It’s a beautiful marker, situated at the entrance of Williams Park where a walking path runs close to the street.
People passing by – young and old, runners, walkers, strollers, small kids, big kids, all kids – can pause to read the story, and look at the picture of Robbie Stanley.
That’s a nice thing.
The dedication was supposed to be here, at the marker, but the rain moved in and hung around a while. So, they opened up the Brownsburg Town Hall on a gloomy late October Saturday morning to allow folks to stay dry during the unveiling ceremony.
It’s another wonderful job by the Indiana Racing Memorial Ass’n (IRMA), which is on track to erect their 50th racing marker in the coming months.
This one is their 44th marker, and that’s a special coincidence: 44 was Robbie’s number in his early racing days. And the marker became a reality because of the support of Rob Hoffman, Robbie’s crew chief and close friend.
Robbie was a three-time and defending USAC National Sprint Car champion when he was lost, his life cut short in a violent accident at Winchester Speedway on May 26, 1994.
Just 26 years old, Stanley had already accomplished more than most racers would dare dream of.
He made a lot of friends along the way, and many of them have gathered here today – 25 years later – to celebrate Robbie’s life, and this new marker.
His folks – Ron and Rita Stanley – are here, and there are lots of hugs and smiles as they reconnect with their racing friends. Robbie’s brother Ryan is here as well, and that’s fitting, because this family – Robbie and Ron and Rita and Ryan and sister Rhonda – has been a tight-knit bunch all along.
The family sacrificed nearly everything to help Robbie make it in racing. They spent every penny at their disposal, then borrowed what they could and scoured for sponsors to cover the rest.
For five years they lived in a motorhome, because they traded a house payment for a race team payment.
This isn’t a case where a rich kid raced while Mom and Dad wrote the checks. It was blood, sweat, and lots of tears, baby, just to keep fuel in the truck and tires on the race car.
Robbie was right in the thick of things, working long hours in the shop and out begging for sponsorship and generally wearing himself out.
A hundred times they were beaten down and ready to quit, but they wouldn’t. A hundred-and-one times they answered the bell and kept working.
Robbie’s dream was getting to NASCAR; in 1994 that was a very realistic dream. And he almost made it.
In early 1994 the family moved to North Carolina, where Robbie had made some inroads in getting a stock car ride. Things were finally starting to happen, and it looked promising.
And then, on a black and stormy night at Winchester Speedway, everything was over.
The grief was acute at the time, impossible to describe. This kid was special. Not just as a racer; as a human being. His whole life was out in front of him, but … well, like I said. It was over.
Somehow, Ron and Rita and Ryan and Rhonda picked up the pieces and went on. They launched a business building quarter-midgets and equipment, and had a lot of success.
Ron and Rita stuck together and celebrated the arrival of grandchildren and tried to look forward, not backward.
But all the time, they remembered. Every Nov. 16, they remembered his birthday and thought about how old he’d be today. Every time they heard from one of Robbie’s peers, some of whom now have grandchildren of their own, they thought of Robbie.
And yes, on May 26. May 26 is the hardest day, every year.
The rest of us, we remembered, too. We thought about how unfair all of this was. We thought about what might have been. And yes, May 26 still brings a jag of pain.
It probably always will.
Next year, I think I’ll go to Brownsburg on May 26, to Williams Park, just south of the downtown area where the walking path meets the street.
Maybe that will make a dark day a little brighter.
It’s a nice marker. It celebrates the life of a hell of a racer, who also happened to be a really good guy.
That’s what I’ll always remember.