Remember the outcry in November when Hostess announced it was going out of business? What would life in America be like without Twinkies?!
We had that sinking, disappointing “Awww–” feeling, figuring Twinkies would go the way of S&H Green Stamps, “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “American Bandstand,” and drive-in movies. We might not have tasted a Twinkie in 45 years, but it was reassuring to know it was on grocery shelves.
The drag-racing community felt that same unsettling void Nov. 11, when Bob Frey, 46-year veteran of the National Hot Rod Association public-address system, turned off his microphone at Pomona, Calif., with the final quip of his career: “It’s good to be Bob Frey.” Although everyone respected him, everyone sort of regarded him as a fixture, like the scoreboards or the tower itself. Bob Frey is always there . . . and now he won’t be. (Can someone hand us a Twinkie? We feel faint.)
This self-described “skinny, little, bald-headed geek with glasses” decided this fall, at age 65 (who knew?!), that he and his wife, “the lovely and talented Diana,” had earned some time together with each other at home in Waterford, N.J., and with their family that includes six grandsons.
The Freys have been married 44 years, and Diana Frey will have the pleasure of rediscovering what attracted her to Bob Frey in the first place. He once said he asked her why she would be interested in a “skinny, little, bald-headed geek with glasses” and said her answer was simple: “Where else could I find all those qualities in one man?”
I’ve always tried to entertain and inform. I’m not a gearhead. I never changed my oil or changed a spark plug. But I hope my legacy is fans came to an event and were entertained and had fun because I was there.
Drag racing fans immediately saw several charismatic qualities in him, too, when he followed the beloved Dave McClelland as the NHRA’s lead announcer. He carved a unique niche for himself with his sense of humor and comedic style. His voice telegraphed his approachability. Like the drivers he spun statistics and shared insights about, Frey enjoyed meeting the fans.
But maybe the true beauty of Bob Frey was the fact he was no more mechanical than 90 percent of the people sitting in the grandstands or watching a drag-racing event on TV.
“I’ve always tried to entertain and inform. I’m not a gearhead. I never changed my oil or changed a spark plug,” Frey told ESPN’s Terry Blount. “But I hope my legacy is fans came to an event and were entertained and had fun because I was there.”
They did, because he never talked down to anyone or made himself sound like some inner-circle know-it-all. He was among the inner circle, and he did know far more than most of us, and he possesses a Rain Man-like aptitude for statistics (along with a wickedly competitive penchant for wagering on even the most trivial of matters). But he was skillful in never giving off that vibe. Jerry Archambeault, NHRA’s vice-president of public relations and communications, was correct when he said Frey was “able to enlighten the new fan and educate the hard-core fans.”
Frey simply told the story of what was happening on the track in terms the average fan in the grandstand would understand.
For example, he would explain a mechanical problem with someone’s car by saying, “I’ve never driven a Top Fuel dragster, but I think having your parachutes drop out and fall on the track just off the starting line is not a good thing. Let me check on that and get back to you. I checked. It’s not a good thing.”
If an engine explosion jolted a supercharger off its mounts and tilted it grotesquely off to one side, he would point that out and say, “That’s a silly place for it to be.”
His deadpan delivery of some mishap that isn’t especially dangerous and even common to drag racers actually was reassuring to fans. For example, one time Funny Car’s Jack Beckman drove through the finish line and his engine erupted in flames. Frey dryly said, “Fire in your wheel wells is never a good thing.”
He also saw his share of unspeakable tragedy that took everybody by sad surprise — fatal accidents for Darrell Russell in 2004 and Scott Kalitta in 2008 and the ungodly crash at Dallas between John Force and Kenny Bernstein in 2007. And he always said the right thing at the right time and conducted himself respectfully in such cases.
Happily, one of his last big calls at the Texas Motorplex was not of horror but of wonder. Frey had seen just about everything on a dragstrip — except the sight of Bob Vandergriff . . . or anyone, for that matter . . . jumping from his car upon winning the race — leaving it right there on the track — and running, in scorching heat, in full uniform, up the track to meet his crew at the starting line.
That September 2011 phenomenon had occurred in Frey’s career about as often as Halley’s Comet. And it was almost as delightful to hear what the stunned Frey would say about it as it was to watch Vandergriff plodding up the track so unconventionally. Frey delivered, ad-libbing it all the way: “He’s going to high-five people he’s never even met!” Frey said in amazement at the extraordinary sight. “If you see a guy in a firesuit and helmet coming at you, get out of the way!”
On another occasion, Frey called attention to the inimitable Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Shawn Gann’s sparkling silver leathers and dubbed him “the world’s fastest roll of aluminum foil.”
At least a couple of times, he has quipped in some sort of good news / bad news scenario, “That’s kind of like watching your mother-in-law drive your new car off a cliff.”
The time was right to step aside. I have other things to do in life while I’m still able to do them, so I just felt the time was right to step aside.
And once in awhile, he ended up being the foil holding the microphone for guests to steal the show for awhile, just as Jack Beckman and his former crew chief Johnny West did this past April at Las Vegas. Beckman and West traded some totally-good-natured barbs before Saturday Funny Car qualifying.
The notoriously chatty Beckman marveled to Frey about the normally quiet West, “He was my crew chief for two years and he hardly said 10 words to me. Now you’ve got him announcing up here like a pro!” West responded, “It’s like telling your mailbox, ‘Don’t give me any more bills.’ He doesn’t understand English at all!”
West had yielded his job to Rahn Tobler and gave credit for Beckman’s successful start to the season to Tobler. “You’ve got to give Rahn credit,” West said. “If Jack can learn how to drive it down the middle of the track, he’ll do great.”
Then Beckman was going into detail, explaining about the excellent track-prep at Las Vegas and trying to anticipate what effect windy conditions have on the surface. He said how a racer gets into trouble, really, is “if you get out of the groove.” Slipped in West, “Which you do a lot.”
West let up his teasing a little, but Beckman took advantage by taking his shot. West said, “I have to give Jack a little bit of credit.” And Beckman shot back, “That’s all he gave me — a little bit of credit.”
Bob Frey stood by, refereeing the discussion.
So he has experienced it all in the announcing booth, even hob-nobbing with Hollywood celebs and recording stars who have stopped by to say hello, since he began calling national events in 1985.
“I’m a very fortunate guy,” Frey said, contemplating the first few minutes of his retirement. “My favorite expression is that I’ve got a wife that loves me, kids that are happy, grandkids that are spoiled, and a job that’s like stealing money. And I try not to complain about anything. There are people with real problems in the world, and I don’t have any of them.”
A young Frey announcing at the Atco Dragway in the 1960’s (fast forward to the 17:42 mark)
Nope. He has a loving wife and family who helped him reach his retirement decision after some long consideration. And of course, he still will look cool, motoring around New Jersey in his shiny, red Pontiac Solstice convertible — turbocharged, he’s pleased to tell you.
But when he announced briefly Oct. 6, during the Reading, Pa., race, that he would be leaving at the end of the season, he said he knew “the time was right to step aside. I have other things to do in life while I’m still able to do them, so I just felt the time was right to step aside.”
What are those things? Do you think he’s crazy enough to tell us?! Do you think he wants to see us surrounding him while he’s on a boogie board in Hawaii? Or have somebody come up and start talking about something he might have said at the Baton Rouge race in 1986 while he’s strolling along Les Champs-Élysées in Paris? Mais, non.
All the possible adventures aside, Frey conceded that “after all these years [it] is not an easy thing to do.”
But Frey’s colleagues and fans made it easy on him in Pomona — and the Top Fuel and Funny Car contenders gave him a couple of parting nail-biters to call, closing the season and his career with two of the sport’s most dramatic flourishes ever.
“People were very kind, just over and above anything I expected,” Frey told Competition Plus. That’s why he said again, “It’s good to be Bob.”
I’ll see you at the races — just not all of them.
Of course, Frey said, “None of this will sink in probably until the Winternationals next February. It’s funny, because my wife wanted to do something at home for the holidays with the kids and the grandkids. But my daughter said, ‘Why not do it the weekend of the Winternationals? Dad will probably be miserable that weekend.’ So we’re having a party that weekend.”
He did write in his final “Bob Tales” column for the NHRA house-organ “National Dragster” magazine, “I’ll see you at the races — just not all of them.”
Frey joked that not attending every NHRA national event and not writing his popular back-page “Bob Tales” column anymore “may come as a surprise and a little bit of a disappointment and to others it might come as a blessed relief.”
Anybody saying the latter will have to answer to Frey’s legion of fans, because hey, he’s OUR skinny, little, bald-headed geek with glasses.