Time Machine: Playing Around in a BMW i8

By Roger Garbow

Ridgefield Magazine | September/October 2019

The automotive marketplace is crammed with endless variations of anonymous SUVs and crossovers, with few vehicles that truly stand out. Most manufacturers resort to playing it safe, resulting in vehicles that are inoffensive at best. Even at the higher end of the market, few automakers are willing to take a risk. Thankfully, BMW decided bold is better with the design of its i8 Plug-in hybrid Sportscar.

When BMW offered me its i8 Roadster to participate in a recent Fairfield County road rally, I immediately knew who to call as my co-driver and navigator: Judy Stropus. Like the i8 in a sea of beige boring-mobiles, longtime Ridgefield resident Judy Stropus stands out from her peers. Unless you travel in the motorsports or collector car world however, you might not be familiar with Stropus. Described as a “racing personality” by author, scriptwriter, and journalist Brock Yates, Stropus’s accomplishments are legendary. The i8’s cozy, stylish interior and quiet, hybrid drivetrain created an ideal environment for a good chat with Stropus as we navigated our way along some of the area’s best driving roads.

First, the car: when the i8 coupe hit the market in ate 2014, it won awards and hearts. The swoopy, futuristic body is crafted in lightweight carbon fiber and features dramatic butterfly doors. The i8’s hybrid drivetrain includes a rear-mounted 1.5-liter, twin turbo three-cylinder gas engine paired with an electric motor up front, delivering excellent performance and impressive fuel economy. New for 2019, BMW added improved battery performance and a roadster variant, which looks even better than the supercar-cool coupe. For the open-top car, BMW ditched the small rear seats and devoted that area to storage, making the roadster a good weekender.

More of a GT than an outright supercar, the i8 still delivers more performance than most people will use. With fuel economy to put most other sportscars to shame. The acceleration is especially strong in sport mode with both electric and gas propulsion driving all four wheels. Sport mode also allows the batteries to recharge while driving, giving you extra EV range when you choose it.

Once we pulled out of our main Street, Westport, starting location, Judy and I had a chance to chat about her automotive and motorsports history. Judy was born in 1944 in Kaunas, Lithuania, and came to the US not speaking a word of english. She made the most of the opportunities in her new country and would eventually become a highly respected and award- winning automotive public-relations expert working for major US corporations including Chevrolet, BMW North America, and Pirelli plus a number of America’s top racing teams.

Her passion for cars and motorsports was more than just writing about them. Judy also fell in love with driving and racing herself. As a young woman, a boyfriend would take her to sportscar races. She loved driving his Jaguar XK-120 and soon bought her own sportscar, a 1964 Alfa-Romeo Giulia Spyder. At the track while watching her beau compete, Judy started handling the timing and scoring, quickly discovering she had a knack for keeping track of multiple cars. In those days before computers, when all you had were stopwatches and clipboards, this was a rare skill. Judy’s ability was noticed by Roger Penske who hired her for his own racing teams. Judy soon found herself handling the timing and scoring for the world-renowned 24 hours of Daytona and 24 hours of Lemans. Judy famously stayed on the timing stand for the entire 24 hours, without taking a break. She went on to handle timing and scoring in numerous race series for a wide range of teams, and even worked the Indy 500.

Judy later wrote the definitive book on the subject entitled appropriately, The Stropus Guide to Auto Racing Timing and Scoring. At a time when few women were racing, Judy was competing in a variety of cars and series including SCCA National competition, earning a place in the National Runoffs in 1979. She also ran in the Volkswagen Cup, Showroom Stock endurance races, the Kelly-American Challenge, and numerous vintage racing events. In order to go racing, she first needed to earn her SCCA racing license, so she called upon her friends—some of racing’s royalty—for a little help. Al Holbert loaned her a track-prepped VW Scirocco, she borrowed a racing suit from Bob Sharp and Lime Rock Park owner Skip Barber gave her his Nomex underwear.

Today at 75, Judy still competes in the occasional go-kart race. In 1972, Judy raced as part of the Right Bra Racing Team in the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea memorial Trophy Dash. While the race did not end well for the team as an error by one of her co-drivers caused the car to end up on its roof, actress Adrienne Barbeau later played a character loosely based on Judy in the hit movie Cannonball Run. Judy has received numerous awards including the 2008 Jim Chapman Award for Excellence in Public Relations by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association, and in 2016, the RRDC Bob Akin award given to a driver who “has a passion for motorsports and automobiles, a high level of sportsmanship and fair play, and who has contributed to the sport of motor racing and the community at large.” in 2017, Judy was a nominee for the Motor Sports Hall of Fame of America.