ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – INDYCAR Ministry has been conducting religious services at tracks on race weekends for decades, but this morning’s Catholic mass at Road America had a very special intention.
The mass was conducted in memory of Father Phil de Rea, who died Wednesday at age 75. De Rea founded the ministry on the Indy car circuit after being introduced to the sport in the 1970s by Mario Andretti. Both were residents of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and de Rea attended grade school with Andretti’s wife, Dee Ann, before he went on to the seminary and became on ordained priest.
De Rea initially came to races at Andretti’s request to perform mass for the racing great and his family. Soon, other drivers were asking for services of their own and the ministry blossomed. INDYCAR Ministry now offers a Catholic mass and non-denominational chapel service on most Verizon IndyCar Series race weekends.
Andretti called de Rea, who had been retired from the traveling ministry for nearly a decade, his “spiritual leader.”
“I always relied on someone that controlled something that was beyond what my control was,” Andretti explained. “That was always something that gave me peace, gave me comfort. To have him around, I felt that I had some help from upstairs, always.”
De Rea performed wedding and baptism services for numerous INDYCAR drivers and families, as well as presiding over some funerals. He helped arrange for three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves to have a special meeting with Pope John Paul II. Castroneves attended this morning’s mass in honor of de Rea.
It was another example, Andretti said, of the way de Rea was there for everyone in the INDYCAR paddock -- Catholic or not.
“He was one that helped me maintain my faith and he helped others,” Andretti said. “Because he was always there, whether it was for happy moments or anguish. Father Phil was always there to try to comfort. He became such an important part of all of our lives because it carried on. He set an example. I look at the joy that he brought to all of us, that’s the main aspect of it all.”
Chip Ganassi Racing driver Tony Kanaan was one of the many fortunate recipients of de Rea’s care. “Padre,” as he was affectionately called by many, officiated at the wedding of Kanaan and wife Lauren.
“He was a guy that I loved,” said Kanaan, who knew de Rea for more than 20 years. “Such an icon in racing, he’s been here since I’ve been here. A big loss, hopefully he’s watching us from up above.”
Services for de Rea will take place Tuesday in Nazareth. The family has requested donations be made in his memory to: Sacred Heart Foundation, c/o Fr. Richard Kennedy, MSC, Sacred Heart Villa, 3300 Station Ave., Center Valley, PA 18034.