LARRY RICE, 63
Larry Rice, a two-time USAC Silver Crown titlist and USAC midget car champion who was co-rookie of the year in the 1978 Indianapolis 500, passed away Wednesday in Indianapolis, Ind. after a bout with cancer. He was 63.
Rice, who later had a distinguished second career as a racing broadcaster, had two starts in the "500" (1978 and 1979) and was the answer to a popular racing trivia question in that the driver with whom he tied for the 1978 "500" rookie honors was eventual four-time race winner Rick Mears. Rice finished 11th in that race, blowing an engine while running in 10th place, just as Al Unser was about to take the checkered flag.
The genial Rice had been in ill health for some time but had continued through life in his remarkably bright and breezy style—even as his situation worsened—shrugging off any concern over his well being, even to the point of keeping members of his own family in the dark until just recently.
Rice raced with the United States Auto Club for 24 seasons, taking the green flag in over 650 feature events. He won five Silver Crown races, three sprint car features and 15 midget car main events, combining for a total of 100 finishes within the first three. He won the Silver Crown championship in 1977 and 1981, the midget car title in 1973, and was runner-up in the sprint car standings in 1983. He managed to win all of USAC's short track classics, including The Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, the Pat O'Connor/Joe James memorial for sprint cars at Salem, Indiana, the Hut Hundred for midgets at Terre Haute and several events at Rossburg, Ohio's 4-Crown Nationals. He also made several annual winter treks "down under" to race midgets, the Australians and New Zealanders calling them "speed cars." In 1993, he was inducted into the AAA/USAC National Midget Hall of Fame.
At the time of his passing, Rice was serving his second year as president of the Indianapolis 500 Oldtimers Club.
For almost 20 years, Rice was paired with "anchor" Gary Lee in providing "color" for a variety of television and radio broadcasts, including many seasons on ESPN's "Thunder" series, in addition to numerous other television and radio broadcasts, race track public address announcing assignments and guest appearances.
Born in tiny Linden, Ind., near Crawfordsville, Rice's senior year in high school was shared with only 11 other students. He attended Ball State University at the same time as David Letterman, and graduated with a master's degree in marketing. Although he would later enter the race track liability coverage business with K & K Insurance, his early years out of college were spent teaching 5th and 6th grade pupils in a Crawfordsville school. He began his USAC racing career in 1968, and as serious as he was about his participation, he delighted fans for several years by showing up at each race meet wearing a different choice of headgear. Stocking caps, Trilbies, Homburgs, bowlers, deerstalkers, Mickey Mouse ears, anything was fair game.
There are a number of facets about Rice's life that were quite remarkable, one being that he attended the very first Hoosier Hundred in 1953 with his family, and either as a fan, driver or broadcaster, he never missed a single one through to the time of his passing. He won the 1981 edition, leading all 100 laps.
In spite of his total number of races—which, to include heats, would have numbered literally in the thousands—he was very rarely involved in any kind of an accident and probably could have counted on one hand the number of times he was "upside down."
But perhaps the most remarkable of all was that in spite of his many years as a race driver and the potential for on-track and off-track disputes; his many years as a broadcaster, occasionally being placed in the position of having to offer opinions on controversial subjects; not to mention his long-time occupation in the challenging and less-than-rosy world of race track insurance, friends generally agree that Larry Rice never had an enemy in the world.
He is survived by wife Beverly and sons Robbie and Zachary.