He’s usually sitting on the team’s tire cart, the same one that transports the Yokohama racing slicks between the transporter and the Yokohama Tire Center or pulls the team’s timing stand to and from pit road. Sometimes, he’s hanging from the rear of the transporter.
He’s the plastic skeleton known as “Billy Bones.” And he’s one of many reasons why things run a little differently around Topp Racing than they might with other teams in the IMSA paddock.
“I do let the guys have a lot of fun,” says Topp Racing Founder/President Todd Oppermann. “We try to find a place where we can do go-karting at the events with the crew and the drivers. We kind of have a little inner-team competition. We have our meals together and we generally do stuff together all the time.
“It’s not as hard as you’d think. Everybody gets along great.”
The team’s trio of drivers – David Baker, Bill Smith and Frank Raso – get along great, and have bought into the fun environment within the team. All three are Masters level, which in GT3 Cup Challenge USA parlance means they’re over the age of 45, and their success in their chosen professions has made it possible for them to go racing.
And if you’re going to go racing with this team, you’d better be prepared to have fun.
“Just come spend some time in the trailer and if you don’t have a sense of humor, then it’s going to be tough,” says Baker, the driver of the No. 56 Porsche carrying logos for his company Apex Capital. Baker picked up his first Platinum Masters race victory of the 2018 season last weekend in Race #2 at Sonoma Raceway. “I guarantee you, I laugh harder in this trailer, probably than anywhere, and I really look forward to coming here.”
“It’s spectacular,” adds Raso, a commercial airline pilot who drives the No. 10 Mosing Motorcars Porsche in the Gold Cup class, for cars built between 2014 and 2016. Raso competes in selected events with Topp Racing. “We’re always laughing. We’ve all become really good friends. We all take care of each other. We know you can lean on somebody, even if it’s at home. If you’ve got something going on, you can call somebody and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I can come help you.’”
Laughter and friendship are cornerstones within the team. But, as Smith points out, they’re ready when it’s time to get serious.
“Racing is one thing that you really have to stay focused on,” says Smith, who drives the No. 42 Kung Fu Saloon Porsche in the Gold Cup class. Smith is an investor in the small chain of Kung Fu Saloons in Texas and Nashville. “It’s not unlike a lot of things that I’ve done in my life.
“You may have to concentrate playing golf when you’re hitting a shot or whatever, but when you’re racing, you’d better have your head focused every minute of the time you’re on the track or things can go badly very quickly. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced that. I’ve learned that the hard way.”
Topp Racing isn’t just a tight-knit group within its own transporter and paddock space. The drivers truly care about those they’re competing against throughout the GT3 Cup Challenge USA series.
“Everybody just enjoys each other’s company,” Raso says. “(No. 52 Kelly-Moss Motorsports driver) Kurt Fazekas getting hurt at VIR, everybody ran over there and checked on Kurt and made sure he was OK. Everybody has a concern for everybody. Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt. You wish yourself good luck. You don’t wish anybody bad luck.”
“I really enjoy seeing some of the guys that we’ve raced with in the past that are moving up into the other series like Corey Fergus, Jesse Lazare and Daniel Morad,” Smith adds. “A lot of those guys now, you look at them and you see them in those series and you smile and say, ‘Yeah, I remember racing with them.’ That’s a lot of fun.”
That brings up another interesting point about the GT3 Cup Challenge USA series. Many of the younger drivers competing in this year’s series – such as Trenton Estep, Roman De Angelis, Max Root and David Kolkmann – are hoping to use it as a launchpad for a career in professional racing. It’s a different story for the Topp Racing teammates.
“I don’t think any of us are planning to launch a professional racing career at this point in time, but we are all competitive,” Smith says. “We want to do well. I don’t have any grand illusions of a pro racing career, obviously, but I want to do as well as I can and I want to be competitive with the people I’m racing against.
“When I look at (Gold Cup points leader) Victor Gomez, who’s 21 years old, I’m 40 years older than Victor, and I’m trying to figure out – if he’s a second or two seconds faster than me – how can I figure out how to close that gap? We all want to do well, but the goals of the young guys coming up with a plan for, hopefully, a professional career is a little different than ours, I think.”
That’s also why it’s not uncommon to see the Topp Racing drivers hugging each other and other drivers after they climb out of their cars following a race. And when one of them does well – like Baker’s win last weekend in Sonoma or his 2017 Platinum Masters championship – it’s quite a celebration.
“I think the most special thing was the celebration we had there at Road Atlanta,” Baker says. “It was just great to have my teammates there and all the crew and everything. It was a lot of fun.”
Oppermann estimates he’s worked with Baker for nearly 15 years and feels fortunate that other clients – like Smith and Raso – have largely found him.
“A lot of them started in club racing and moved up from there to the IMSA series,” Oppermann says. “We get word of mouth customers from there and meeting other people along the way. I’ve been really fortunate. We haven’t had to go out and search.”
There’s room for more at Topp Racing, Oppermann says. And Smith encourages anybody who has the means to consider the GT3 Cup Challenge USA series.
“I think it’s the pinnacle of this type of racing,” Smith says. “When you see the guys l mentioned like Jesse and Corey and those guys that go through this series – in fact, the Porsche guys were telling me that these GT3 Cup cars are not easy to drive. If you can drive them successfully, then you can move up into GT3 Rs or RSRs or other cars pretty well.
“There are a lot of series that you can go do and maybe be successful in, but I think if you’re doing well in this series, you can have some pride.”
And you can also have a mascot like “Billy Bones,” whose origins none of the drivers seemed to know. They put it back on their Topp Racing crewmembers.
“I don’t know,” Smith says. “We don’t claim any responsibility. I don’t think we had anything to do with it.”
“I think that’s those guys out there (working on the cars under the team’s awning),” Baker adds. “That’s why we stay inside.”