Peter Jennings made him one of ABC's "Person of the Week" honorees on a Friday April evening a few years; Mario Andretti counts him as a lifelong friend. Where there's a major American- based open wheel race weekend, Father Phil De Rea has been there to keep watch over the flock.
The message came across loud and clear tonight inside the harbor of a tent filled with good drink, good food and good people. All were united in saying farewell to a friend.
Several spoke for the large group on hand in what was more of a loving roast than a toast.
President of the California Speedway 2-mile oval where the Indy Racing League's IndyCar and Menards Infiniti Pro Series will contest their penultimate contests of the 2004 season thanked the pastor for "being there for the highs and the lows," including blessing the circuit upon the date of its first competition in June of 1997 and handling the death of driver Greg Moore in 1999.
Betty Rutherford and Mary Lou Beaudry-Bogner spoke for CARA, the Championship Auto Racing Auxiliary. Betty's recollections of Father Phil's contributions to the community as parts of a race car were apt; Mary Lou's choked presentation of a book filled with remembrances from the racing community spoke for the crowd.
Journalist Lewis Franck brought his memory of Passover dinner in Long Beach when Father Phil arranged for the most expensive restaurant in the city to cover the tab for a large multi-faith Seder celebration.
Common threads of the tributes, as overcome MC Paul Page pointed out were: "I remember you at a restaurant and can we come to Rome to visit?" He was right on the mark.
Following Tony George is never an easy task. Two very strong women and great friends of De Rea, Ina Broeman and Kathy Penske took the floor. Broeman, who has headed Philip Morris' sporting and, in particular motorsports programs until just this spring wailed that her "best friend is moving to Rome" as heads bobbed in the audience.
A choked-up Penske noted Father Phil has helped the entire open wheel racing community get through the Great Civil War even as she noted the series are "like a circus" but truly a family, a point brought home by the inclusion of a Catholic priest to whom the entire community goes for solace. "My Rabbi," Franck called him.
2003 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner Gil de Ferran spoke of De Rea as a person who had always inspired him, but never more so than when he saw the tears of sadness in Father Phil's eyes when Greg Moore died at this race track in 1999.
The man who spent the greatest amount of time and energy putting the program together, Toyota motorsports manager Les Unger spoke of how Father Phil De Rea has served as a real hero to him, more than any of the race car driving flock he tends.
Having started with the Indy cars at Pocono - near his Nazareth home - in 1981, Phil De Rea has touched the lives of many people. He's baptized, married and buried his flock over the seasons, as any Pastor would.
And so he proclaimed, "The greatest blessing is my involvement with open wheel racing. It's given meaning, definition and fulfillment to my life as a Priest."
When people come up to him and really don't understand the method that makes Father Phil worthy of a "Person of the Week" honor, he tells them his theory: "People tell me I don't like racing. I say God hasn't blessed you yet."
In celebration of his contributions to American-based open wheel racing in both the Indy Racing League, which holds its Toyota Indy 400 at the 2-mile California Speedway oval here this weekend and in the Open Wheel Racing Series, home of Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford, Father Phil De Rea has been named Honorary Starter of Sunday's IRL race.
It will be an honorary start any driver would be proud to say he made.