Rupp Red & ’60s Cool: The Mansfield Dart Kart Revolution

There was a rare moment on the timeline of 20th century America when time suddenly sped up.

The nation turned a corner after the war and all at once anything seemed possible: it was the Space Age; the Atomic Age—hearts were racing, the economy was charging full throttle in ambitious enthusiasm.

And right in time to capture the spirit of the country’s race to the future was a nationwide craze that focused for a moment on Mansfield: it was zipping around on go-carts.  Especially ones made out by the airport called Dart Karts.

The heartbeat of America quickened in the early ‘60s, and it was Rupp in Mansfield that set the pace.

Speed

It began—as so many great American stories do—tinkering in a basement.

The young Rupp had fallen in love with speed very early in life, and when he discovered a new Go-Cart manufacturer in California, he arranged to become a local distributor—assembling kits to sell here.  Having all the parts on his work bench it was soon clear to him that certain improvements in the design would make the machines maneuver better and faster.

Sportsmen in the city responded to his carting enthusiasm by forming a club in 1960 that raced around the light poles of the huge parking lot at Johnny Appleseed Shopping Center.  When Rupp took his modified racers to those weekend events and started winning, the orders for his Dart Kart just flew in.

That is what launched Rupp Mfg.

The production graduated from his basement at home into a corner of the Gorman-Rupp factory on Bowman Street, and then within months had expanded so exuberantly that a new factory was built out by the airport.

The more races Rupp’s Dart Karts won around the country, the faster sales grew.

As the whole Karting world moved its focus to Rupp, a Dart Kart Speedway was developed in a field behind the factory, and, within a year, the Grand National Karting Championship was held there on the airport hill overlooking Mansfield. 

In the early 1960s, for thousands of Karting fans, Mansfield was the racing heart of the nation

These Karts have one or two motors. There wasn’t really enough space to mount three motors, but don’t think they didn’t try.

When the Johnny Appleseed Shopping Center was built in 1956 on Lexington Avenue, it had -by far- the largest piece of pavement in the city, designed for 1,900 cars. It was the original home of the Mansfield Midget-Kart Klub, organized in 1959.

As a home for Dart Karts, this .04 mile asphalt track had a 30-degree banked turn on the end, and bleachers built to hold 2,000 fans.  In 1961, when the Go Kart Club of America mounted their National Championship in Mansfield, more than 5,000 folks showed up.



Today, the thoroughfare traveling north from Route 13 to Mansfield Lahm Airport is called Harrington Memorial Road. In August 1961 the place was overloaded with racing fans. Karting News said it was the “largest single concentration of karts and karters ever assembled in one place since the sport began.” The year before it had been held in Azusa CA, and a large number of the entrants and fans in Mansfield came all the way from both coasts.

The Go Kart Club of America’s National Championship in 1961 started with 435 karts that were eliminated through time trials and heat races. As an impressive endorsement of Rupp’s participation, there were Dart Karts that won or placed in 6 of 8 categories.


There she is, Miss November covergirl for Karting magazine in 1960: Billie Bissman. Paused for a photo op with the Dart Kart Speedway in the background.

This Rupp office and factory building still stands today, though you will need to study the front of Mansfield Engineered Components to find these 1960 architectural features in the greatly expanded complex.

Wheels

The Rupp factory couldn’t turn out Dart Karts fast enough during the wild kart boom, but when the wave started to ebb it was clear that the plant needed to find another wave to surf.

Finding new wheels happened in much the same way as the first Rupp wheels: spontaneously.

Rupp had been spending time at the new Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, and he had devised a utility vehicle his pit crew could use to hop between pits at the track—a kind of motorcycle small enough to haul around easily.  It was a mini-bike.

And once everyone at the tracks saw these jazzy little wheels, the orders for them started speeding in.

The next lines of Rupp motorized wheels were mini-bikes and moto-cross bikes.  This turned into another monster craze that kept the factory humming, and eventually dwarfed the Kart business.

Bikes proved to be something of a warm-weather love affair, however, and orders dropped in the winter, so Rupp turned his attention to winter sports enthusiasts and devised a whole new line of snowmobiles.

By 1970, Rupp had a workforce of 400, and was rolling out 75,000 karts & minibikes, and 35,000 snowmobiles a year.

What did all these sporting vehicles have in common besides the Rupp name?

Red.

These two classic Rupp models– Dart Kart and minibike– are on exhibition at the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum.







Yes, that is Elvis driving his own Rupp Centaur in the 1970s.


Rupp exhibit at the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum.

Rupp

Though the karting craze was a nationwide phenomenon, it can definitely be said that the sole reason it all came to focus on Mansfield was due to the passion of Mickey Rupp.  His enthusiasm, his racing swagger, his charm and friendly networking around the country created a vortex of enthusiasm that drew all the action here like a magnet.

It was this intense passion for racing that ignited the whole line of Rupp wheels.

It burned brilliantly enough to take him even higher into the upper tiers of the racing world: culminating in his actually racing in the 1965 Indianapolis 500.   Mickey Rupp from Mansfield was a rare rookie who qualified for the Indy, and then he finished sixth.

Having his name appear in this elite sporting news certainly validated his racing status in a way that contributed to the surge of enthusiasm for the Rupp line of sporty vehicles. After 1965, newspaper articles around the nation referred to him as, “Indianapolis 500 Veteran Mickey Rupp.”


Rupp at Indianapolis: at 100 miles he was in the 9th position, and at 200 miles he was 6th. By mile 300 and 400 he was in fourth place, right behind Mario Andretti before a fuel miscue slowed him to finish 6th.

Seated in the Dart Kart is another Mansfield legend: A.J. Watson, the car builder whose Indy racers won a record seven Indianapolis 500’s. Graduated from Mansfield Senior in 1942, Watson’s fame combined with Rupp’s in 1960’s nationwide ads that read, “Two Big Winners!”

Born in Mansfield, graduated from Senior High in 1953, Herb (Mickey) Rupp served in the Marines and dropped out of a couple colleges before finding his genius for acceleration.

Red

Rupp Red wasn’t just a brand—it wasn’t just an advertising scheme—it was a whole paradigm: an invitation to fun and fast and sleek and cool.  The company set the bar with their advertising—from the beginning it was all about breaking out of ordinary convention into a new world of maverick excellence. And the motto was: fun machines for fun people.

It was an exciting time to be young around Mansfield, and wonder what the next little red Rupp mobile was going to be.

Each one pushed the limits a little farther into cool.  A little sleeker—a little more aero—a little more Red if that were possible.  But in every case that Red that was a guarantee of fun & fast & sporty.

The ‘60s was nothing if not sporty.

And Rupp was driving the cool.




Rupp designers knew how to accessorize in red: this is a snowmobile outfit at the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum.

Cool

The whole kart & mini bike thing was a nationwide craze, but folks in Mansfield—especially kids—liked to think it was all about Here.

There was a certain kind of very specific initiation Mansfield youngsters underwent in the ‘60s related to the Rupp thing: it was known as the Rupp Tattoo.  It was not an inked signifier—it was actually a welt: a burn on your leg from leaning into the minibike curve and grabbing on with your whole leg until the muffler plate singed your skin.  It marked you for life.

It was a sign of commitment: branded like a member of the herd.  The Rupp Riders.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s