a barbeque chicken feast that fed everyone in the pits and then some.

That was the last time I saw Junior. We talked on the phone until the last time when he told me “I can’t swallow.” With a feeding tube, he kept up a lively text exchange with me during the U.S. Nationals, his spirit and energy showing through in language that I could clearly hear spoken in his own voice.

After that, my texts were returned by someone else—probably Lisa—with reports that this race wasn’t going Junior’s way.

Junior and Redell Harris

Since his passing on Sunday, Facebook has been filled with love for Junior Pippin. “I write this with a heavy heart to just say ‘Thank you’ for all you did for me, I could never say ‘Thank you’ enough,” said rider Redell Harris, who ran Pippin Power. “You took me in as one of your own and (for) that I am forever grateful. You gave me something that no one else did—that was the joy of having a Pro Stock bike that could have won if I only could have ridden it like it should have been. You will be forever missed.”

“Never in my 48 years have I met anyone like him,” said Ellis. “After he got too sick to come to the races people would come by our trailer and share their stories about how he helped them or what a great guy he was. I often asked myself, ‘How could one person touch so many people's lives?’

“I could tell so many uplifting stories that his fans and friends have told me. Junior was the real deal. I can't imagine not seeing him again. He will forever be missed.”

Lisa and Junior with Eddie Krawiec at Norwalk

Pippin will finally get his Harley-Davidson Pro Stock Motorcycle, sort of, as Ellis will be wearing his Junior Pippin Trucking leathers on a third Vance & Hines Street Rod this weekend in Pomona. Ellis will put his considerable development skills to work on this new bike, which is what V&H gets out of this deal. But they’ve never let a single variation in their brand occur since the H-D partnership came their way all those years ago, so this is a big thing, and maybe talk of Junior will be all over the airwaves this weekend as his funeral goes on in Conyers. If only he could tell us what he thinks about that.

Junior Pippin could have been a much richer man if wealth held any meaning for him. The wealth he had could have furnished him a more luxurious lifestyle if luxury was worth anything at all to a Conyers country boy. He might have had more Pro Stock Motorcycle wins if paying someone else to do it their way was the Pippin way.

But Junior Pippin was a true original, a rare thing today. His values were guided by his heart only, and that skinny cracker had a heart big enough to pump blood into the lives of everyone who crossed his path. Godspeed Junior Pippin, you did it right.

Junior was a generous sponsor of others, including the Hancock family

Mr. Lewis G. 'Junior' Pippin, Jr., age 64 of Conyers, died Sunday, November 5, 2017. He is survived by his wife, Lisa Pippin; sons and daughter-in-law, Trent and Sonya Pippin, Derek Pippin, Scot Pippin; grandchildren, Clarice, Garrett, Sarah and Michael; numerous friends and other relatives. Mr. Pippin was owner/operator of Junior Pippin Trucking. He enjoyed drag racing and Harley motorcycles. Funeral Services will be held Saturday, November 11, 2017 at 2 p.m. at Scot Ward's Green Meadow Chapel with Pastor Eric Lee of Light of Calvary Baptist Church officiating; interment will follow at Green Meadow Memorial Gardens. Family will receive friends Friday, November 10, 2017 from 5 until 9 p.m. and Saturday from 12 until 2 p.m. prior to the service at the funeral home. Condolences may be submitted on-line at www.scotward.com. Scot Ward Funeral Services, 699 American Legion Road, Conyers, GA 30012, 770-483-7216.

Chip Ellis and Junior at Englishtown in 2015 (photo by Hot Rod Chrissie)

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