Roembke is a hometown boy who has won at Indy 500

By Bruce Martin
SportsTicker Contributing Editor

INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker) - When Rahal Letterman Racing general manager Scott Roembke was a student at Thomas Carr Howe High School on the east side of Indianapolis, his road to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was quite simple.

He repeated the same ritual nearly every day the IMS was open.

“I would get out of school at 2:15, take the bus downtown, transfer in front of what used to be the old G.C. Murphy store, out to West 16th Street, pay the $2 to get into the track and watch two hours of practice,” Roembke said. “After I would hang around Gasoline Alley, I’d get back to Rosner’s Drug Store to get on the 16th Street bus to go back downtown, catch the bus going east and get home by 8 p.m.”

That was in the 1970s, when many of the legendary names of the Indy 500 were establishing the records that would make them legends.

“You had Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt and the Unser brothers (Bobby and Al) who were all very competitive, and then you had the drivers like Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock,” Roembke recalled. “When you grow up in Indianapolis, you were either a Foyt fan or a Mario Andretti fan and I was always a Mario fan. You always chose sides - at least we did in my neighborhood.”

It was a different time and era in Indianapolis in the 1960s and 1970s. The Indiana Pacers were just beginning their history and the NFL was played in bigger cities such as Chicago, Detroit and New York.

For sports fans in Indianapolis, there were two distinct seasons - basketball and the Indianapolis 500.

“It was one of the rites of passage of the spring,” Roembke recalled. “I remember it was always our family’s tradition on Mother’s Day where my dad would load up all the kids, go to the track and leave her at home. That was her gift.

“We would park in the infield and at 5 p.m., we were leaving. The car would be like central base camp and when you got hungry or needed something to drink you’d go to the car, then you would scatter, go to Gasoline Alley and peak through the fence.”

Roembke’s first Indianapolis 500 was in 1970. With the exception of being in the Air Force in 1980, he attended every race thereafter until 1996.

His first Indy 500 as a crew member came in 1986 when he was with Patrick Racing. Ironically, Roembke was working in Kevin Cogan’s pit that day when his eventual boss Rahal blew past Cogan on the last restart to take the checkered flag.

“Bobby always likes to remind me of that,” Roembke said.

Three years later, Roembke was in victory lane when Emerson Fittipaldi won the first of two Indy 500s.

During the years Roembke was away from the Indy 500 beginning in 1996, those bus rides seemed short compared to the length of time he had to wait before returning in 2002 with Jimmy Vasser as the driver.

Two years later, hometown boy Roembke celebrated Buddy Rice’s win in the 2004 Indianapolis 500.

“It meant a lot to me,” Roembke said. “What made this a lot different from 1989 was my role with the team is a lot larger role. You always feel good when you work with a plan and you work with your team and you work with your boss and all of a sudden, it pays off.”

While Rahal and David Letterman are the owners, Roembke is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the team based in Hilliard, Ohio - a suburb of Columbus.

The team has been the focus of the month this year at Indy, from rookie Danica Patrick nearly winning the pole two weeks ago to defending race winner Rice being knocked out because of torn ligaments in his spinal column to 1999 winner Kenny Brack’s incredible comeback story. And then there is Vitor Meira, who has stayed out of the spotlight but will start on the inside of the third row.

Rahal and Letterman may get the credit, but it’s Roembke who keeps the operation moving smoothly.

“He is very thorough, he has a great reputation, he is real smart and very intuitive,” Rahal said. “He lives and dies with it every day. We would be a whole different team if it wasn’t for Scott there is no question in my mind.”

Rahal was self-satisfied to win the 500 as a driver in 1986 and felt pride as a team owner last year. While he can put it in perspective, he realized just how much the win meant to the Roembke and Letterman.

“Last year, I felt better for Scott and Dave because they are hometown boys and for Scott this place is his life,” Rahal said. “I was thrilled for Scott and for Dave because for them it was a dream come true. This couldn’t happen to two better guys.”

Not only is Roembke part of Indy 500-winning teams, but he’s also a fan. He has a huge memorabilia collection and last week purchased the old garage doors that were on the late Bill Vukovich’s garage in Gasoline Alley at the Speedway in the 1950s.

Vukovich won the Indy 500 in 1953 and 1954 and was leading when he was killed in a crash on lap 56 in 1955. After the garage doors were put up for bid on eBay by the Vukovich family, Roembke called them, told them to take the items off auction and negotiated a sales price for the prized piece of Indy history.

“I told my wife I paid $70 for those,” Roembke said with a wink.

Those close to Roembke suggested that a few zeros be added to that number, but in Roembke’s mind, those doors - and a trip to victory lane as the general manager of an Indy 500-winning team - are priceless.

Updated Wednesday, May 25, 2005