Before Bobby East became a rising racing star, he was a wide-eyed kid in Gasoline Alley living his dream.
He spent countless hours in his dad’s garage watching his heroes shoot shit. There was Tony Stewart. Jeff Gordon. Kasey Kahne. Maybe one day he could be like them too.
He went to basketball games with Gordon and had conversations with Stewart. One day, his father – Hall of Fame automaker Bob East – told him that when it came to a relationship between a father and son, a father would err on the side of sweetness. Kindness. Timidity.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘That’s not when you told Stewart,'” East told IndyStar in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. “He listened to all the conversations of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, all his heroes. He really admired all the people who won many races. You had no idea how careful he was at a very young age.
Last week, young East was fatally stabbed at a gas station in California. He was 37 years old.
East won many races and then he came back almost as fast as he rode. Few people understood. Even his father isn’t quite sure why he walked away from the wheel. But what he remembers of his son is this relentless pursuit of perfection.
“His level of intensity was second to none,” East said. “More than wanting to win, he couldn’t bear to lose. He worked very hard at it from an early age, from his early days in midget quarterbacks and Kenyon cars. That level of intensity was second to none, and I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.
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The story of Bobby East does not happen without his father. The elder East grew up racing, before deciding to swap the wheel for a set of tools. He has been building miniature cars for decades and has been a resounding success. He built Ron Shuman’s cars, helping him win six Turkey Night Grand Prix titles from 1979 to 1987. He moved his family to Brownsburg in 1988 to build midget cars. His Beast chassis won 16 USAC titles in 17 seasons from 1989 to 2005. His talent has brought some of the biggest names in racing to drive for Steve Lewis’ team.
“You never know what the youngsters take, but he had the opportunity to see the race go well. Bob ran well and was very good at what he did,” Lewis said of Bobby. “He had this golden opportunity that few kids have.”
Bobby wanted to try his hand at racing and was an instant hit. He ran his first midget car race at age 16. His 2001 USAC National Midgets victory at Illiana Motor Speedway made him USAC’s youngest national winner. He won three more races at the end of his rookie season, earning the series Rookie of the Year award.
In 2004, East had one of the most successful seasons of his career, winning the Hut 100 in Terre Haute, the Belleville Midget Nationals and the Turkey Night Grand Prix en route to a series title.
It didn’t take long for Ford Racing, which had a relationship with Bob East, to take an interest in the promising driver. They signed him to a five-year contract.
“When Kasey Kahne moved on to NASCAR, Ford approached him and told him they wanted him to progress and they expected him to win the championship,” East’s father said. . “He won quite a few races that year and won a championship by nearly 200 points.”
East competed in 42 races in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series from 2005 to 2008. He returned to the USAC Series in 2008, winning the Night Before the 500 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.
In 2011, East earned what was the most impressive of his 11 career USAC Silver Crown victories, coming from dead last to win Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Mile.
“It’s a place where it’s really difficult to overtake. It’s really fast. It was amazing,” her father said.
East won back-to-back USAC Silver Crown Series championships in 2012 and 2013 while racing for his childhood idol Tony Stewart. In 2014, he led 54 laps at the New York State Fairgrounds in the Silver Crown season finale. He finished third. He would never run again.
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It was a shock to his father. He had no idea his son would quit racing before his 30th birthday.
“He just said he went to Tony Stewart’s shop and told him it would be his last year,” East said. “I was really, really surprised. You can’t do what he did until he was 30 and expect someone to quit.
East’s professional accolades are numerous: 22 wins in the USAC National Midget and 48 wins in the USAC National.
East said his son never fully explained why he quit racing and moved to California, but he suspects concussions may have played a role. He remembers Bobby having a concussion when he was 8 years old while playing kickball. He had another bang his head against the wall in quarter dwarves. Maybe there were more. There probably were.
East drew the comparison to Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who left the NFL at age 29.
“I think the concussions started to bother him, and he knew he couldn’t concentrate well enough to do it at his level,” East said of his son. “He almost won his last race, but it was getting harder and harder. I do not know how to explain it.
East had made enough money from his racing career to have time to explore his options and what he wanted to do next. Tragically, this exploration ended unexpectedly.
The racing community remembered East’s impact.
“Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park mourns the loss of Bobby East,” the speedway icon tweeted. “Bobby won three AJ Foyt Championships from 2007-2009 at IRP and helped further establish the East name in open wheel racing. Our thoughts and prayers are with the East family.
Two-time NASCAR champion Todd Bodine tweeted that East was “one hell of a helmsman. Thoughts and prayers to his family. »
East is a quiet man who tends to avoid the spotlight. When asked what he wanted people to know about his son, he replied:
“Everyone I know knew what he was talking about,” East said. “When he went to the races, he went there to win.”