After all these years, Bob Frey came home to a town where he’d never been.
He seemed genuinely surprised; that’s hard to figure when a guy is one of the all-time great sprint car racers on pavement. But as Frey was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in this year’s early-June ceremony, he has officially been acknowledged for his enormous talent in a race car.
The Hall of Fame brings validation, and Frey admitted that it was a welcome moment at this point in his life.
Now 71, Frey walked away from racing nearly 30 years ago and never looked back. He relocated from his native Ohio to Wickenburg, Ariz., where he immersed himself in the mortuary business, successfully building a couple of funeral homes before selling out a few years ago.
After beginning his career on the dirt in an entry-level sprinter in the early 1970s, Frey quickly transitioned to supermodifieds and sprint cars on pavement. That clearly fit his driving style and over the next 20-plus years he established himself as one of the best of his generation with five Little 500 wins, four Copper World Classic wins on the mile at Phoenix, and other major victories.
But Frey’s dreams pointed toward Indianapolis. He got a couple of nibbles in Indy cars, but by the early ’80s he could see the writing on the wall. If you couldn’t bring a significant sponsor to a team — or a suitcase full of money — it became less and less likely that you’d be racing at Indy.
From 1980 to 1993 Frey was teamed with innovative engine builder and team owner Glen Niebel. The union was terrific, as their serious, logical personalities meshed perfectly. Together they had great success, but in 1993 Frey made the decision to step away from the race car. He was 42 years old and the path to Indy was officially closed, so Frey walked away from racing while still on top.
Interestingly enough, two of Niebel’s other notable drivers — Eric Gordon and Tony Stewart, who followed Frey in the car — were also on the induction stage this year. It was fun to listen to the younger guys giving Frey a playful hard time.
“Everything we did in Glen’s car was measured against you,”
“We were always hearing, ‘Hey, that’s not how Frey did it,’” said Gordon, placing his hand on Frey’s shoulder.
All of this seemed to amaze Frey. He figured nobody would remember anything he did in a sprint car 30-some years ago.
Remember? Oh yes. They remember.
Several days before the ceremony, Frey climbed onto his Harley-Davidson trike at his Wickenburg home and headed east. The ride to Knoxville is 1,500 miles and as he motored east Frey had plenty of time to think about the coming induction. What would it be like? Would he know anybody at the banquet? What was he supposed to say in his acceptance speech?
He grew more pensive with each passing mile. He needn’t have worried; when he arrived in Knoxville and the weekend kicked off with Friday evening’s informal gathering of past and present inductees, Frey fit right in. He renewed old friendships and reminisced, and his smile broadened with each passing moment.
Several longtime friends traveled to Knoxville to share the experience with Frey, including Rich Hasenflue, a friend of more than 50 years. They followed Frey through the
weekend and seemed to enjoy the moment as much as he did.
“The best part of this weekend is how friendly and supportive everyone is,” Frey admitted. “This is nothing like I thought it would be. I’ve reconnected with racers and car owners and people that date back to when I started racing, all those years ago. It’s been a wonderful reunion, really.
“This has made me feel like I’m part of a community. I’d lost that, I guess. I had been away for so long, I’d lost that connection. It’s really great to have it back. I will plan on coming back here and being a part of this. It’s very special.”
Special. And meaningful. Those are good words to describe the Hall of Fame and the people who surround it. May it always be so.