Tragedies Have Perpetuated Vogler’s Labor Of Love
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published May 11, 2010.
In a few days Eleanor Vogler, despite nearing her 79th birthday, will be darting about the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway like a whirling dervish, tracking down drivers for autographs and other collectables that will be auctioned as a part of the fund-raising activities for the Rich Vogler Scholarship Fund.
The scholarship fund, now in its 21st year, has provided $350,000 to more than 300 deserving kids from racing families. They’ve been children of officials, mechanics and others connected with racing, and the recipients include Sarah Fisher and Ryan Newman.
The endeavors of many have contributed to the success of this praise-worthy undertaking, but those involved all agree that the key to its prosperity and longevity is Eleanor’s untiring efforts, unwavering commitment and unflagging enthusiasm.
It’s a labor, but one she never tires of because as well as helping others, it also perpetuates the memory of the son she lost so tragically.
Eleanor Vogler knows something of tragedy. She’s been in racing 60 years and understands that the sport she is so passionate about has a dark side, lurking just beneath the surface, patrolling like a vicious shark, poised to attack the unsuspecting.
She has seen parents lose children and children lose parents. She’s cried with them, comforted them and encouraged them. But nothing completely prepares one for tragedy when it hits close to home, or hits as hard as it has slammed Eleanor.
Eleanor lost not one loved one to racing, but two. Before Rich, who died at Salem (Ind.) Speedway in 1990, she lost her husband, Don, at Indianapolis Speedrome in 1981. It was a double slam that would break many people. But not Eleanor. She wouldn’t allow her spirit to be broken.
“When Donald died, it did just about put me under,” admits Eleanor. “I was so much a part of the operation. Worked on the car. Worked in the pits. I was so wrapped up in it. It was there, and then poof, in an instant it was all gone. But when bad things happen you have to take control. You can’t let them put you under.
“Richard was racing by then,” continues Eleanor, “so I was able to focus on him. And then when his boys came along, I realized that my job was to be with them, to help take care of them at the track while Richard and Emily were racing.
“It seems as if my mission in life is to help others,” chuckles Eleanor.
There’s more truth in that statement than even she might realize. As a youngster she was responsible for taking care of her brothers. At 18 she was a wife, taking care of a man who was often, it seemed, down on his luck, no more so than when he bought his first race car against her and her family’s very vocal protests. She was pregnant with Rich at the time, and the money spent on a midget could have been put to more practical use.
Despite some difficult times, however, Don’s decision to go racing proved to be an epic one for not only himself, but also for Eleanor, Rich and, ultimately, an entire generation of fans who would thrill at watching Rich Vogler use his immense, God-given abilities to tame a race car.
When she lost Rich, Eleanor was at a low point in her life. It’s one thing to bury a husband, but much more of an emotional storm to bury a child. And once again her life was without focus or purpose.
Then, through a fortuitous series of events, the scholarship fund was initiated. “…One of those windows God opens when he slams a door in your face,” philosophizes Eleanor.
“Jim Reynolds from Valvoline,” she recalls, “wanted to do something for Rich, so he donated $11,000. Bill Marvel, from USAC, contacted Emily (Rich’s widow). It was her idea, with my daughter Dale, and my approval, to start the scholarship fund. It’s so ironic because Richard absolutely hated school. He couldn’t stand it. We thought he’d really get a kick out of that.”
USAC administered the fund for the first few years until it got a charitable organization status from the IRS. That’s when Eleanor got involved. It’s been a non-stop run ever since, keeping her nearly as busy as when she was chasing race cars.
Although donations are accepted throughout the year, the big fund-raiser is the annual Daytona 500 party. Held on race day at local Indianapolis eateries, for several years it was held at Jonathan Byrd’s, Rich’s longtime car owner’s restaurant, before it moved to Celebrations. The race is shown on a big screen TV, and hundreds of items are auctioned during the commercial breaks. The event has become a late winter, social must-attend for racers and fans alike.
All of the money raised goes directly to the scholarships. It’s Eleanor’s dream to be able to pay the full tuition for a student. But the funds have never been plentiful enough for that. Instead, each recipitant is awarded $1,000. Ten scholarships are distributed annually, from a list of 35 to 40 applicants.
With the current economic situation in the U.S., that’s been difficult to accomplish the last couple of years, but Eleanor just works harder to make it happen, something she doesn’t see ending anytime soon.
“I don’t plan on stopping,” laughs Eleanor, “until they chase me down and put me in a box.”
That’s going to be a tough chase, even for old man death.
Looking back on eight decades of living and six decades of racing, Eleanor admits, “It’s been hard. Everyone keeps dying on me. I wish things could’ve turned out differently. I’ve had a lot of heartache, but I’ve had a lot of fun, too. I’ve had a very exciting, rewarding life. It’s like the Garth Brooks’s song ‘The Dance:’ ‘…Our lives are better off left to chance, I could’ve missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss the dance.’”