Among his contemporaries, few open-wheel drivers were as well-liked as Ted Prappas. Lost this week after a fast fight with colon cancer, the Southern Californian was an elder statesman among the sizable group of skilled drivers who rose up the training categories in the 1980s.
Prappas, along with Paul Tracy, Mike and Robbie Groff, Steve and Cary Bren, Dave Kudrave, Mark Smith, Dean Hall, and others—mostly from the west coast—were staples in the SCCA Super Vee series, Formula Atlantics, and Indy Lights as they chased their dreams of reaching IndyCar.
The purity of Prappas’ motivation is what made an impact; although he never attained fame as a race car driver, he was not the type of person who sought adoration. Prappas simply loved to drive.
“He didn’t care if you didn’t know who he was,” Tracy told RACER. “He was a guy who was happy just who he was; he wasn’t about being a household name or making a pile of money. I remember for the longest time he was living on a boat — a little boat in Marina Del Rey; it wasn’t a yacht. It was a really little boat. This was when he was driving Indy cars, living on this tiny boat, and just he wasn’t concerned with anything more than driving.
“He wasn’t chasing a bigger house or status symbols. He was just happy to be driving racecars and he didn’t come from money; didn’t have sponsors. He got to IndyCar on his talent as a driver and being a good guy.”
It was in the unstructured junior open-wheel ladder series where talent was sometimes hard to spot due to the fractured nature of the sanctioning bodies and the occasional lack of depth on the entry lists, but Prappas had no problem establishing himself as one of the fastest and smartest of his era.
At a time when the Atlantic series was split into separate championships, Prappas won the 1986 western title while Scott Goodyear took the eastern championship. With the launch of Indy Lights, Prappas would deliver for smaller teams and go on to run second behind his friend Tracy in the 1990 standings with the group of Long Beach police officers who formed the Personal Investment Group (P.I.G.) Racing team.
Along the way, Prappas would serve as a big brother and mentor to many of the drivers who would go onto greater opportunities in the sport.
“My dad did a deal for me to go race the winter Atlantic series in New Zealand, and I just turned 17,” Tracy recalls. “I’d been to England to go racing. I’d go to stay with my grandparents and my aunts and uncles. They’d take me to my races and look after me the whole time. Then I’m going off to New Zealand solo, and then I get picked up at the airport by Ted and Dean Hall.
“And that’s how that’s how I got to know those guys. We basically traveled around and a little station wagon, went from hotel to hotel, had fun racing for a month, and Ted took care of me as a kid out on his own like that for the first time.”
A rookie in the CART IndyCar Series at the age of 36, Prappas debuted with P.I.G. in 1991 where he earned a career best of sixth, coming at his home race in Long Beach. The small team with a Judd turbo V8 motor was constantly fighting an uphill battle with the least favored engine in the series powering their Lola T91/00.
“Ted drove for me in Atlantics, Indy Lights, and IndyCar,” Turley said. “He played a big part in our racing program with his brother, mom, and dad and had a lot of support from family and friends. Ted was smooth and easy going; loved driving a super soft car. He could communicate so well with the crew chiefs about what the car was doing, and it was almost like everything happened in slow motion for him. I remember him pointing different people out in the turns when he was driving for me in IndyCar, and I go, ‘Shouldn’t you be concentrating on driving?’ And he goes, ‘Norm, the car is beautiful. Right now, I’m going about as fast as it can go.’”
Despite failing to qualify for their first Indianapolis 500, Prappas and P.I.G. returned in 1992 with a new Lola chassis and a Chevy turbo V8—not the latest specification, but an upgrade nonetheless—and showed the modest one-car team with a quality driver could overtake some of the established organizations.
Opening the season with a 10th at Surfers Paradise, Prappas used his savvy to come home 16th at Indy on a day where many of the bigger stars crashed in cold weather. As the season drew to a close, the black and dayglow orange No. 31 entry made waves with a string of four road and street races where Prappas finished 13th, 10th, ninth, and 11th. At 37, and having shown his capabilities in an underfunded program, Prappas saw his tenure in IndyCar come to an end as no quality drives were offered to continue in 1993.
As hard as it might be to imagine for a driver who only made 26 IndyCar starts over two seasons and often ran well removed from the spotlight, Prappas made a big impact on people within the sport, and it stated from his earliest days in those training series. He was incredibly kind, and from his natural warmth and positive ways, Prappas was held close by an ever-growing group of friends who made sure he was taken care of after the door closed in IndyCar.
“Everybody liked Ted and he got to deal with Honda and Acura doing their ride-and-drive programs showcasing their new cars,” Tracy said. “He must have done that for 20 years — still involved, still making a living at it, but just behind the scenes, happy, paying his bills, being out there and teaching people how to drive.”
Prappas was close with his brother Will, who worked with their mother managing the late Hollywood star Jimmy Stewart. Will Prappas also managed a number of IndyCar drivers, including 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser, Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani, and others, as the brothers made valuable contributions in different ways over the years.
For Turley, Prappas set the standard for professionalism from the cockpit.
“He was never argumentative,” he said. “He had his opinion and he gave it and would never blame the car. I’ve done a lot of racing with different drivers who would blame the car for everything. And he would just come in and say, ‘Hey, we need to do this, the car’s pushing or the car’s super loose,’ and he was so calm and collected and quiet about helping to make it better. I think that really worked to his benefit. Ted was never arrogant; didn’t have a big head. He was all class when back in those days when everybody had their egos.”
More than anything else, Tracy remembers his ongoing generosity and underappreciated talent.
“Ted was living in Arizona for a long time and I saw him probably nine months ago and he came out to our track and helped as a race official,” he said. “He just would come out and help for free just to be around it. He wasn’t doing anything to make a buck; he just loved being there at the track and helping out however he could. A lot of the older guys — you can’t get them to come out unless there’s money involved.
“He had a really good career driving and never had the best equipment. He didn’t need to be the star; he just wanted to race. Ted was a gritty journeyman driver; reliable; didn’t make mistakes; didn’t crash stuff. The guy got to IndyCar without bringing money and got there based on being a good driver that you could rely on. He was special.”