EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Sprint Car & Midget Magazine, and has been brought out of the archives for all subscribers to enjoy.
As the end of his life approached in 2009, Larry Rice faced it in much the same way he had faced the many epic events that had shaped his 63 years on earth: with courage, dignity, and a peaceful style that will never be forgotten.
Anyone who knew Larry will agree with this assessment: He left us much too soon. He survived midgets and sprint cars, he survived Indy, he even survived the tough industries of insurance and broadcasting.
But after a long and tough fight, lung cancer finally took him away on May 20, 2009.
If you were acquainted with Larry, much of what I’m going to say will be familiar to you.
It seems that anyone who had any dealings with him – a long-term friendship or an occasional conversation – was treated the same: with respect and kindness, and with a genuine and friendly demeanor.
Larry was born in Linden, Ind., a sleepy little town on US 231 north of Crawfordsville. It’s not just a cliché to say that Larry was steeped in small-town values, because that’s exactly how he was, with his easy-going style and quiet nature.
As a small kid, he caught the racing bug, and his dad Bob helped his young son get started in micro-midgets.
As he reached adulthood, Larry had a burning desire to race. His family insisted, however, that he focus on furthering his formal education. He attained a degree at Ball State University, and began teaching fourth grade at a Crawfordsville school.
All the while, Larry never lost sight of his aspirations in racing. He began his USAC midget career in 1968, and the following year scored his first win at Hales Corners as he began to travel more extensively. Soon, he made the decision to pursue racing as a full-time career.
Within a few years, he was among the front-runners in USAC midgets, winning major events such as the Hut Hundred at Terre Haute Action Track.
In 1973, he won the USAC National Midget title, at the same time helping the Shannon Bros. team attain their first owner’s title after nearly 30 years of effort.
Larry quickly expanded his career to the USAC Silver Crown Series, becoming one of the most successful and enduring drivers in the history of that great series.
He also began racing sprint cars, and for nearly 20 years “Rice-A-Roni” was one of the most popular drivers in USAC.
In 1978 he fulfilled a lifelong ambition when he made the field at the Indianapolis 500, finishing 11th and sharing Rookie of the Year honors with Rick Mears. He managed another start in 1979, finishing 19th.
Larry was the Silver Crown champion in 1977 and ’81, and one of the highlights of his life came on Sept. 12, 1981 when he outran Rich Vogler and Gary Bettenhausen to capture the Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
The inaugural Hoosier Hundred was an event Larry had experienced as a small child, and to win it meant a great, great deal to him.
The remainder of the 1980s was productive for Larry in USAC, but as the decade waned he knew the next chapter of his life was looming around the corner.
Remember, Larry was both smart and savvy; he had a good insight into the machinations of life and how the sands are constantly shifting.
By late 1991 he was curtailing his driving, but not before becoming the first driver in USAC history to make his 100th start in Silver Crown competition.
Over the next few years the world quickly realized that life had further plans for Larry Rice.
He accepted a position with K&K Insurance, one of the most prominent insurers of auto racing events in America.
Larry was assigned a Midwestern sales territory, and soon he was out meeting with promoters, helping them in the critical area of risk management. He also began his television career as a color analyst on ESPN’s “Thunder” series.
He was paired with longtime play-by-play host Gary Lee, and the two clicked perfectly. “Thunder” became the most popular short track series in television history, and Gary and Larry became beloved among race fans from coast to coast.
Larry often laughed at how he struggled during those early years, describing his stumbles and mistakes with genuine good humor and humility.
However, that’s why we loved Larry on television; he wasn’t a slick “TV” guy, he was simply a racer who told us what was going on in a way that seemed as real as if you were seated next to him in some dusty grandstand.
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