INDIANAPOLIS -- Though he spent his career behind the scenes, Scott Roembke was one of IndyCar racing's biggest personalities. His death Sunday at age 51 following a lengthy struggle with his health produced an outpouring of affection for a man who devoted his career to his beloved Indianapolis 500 and the overall sport itself.
For beat reporters who knew him well, Roembke was a fantastic go-to source for information and insight, whether on or off the record. We occasionally sparred, such as when I was critical of Rahal Letterman Racing's decision to abruptly jump camps from CART to the Indy Racing League. When I started covering the IRL on a regular basis in 2004, he knew calling me "IRL Johnny" would rankle me. And as usual, he was right.
The stories of how a teenage Roembke would take the bus after school each day from Indianapolis' east side to the speedway on the far west side are legendary. He displayed the kind of passion for Indy car racing that is sadly lacking these days, and it paid off with a successful introduction to the inner workings of the sport with Patrick Racing, followed by a long and successful association with Bobby Rahal that took him from CART to the IRL to the American Le Mans Series and ultimately back to Indy cars. Had his health not taken a turn for the worse, Roembke would no doubt have played a key role in Rahal Letterman Lanigan's return to prominence in the Izod IndyCar Series.
"Scott was truly passionate about motor racing, particularly Indy car racing, and was wealth of knowledge about the sport," Rahal said in a statement. "He was a great leader, a confidant of mine and a dear friend. Scott's passion was directing winning Indy cars, and RLL and many drivers (including Rahal, Bryan Herta, Max Papis, Kenny Brack, Buddy Rice and Danica Patrick) were the beneficiaries of his strategic genius."
Only Roembke could have crafted a strategy that took advantage of full-course cautions and a couple of loopholes in the CART rulebook to produce a victory for Papis at Laguna Seca in 2001 on a day when Papis started on the back row of the grid and passed just one car on the track.
Roembke was very private about his health problems, so his many friends were surprised and delighted to see him able to return to Indianapolis this year to work with RLL and driver Michel Jourdain Jr. following a heart and lung transplant. Sadly, it was his last appearance at a racetrack.
Here is Scott Roembke's story -- in his own words, from our 2005 interview:
"I'm a homegrown Hoosier. I grew up in Indianapolis, on the east side, and when you grow up in Indianapolis you tend to be a race fan. My family would go out to the track during May and I just became kind of passionate about it. I read all the books and the yearbooks and memorized all the winners. It was something I became really, really into. I went into the Air Force after high school and then I was lucky enough that Jim McGee gave me a job, pretty much just as a gopher/logistics guy. I started with Patrick Racing in '86.
"I never wanted to be a driver or fantasized about winning the Indianapolis 500. I just always wanted to be an integral part of a team, whether it was managing or owning or whatever. I was always a huge Mario Andretti fan so obviously I knew a lot about Jim and what he had done. It was a great opportunity to be able to go to work for him. He was a tremendous resource, in terms of what to do and what not to do. He basically invented the position of team manager in this kind of racing.
"Patrick Racing was a very good team with a lot of experience, with Emerson Fittipaldi and Kevin Cogan as drivers. The engineering department of that team was Tony Cicale, Peter Gibbons and Ed Nathman, so there was a lot going on in that team and if you just kept your eyes and your ears open you could learn a lot.
"It's just like anything else ... you get opportunities to increase your responsibility, get more involved in the budget and the management and the hiring and the firing. At the same time, racing has become big with sponsors so you need people on the business side of it. I'm certainly not mechanically inclined enough to be a chief mechanic, but I can assemble a team of what it takes and set a budget and go to dinner with a sponsor and administrate what it takes when it gets to that point. As things got bigger, it created positions for people like me who were not necessarily mechanics.
"Obviously my responsibilities have changed a lot over the years, but I still think it's cool that I can work at something that I'm passionate about and want to do. You can dream of being a pro golfer or a pro basketball player, but chances are you're going to be skill-limited. All I ever wanted to do was have a job to support myself by going racing and I've been able to do that so far."
My condolences to the Roembke family and the Rahal organization.