Three weeks before his death, JR (center) enjoyed the 40th anniversary STREET RODDER party at the NSRA Street Rod Nationals in Louisville, KY. Seen with Senior Editor Eric Geisert (left) and Editor Brian Brennan (right), all of us knew “all was right” with the world, or so we thought.
Nothing stays the same. It can’t; without change there cannot be a new beginning, a birth, so to speak. That’s the good part, that’s the part that feels “all is right” with the world. It’s the “other” that hurts.
For starters, Bob Larivee Jr., known as “JR” (not junior!) to all of us, was a part of the automotive family for decades. He was part of an automotive family with roots as deep into the car culture as we hot rodders could imagine. The Larivees begin with Bob Sr. who was the driving force that put indoor car shows on the map. And it was JR who spent a lifetime in the custom car show world. JR began working for Bob Sr. at the age of 12 and by the time he hit his late teens he was managing car shows for Bob Sr., I believe the first one JR managed was the Grand Rapids Autorama. It wouldn’t be long before his list of responsibilities grew to dozens of car shows a year—every year!
It was a Sunday (Aug. 26, 2012) when I received a phone call telling me that JR, at 61, had died of a massive heart attack while outside cleaning one of his cars in the driveway. Earlier in the day he was watching a baseball game featuring his Detroit Tigers when he thought he should get some work done.
At the time of his death JR was the CEO of Championship Auto Shows, the company that manages the Detroit Autorama and dozens of other shows across the country. Along with the Michigan Hot Rod Association, JR would manage the Detroit Autorama—now 60 years old and getting ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Don Ridler Memorial Award in 2013, often called and written as “the Ridler”. The Ridler can be argued as one of if not the most significant and prestigious award in the indoor car show circuit, possibly anywhere in the world of hot rodding. (The two awards with the most history and character are the Ridler and the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster Award presented at the Grand National Roadster Show. It’s the only other indoor car show that has a longer history than Detroit.) The Detroit Autorama brings in as many as 1,000 cars and upwards of 150,000 people annually during the four-day show.
It was through JR’s efforts that Detroit has risen to the pinnacle among car shows and every day in our magazine business we run across someone who is working on a car for next year. It’s the one to win. It’s woven into the hot rodding fabric. Beneath the blanket known as the Detroit Autorama, the Don Ridler Memorial Award and the Pirelli Great 8 all flourished under his leadership. (His business partner of 20 years, Pete Toundas, worked behind the scenes as JR orchestrated the day-to-day goings-on.)
JR managed his dad’s car shows for decades until 1993 when he took over for Bob Sr. Then it was known as Promotions Inc., but when JR took over the name was changed to Championship Auto Shows (CASI). The argument can be made that JR (and his partner Toundas) turned CASI into the largest producer of indoor cars shows in North America—if not the world.
All of these accomplishments make for a great legacy but legacies are for old hot rodders to talk about when we are sitting in the back of the garage, a long time from now remembering the good ol’ days. Arguing over the smoothie versus the traditional look, closely followed with the black cars are boring, and who would have a hot rod with a roof? Coupes are for chickens, and then there’s the whole fender thing. My gosh, a hot rod with fenders, you might as well drive a rental car. I won’t allow fenders on my tractor, OK little bobbed ones but just in the back. You know the really good stuff that can get a hot rodder all riled up. We should never be discussing someone’s legacy when they are your friend, a close friend, when only weeks before you were eating endless pizza and having laughs, telling great stories from days gone by. We should never be discussing someone’s legacy when there was so much more that he was going to do and you were going to be part of it. So many more great stories to unfold and a lot more pizza to eat; I told you this one would hurt.