Agonizingly close. Frustratingly close, he says.
The type of close that makes him drop his shoulders, let out a quick sigh and grin as he recounts Phi Delta Theta’s last five Little 500 ?finishes.
Four second-place finishes. One third.
“It’s extremely frustrating. Almost unreal,” Lee said. He’s personally been on the last two podiums without a win.
“To come up short five years in a row, it kind of sucks. There’s not much else to say. But this year — there’s some good vibes about ?this year.”
Lee’s one of the elite riders in the field. He’s been that way since he started racing for Phi Delta Theta nearly three years ago, but twice he’s come up just short of capturing the Borg-Warner Trophy.
There was the 2013 race when he ran out of energy before he could push for the win. His team settled for third.
Lee said he can’t even watch that race replay anymore. When he gets around lap 195 — just before Delta Tau Delta’s Paul Smith and Beta Theta Pi’s Will Kragie drop him — he turns it off. He doesn’t need to see the rest.
Then there was last year.
Lee and his teammates did all they could to put themselves in an ideal position to win, only to get caught up in the six-team crash on lap 199.
Reflecting on it nearly a year later, Lee still said he couldn’t do much different to avoid the crash. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Even so, he still thinks about it every now and again when he makes his way through turns 3 and 4.
“It’s tough to put behind,” Lee said. “But you can’t dwell on the past. You’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Lee’s done all he can to move forward. Moving on is the only way can get to the top step of the podium.
He rarely talks about falling just short the last two years, his brother Paul Lee said. Rob doesn’t like expressing his frustrations. He’d ?rather keep it internal.
Paul thinks it drives him.
“You know it bothers him, but he keeps it to himself,” Paul said. “He’s not too talkative about losing or needing to explain that he wants it. He doesn’t have to. We all see how badly he wants to win.”
Before Rob even began riding, it was another heartbreaking podium that prompted him to ride in the first place.
He watched from the stands as a freshman in 2012 when Phi Delta Theta finished second for a second consecutive year.
Rob, having cycled competitively with Paul growing up in Fort Wayne, was immediately hooked.
At the time, cycling was more of a tool for Rob to stay fit for hockey. It’s not hard to pick out the former hockey player in him with his long hair sticking out from underneath his helmet.
But after Rob saw his first Little 500 as a junior in high school, he knew he was interested. After seeing it again as a fraternity member, he said he needed to be a part of it.
“After watching them get second, I was like, ‘Alright. I want to do this. This is awesome. This is so sweet,’” Rob said. “That was the moment I decided I was going to be a part of this race.”
Now set to take to the grid for a third time, Rob said he’s as confident now as he ever was that he and his teammates can get the job done and break the streak of “almosts.”
Phi Delta Theta didn’t have the qualifying run they wanted and will start eighth. But Rob isn’t worried. He’s quick to point out that they started eighth in 2013.
There’s something different about Rob when he’s racing, ?Paul said.
“As soon as he gets out on the track, Rob’s a completely different person,” Paul said. “He flips a switch. He knows what he wants, and nothing will stand between him and what he wants.”
What he wants is to be a ?Little 500 champion. He’s seen all but one step on the podium.
The only problem is that he’s missing the most important one — the top one.
“This race is special. I don’t think anything really compares,” Rob said. “Yeah, it’s eluded me a bit. But the past doesn’t matter. I’m feeling really confident going into this race about our team. We just need to take care of business.”