The legendary timekeeper who tracked 100 cars with one stopwatch

Before AWS analytics, telemetry or even the invention of the digital watch, one woman had the timing skills every race team craved: Judy Stropus

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - 1979: Judy Stropus poses with her Champion Spark Plug Challenge car at Daytona International Speedway. Stropus was considered a top professional at race timing and scoring and worked with many teams including Roger Penske Racing. She also became involved in motorsports public relations. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Judy Stropus developed incredible timing skills, making her highly a sought-after individual in the US racing scene in the '60s and '70s

ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images

Over the years, a host of practices once considered essential have disappeared from racing. Modern tyros don’t know how to operate an H-pattern gearbox, much less heel and toe. The ability to quickly learn new racetracks has been rendered superfluous by simulators. But of all the lost arts, none seems as mystifying to modern racers than hand-timing with a stopwatch.

Yes, believe it or not, there once was a time – and not that long ago – when front-line race teams hired people to do nothing but log lap times and maintain race charts using timepieces that looked like relics from a Charles Dickens novel. Most of these timers were women, many of them wives and girlfriends of drivers and team owners. But none of them was better known or more accomplished than a steely-eyed professional named Judy Stropus.

“SCCA used the same system I did, but they had one person per car,” she says. “Anybody can time one car. During practice and qualifying, I had the unique ability to time 20, 30, 40 cars at a time. Then I would keep the lap charts during the race. I actually had 100 cars at Sebring one year, and that was hell.”


Stropus has handled public relations for illustrious race teams and car manufacturers. She’s written about racing for AutoWeek and raced herself in the Cannonball Run and the SCCA Runoffs. When I chatted with her earlier this week, she’d just returned home after serving as a judge at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. But the major reason she’ll be enshrined in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in a few months is because she wrote the book about timing and scoring – literally. Yep, The Stropus Guide to Auto Race Timing & Scoring.

For nearly a quarter-century, Stropus could be found clicking a stopwatch from a perch overlooking the pits in Trans-Am and Can-Am races, at the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But the best barometer of her status in the sport is the roster of team owners who paid for her services: Roger Penske, Dan Gurney, Al Holbert, Bud Moore, the list goes on and on.

1967: Walter

Bud Moore recognised Stropus’s talent, quickly hiring her to time his Trans-Am team

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Even team owners who hadn’t hired her tried to sneak a peek at her handiwork. “My favorite was Vasek Polak,” she says. “He’d come climbing up on whatever platform I had built, and I’d keep saying, ‘Vasek, you’re not paying me. I’m not working for you.’ He got very upset with me over that.”

Stropus’s dedication and focus led to some bruised feelings at the track. But that came with the territory, according to Sylvia Wilkinson, the author of the classic racing history, The Stainless Steel Carrot, and herself a former professional timer who was trained by Stropus. “You try doing what she was doing. You can’t,” Wilkinson says. “It ain’t easy! It’s past intense.”

Stopwatch, lap chart and cigarette: Judy Stropus in action, from a talk on the art of race timing.

Watch the full video, from the American National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors by clicking below

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Stropus followed a circuitous path to motorsports fame. Born in Lithuania, she emigrated to the United States as a displaced person in 1949. A childhood interest in cars was rekindled by a boyfriend who owned a Jaguar XK120 and a ’57 Chevy. Although she autocrossed a bit early on, she quickly found a niche in timing and scoring.

This was long before cars were equipped with transponders and sanctioning bodies scored races electronically. Hell, this was before digital stopwatches, for God’s sake. Races were timed and scored by hand, which worked fine. But lap times weren’t available until sessions were over, and there were sometimes disputes over finishing positions. So most teams deputized a member of the crew to work a stopwatch.

In 1967, Stropus traveled to Marlboro Speedway to time a friend. At a cocktail party after the race, she met Bud Moore and Fran Hernandez, who ran the Mercury Cougar Trans-Am programme. They offered her $25 to stick around an extra day to work the Trans-Am race, which she did, sitting on a toolbox with ramps over her head because there was a chance of rain. The next week, Moore and Hernandez asked her to fly out to California for the race at Modesto. “They were paying all my expenses, not just $25,” Stropus says. “I said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’ I was so excited that I went out and got a whole new wardrobe.”

When Moore moved on to Ford Mustangs, Stropus switched allegiance to the AMC Javelin team. At one race, she recalls, “Roger Penske walks by me and says, ‘Why aren’t you working for me?’ and keeps on walking.” Before long, she was timing Can-Am for Penske. Eventually, she quit her weekday gig as a legal secretary and starting doing timing and PR on a full-time basis.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 02: 1972 Times Grand Prix - Riverside - Can-Am. Race winner George Follmer of Penske Racing driving his L&M Porsche-Audi. (Photo by John Lamm/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Stropus soon moved on to working for Penske in Can-Am – pictured here is George Follmer

John Lamm/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images

Stropus worked with a single Heuer stopwatch. The fundamental technique involved subtracting the current elapsed time from the previous elapsed time to calculate a lap time. This required speed and accuracy but it wasn’t super-difficult. What made Stropus so special was her ability to track dozens of cars simultaneously. “You had to have a sort of photographic memory,” she explains. “Say five cars go by. You have to know exactly which cars they are. You get the first one and the last one, and then you can estimate the ones in the middle, if necessary.”

Stropus says the Indy 500 was her toughest assignment “because the cars come around so often.” Endurance races were easier even though she was on duty for 24 consecutive hours, with no bathroom breaks. “It’s perfectly fine if you don’t drink. And you’re young,” she says. “You have the motivation because you’re working for the top teams. They’re paying you. They rely on you. You have to do it, and you have to do it right. Because that’s what they expect.”

Worn down by the logistical challenges posed by the arrival of electronic equipment, Stropus pulled the plug on her timing business in 1991. But at 77, she remains as busy as ever. As she puts it: “My life has been and continues to be awesome. I’ve had the best time working for the best people. I had no ambition to be here. I am so lucky to have fallen into this.”