The story of a lifetime

Image by Rupert Berrington

The story of a lifetime

SCCA / SportsCar Magazine

The story of a lifetime

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“We continually kept looking for more championships and continually expanded our racing program to the point that when we opened this shop, it was totally based on our autocross reputation and soliciting local SCCA members who knew and trusted us. We’re still very active in the local SCCA Regions.”

With their typically immaculate BMW at last year’s Solo Nationals. Image by Rupert Berrington

Interesting stuff, right? But this isn’t the story of how Bob and Patty met, or how Bimmer Haus was founded. For the real story, we fast-forward to the fall of 2007, where the Tunnells were running a well-established performance shop and competing in more than 30 autocrosses a year. Little did they know, their lives were about to change.

“We were at church one October,” Bob recalls, “and our pastor said, ‘We just learned about a village in Afghanistan. It’s a group of refugees. They’ve been dumped out basically in the middle of the desert. The weather in Kabul is very similar to the weather in Colorado, so it’s going to be really cold in the next couple of weeks. So, if you wore a jacket to church this morning, and you probably won’t need it going home, why don’t you just drop it off. We’ve got a group going over there next week to see what we can do to help. We’ll fill a couple of duffle bags with jackets and we’ll take them over, giving them to the people over there to help them stay warm this winter.’”

Bob was, indeed, wearing a jacket, and on a whim, he left his jacket – as did a lot of parishioners. “We go to a fairly large church,” Bob smiles. “They got 4,000 jackets.”

Needless to say, not all jackets made that first trip, although they did eventually.

A month later, the church group returned from Afghanistan, and Bob and Patty found themselves at a friend’s Christmas party. “She happened to be on the trip that took the jackets over, and she had a DVD of the video footage,” Bob recalls.

“In the video, I saw them hand my jacket to a young Afghan man,” Bob says, pausing for a moment to collect himself – the memory of that moment still gets to him. “It hit me like a ton of bricks that the jacket that I just casually took off and left there, that jacket was going to keep a young college-age Afghan warm that winter. Maybe, and I don’t think I’m being too dramatic by saying this, it might have kept him alive.”

“This is a group of people out in the middle of nowhere,” Patty explains. “There’s no food. There’s no water. There’s no shelter except for some tarps that the government left with them. These people are dying.”

Image courtesy Bob Tunnell

“We came home from the Christmas party, and we didn’t really say anything to each other about how we were feeling,” Bob says. “The next weekend, I wanted to talk to Patty about this because we knew there was going to be another group going to Afghanistan in March or April.

“Cut back to 1974, when I proposed to Patty, I got a ‘Yes, but,’ response,” Bob chuckles. “At the time, I’d actually been considering going to a Bible college and possibly going into the ministry. So, Patty said, ‘I will marry you, but I will not be a pastor’s wife. I will not be a missionary’s wife.’

“Back to late 2007: I wanted to talk to her about possibly of taking this trip to Afghanistan to see this village and see what we could do to help over there, and I’m flashing back to my proposal where she said, ‘No way. I am never going to be a missionary’s wife. I’m never going to be a missionary. We’re never doing that.’”

The two headed for their walk, where Patty revealed she wanted to speak to Bob about something. “All of a sudden my thoughts of going to Afghanistan shifted to, she wants a divorce,” Bob laughs.

“You thought I had a boyfriend or something,” Patty laughs. “But no, I just remember saying, ‘I think we should go to Afghanistan. I have no idea what we would do or how we could possibly help, and I know it’s crazy, but what do you think?’”

Image courtesy Bob Tunnell

Since then, Bob has gone to Afghanistan 23 times and Patty 13. And Patty and Bob are quick to point out that these aren’t missionary trips. In fact, they’re not teaching or even helping construct buildings. Manpower, the Tunnells say, is not something the people in this community need.

“When you go out into a remote village in Afghanistan, and a woman comes up and takes your hand or takes Patty’s hand and starts speaking Dari, we have no idea what she’s saying but she’s got tears rolling down her face,” Bob says. “Then when the translator can interrupt her for a second and tell us what she’s saying, she’s saying, ‘Thank you for coming over here. You have saved my children’s lives. You’re the only group that comes over. Lots of people send us money. But you come and spend time with us and drink tea with us.’ When something like that happens, it just melts your heart.”

“But this is not us,” Patty points out of their volunteer work. “We don’t do things like this.”

While they might not admit it, this is, indeed, exactly who Patty and Bob Tunnell are. It’s also the reason why, when they diverted funding from autocrossing so they could take trips to Afghanistan, others helped keep them at the Solo course.

“Roland Graef at H&R Special Springs, Bruce Foss and Jeff Speer at Hoosier, and Randy Chase – they’ve been so supportive of everything we’re doing,” Bob expounds. “Paul and Lynne Rothney-Kozlak, Paul and Meredith Brown and, well, I shouldn’t name names because there are so many people in the SCCA world who have helped us out with this cause,” says Bob.

Hours after our conversation, Patty’s words kept rattling in my brain, her insisting that their actions were not who they are. They don’t volunteer, she’d implied, and they don’t fly halfway around the world to help those in need. And, you know, she’s partly right. The SCCA record book says nothing of that – which is why this is not that story. Truly, Bob and Patty’s track record is the real tale to tell. Theirs is an amazing story, and it’s every bit of who the Tunnells are.

This feature originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of SportsCar magazine, the official publication of the Sports Car Club of America and just one of the many benefits of membership in the SCCA.

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