Area modified fans, take heart. The doctor is in...or just about to be. No Danny Johnson isn't coming down from upstate New York anytime soon that we know of. And truth be told he'll be retired by the time most of that area awakens to the fact that western Pennsylvania has had it's own doctor of dirt. But unlike Johnson, ours here in this area is the real deal.
You see Brad Rapp will be graduating in early May from Gannon University, earning a Doctor in Physical Therapy (DPT) distinction which is a great thing in and of itself. The devotion to work and school he's put forth, should merit as much recognition for the noble act of pouring himself into a much needed profession where he could help as many people as possible. And, busy as that may make him, there is still a huge appetite left for racing.
In light of his work and academic pursuits, it would be remarkable enough if his racing were merely competitive, to race every week and be marginally successful.
But it's been more than that. The Doctor's been getting better year in and year out and has climbed the ladder so to speak, finding a place in the upper echelon of the territory. Rapp took to the dirt as well as anyone could expect, emerging from carts and transitioning from small block to big block modified racing in a more gradual progression.
"The first races that I can remember watching were around 1995 we were racing small blocks in New York at Black Rock Speedway. I think I can remember that the most because the ride there was horrible. It took like 4+hours every Friday night just to get there then another 4 hours home, being only 6 or 7 years old, that was too much sitting at one time for me. I do distinctly remember that they had a clown that was the assistant flagman at that time also, that was kind of the highlight of the night for me at the time. I don’t remember at that time if driving was anything that I had even thought about but being involved in racing was a definite from the beginning."
Rapp then embarked on a dominant karting career, amassing 40 wins and three track championships, making the jump to small block modifieds in 2004. It can be a lot of transition to absorb, but 25 year old Shippenville, PA native took it in stride.
"I think the hardest thing that I had to learn was adjusting to the overall size of the car compared to the kart. The kart was barely bigger than I was so it was easy to get a feel for it. The modified has quite a bit more body around you and the visibility is much less so it took some time to get a feel for when other cars were around you and how close you could get to before actually hitting the car beside you."
But the learning didn't just take place on the track for Rapp, he extended his education to the shop where he committed himself to learning the machine inside and out.
"I was in the garage basically as soon as I could walk and maybe before that if I could remember, so I naturally was playing with everything I could get my hands on. I did have an interest in learning everything I could when I was younger and I always wanted to be able to fix or build everything on the cars. Now, I can do basically everything on the car that needs maintenance. I tend to stay away from the engine details just because dad is pretty particular about how things are done so it is just easier for him to do it. I take of pretty much everything else."
Q: It looks as if your father and other family members have been a big influence. He's handled drivers like Hoffman. Van Pelt and Swartzlander. What did he pass on from his prior experiences to assist you in your driving?
"He was not really that successful at driving himself, but he does a pretty good job at looking at the track and watching other races and drivers and letting me know what he thinks will work best. In terms of other drivers, I feel like he remembers every set up every driver liked in the past 20 years that drove the car. He is good at throwing out advice that other drivers liked and used so that I can try it if things are not going like we had wanted them to."
The career progression went from battling the small blocks at Mercer, Central PA, and the T3 modified tour, to tangling weekly with the big blocks at Lernerville and Sharon. Rapp stood out as a driver who displayed a patient style, blended with timely aggressive moments when making forward charges.
"My most memorable win would have been my first career win in the small block at Mercer. It was my second year of racing and they had double 15 lap features that night for the mods. I finished 4th or 5th in the first one and they inverted 15 cars so I started 10th in the second race. I didn’t think that I could make to the front in only 15 laps but I did. We didn’t make any changes from the first race but it was hooked up really good the second feature. I made it to 3rd before a green, white, checkered finish at the end. I was able to make the pass for the win coming through turns 3 and 4 to take the checkered. It was pretty cool to be able to come from 10th to win in only 15 laps for your first career win."
Q: You've been close to winning at Lernerville and a few other BRP races in the last couple of years. And you've experienced more than your fair share of heartbreaks behind the wheel. Do you feel they make you stronger as a driver and what do you do mentally to keep yourself in good spirits?
"I don’t really know that it makes you stronger as a driver, it just lets you know that you are still capable of getting the job done. We certainly have had a few rough years in term of winning races but we have had plenty of strong runs otherwise and it is good to have a good solid run even if you cannot win to help keep the attitude positive. It takes a lot of work and money to get to and from the track every week and the results are what make it all worth it. I think that having a bad night here and there makes me want to go out and do even better the next night to make up for it."
Q: The competition level of the area modifieds has gone up another notch in the last few years in terms of number of cars that can win. What do you have to do to stay
competitive as you have been? Is it more hours in the shop, more money, more sponsor support?
There is no doubt that new equipment is hard to beat, either car, motor or both makes a big difference. That often is not possible without good sponsor support or help in some form with the funds. We try to get all that we can out of the equipment that we have because of the cost of everything to be competitive these days. I feel that we do a pretty good job with maintenance and garage preparation to take older equipment and keep it competitive so for us extra garage time helps from buying new stuff all time.
Brad even spoke to the future of the modifieds in the area with regards to the BRP modified tour and the newly formed RUSH Sportsman modifieds.
"I do think the BRP Mod Tour has a place in this area. I’m not saying that it is always perfect but I think that it is a good option for teams to race some different tracks for a little more money. With all the teams and people involved you can never make everyone happy so there is always going to be some difficult issues and compromise needs to be made to keep car counts high enough to put on a show. I feel like the BRP Tour can put on a great race, particularly at tracks that do not regularly run modifieds they have an appeal to fans to experience something they have not seen at the track. In terms of sponsorship the modifieds have been behind the sprints and late models in terms of interest so that could be a difficult area to promote from.
I think that it is a great idea (RUSH Series) to help the modifieds gain interest in the area and get more people involved in the division. I don’t think that it will evolve to see drivers progress through the divisions from sportsmans to 358 mods to the big blocks because of the price difference to be competitive in the higher classes. I think that it does provide a great way for people interested in the modified division to be involved without going way over budget."
When he's not busy helping people recover from injury (author included) or getting it done in the clay, Rapp keeps it simple. He takes part in Lernerville Pick'em religiously, and although it takes an enormous amount of time to get prepared for work, school and racing he still finds time to relax.
"When I am not racing I am usually hunting or fishing, especially in the offseason. I spend a lot of time hunting and fishing throughout the fall and winter months in between getting the car ready for the next season."
Q: Do you still have as much fun at the races as you always have, or is it curbed by the expectation levels?
"We go to every race with the expectation of winning, but we are not really going to get rich from racing so keeping it fun is most important. Our team is basically all family so it helps keep things a little more fun when you are around family all the time at the track. There are some times at the track when the tension builds up a little more than most, but I have found that letting things play out and moving on helps rather than dwell on it and worry all the time."
So there you have it, the Doctor is in and he's made his place in the ranks among the better modified drivers in the area in a relatively small amount of time. And as far as we're concerned, the Pennsylvania version of the doctor is the real deal, and in the next 10 years we wouldn't be surprised at all if he's just as popular as the New York version.