Kevin Olson

OLSON: Uber Car Racing

Recently I attended the Rockford Speedway National Short Track Nationals, which very well could be the first Short Track Nationals – and was the brainchild of my friend Bill Earnest and his partner Hugh Deery. Today every track has some type of Nationals whether it is for stock cars, midgets, sprints, etc. but Rockford is the first I remember. Of course, whenever I think of the past it brings back so many memories. The Rockford Short track weekend is always an entertaining event and I remember it in its heyday of the ‘70s when guys came from all over the country to run this prestigious event – guys like Mark Martin, Joe Shear, Dave Watson, Tom Reffnor, Jon Olson (brother of the famous Honest Jack Olson) and so many others, for a chance to stand on the front straightaway finish line and receive the wreath of flowers and be presented the winner’s trophy from the legendary promotor Hugh Deery and family.

Maybe my biggest memory was when the great Dick Trickle would show up with his No. 99 Ford. Dick and Joe Shear put on some epic battles over the years and if they were still running at the end of the big Sunday afternoon 200 lap final, usually one of them would be standing there on that front straightaway. Dick would enjoy his weekend off the race track with us in the parking lot or going down to the Prairie Moon Saloon to socialize with his fans.

He often stayed out with us pretty late at times, but was ready to go the next morning with his car set on kill. Things have changed since those glory days due to the cost of travel and the cost of engines and tires, but it still remains one of those races that a real race driver wants to have on his resume as a win.

I left this legendary track that has been part of my life for over 60 years and thought about how I started my professional racing career right there at the young age of 17. I wanted to start my career running the midgets, but back in the ‘60s they were pretty strict about being of legal age for running USAC or even Badger with the open-wheel cars. Today, it is not uncommon to see a 14-year-old kid running a stock car, or even a sprint car (which I believe is too young to allow). As I have said so many times before, I think one should be 18 before being allowed to run professionally.

This is not because I don’t think they are good enough or do not have the talent to run with the pros, but because they are capable of running and even winning. With video games and simulators today, by the time kids get on a real race track they almost know what it feels like and what to expect as those videos are so realistic. But for me, all that aside, I just don’t want to see a 14-year-old kid killed or permanently injured for any reason – his fault or not and if they aren’t in a car this won’t happen. I wasn’t able to race until I was 18 in Badger and 21 in USAC and although even today I don’t make adult decisions, I would hope that most would. Besides, it is embarrassing when a kid five times younger than me blows by me and gives me the finger on the way by.

So, in 1969 with the age rules of the day limiting my launch into the big time and the start of a massive fortune from my winnings, I decided to run the stock car Roadrunner Division with one of my many street cars – my 1958 Opel Cadet. I knew that to become a race driver I would have to have a vast array of safety equipment, which I have always been attentive to, and went down to the local motorcycle shop, Chub Carey’s Honda, to buy an open-face helmet. Chub Carey was a former AMA National motorcycle racer who won a few national events, one being at Williams Grove back in the ‘50s.

I remember he did not seem that impressed with a young kid wanting to buy a silver Bell helmet just like the one Mario Andretti was wearing when he won the Indy 500 that year. When he told me the price was close to $100 dollars and I made him an offer of $50, he really was not impressed and suggested I should look somewhere else. I finally was able to save up the money from my job at Logoi Pacemaker Food Store, where I worked in the back room as the Bottle Master, sorting pop bottles to perfection for almost a dollar an hour. Once I had my silver Bell helmet, I saw that all the USAC midget guys had their last names on the side of their helmets, so I took mine to Rockford’s most famous sign painter, Jack Heiman, to letter my name of each side.

Jack did all of Howard Linne’s lettering on his beautiful black cars for years and also worked on the Indy car that Rodger Ward drove for the WWW, Wilke, Watson and Ward team that won Indy in 1959 and 1962. I believe Jack charged me $5 to do my helmet and I paid without any argument about the price (even though back then it was a little steep for me).

With the helmet and lettering race-ready, I next needed to find a selection of red and blue bandanas to wear just like Foyt and Parnelli, and a set of aviator goggles. I had some aviator goggles that I wore when I ran quarter-midgets as a kid, but they were so scratched that I couldn’t see out of them, and the strap was so old it busted when I tried to stretch them over the helmet. I had to settle for a pair of square safety glasses.

I was in a dilemma about where to find the Foyt and Parnelli handkerchiefs. I searched Woolworth’s and Ben Franklin five and dime stores but all they had were plain ones and some with The Lone Ranger on them. I was all but ready to drop it all and quit racing before I even started when I couldn’t find the right ones. But a sign appeared making me sure that I was destined to pursue the racing profession when my grandfather walked into the house one day with the exact red bandanna folded up in his shirt pocket. He gave it to me and said I needed to wash it before I wore it, and I was back in business.

I loved the old black boxing boots that most of the USAC midget stars wore, so I asked Danny Frye where he got his. My alternative back then was to wear engineer boots which were not near as cool as black boxing boots. He told me to go to a sporting goods store and ask to order some kangaroo skin boxing boots. I headed down to Tom Harmer Sporting goods and did just that. When the salesman told me they would be over $100 and wouldn’t take any less for them, I dejectedly had to walk away.

After great thought, I decided to go down to the local Goodwill where I purchased some bowling shoes. Unfortunately, they were a size 10; I wore a size eight at the time, but I got them anyway as they were almost as cool as having boxing boots. Later my lifelong buddy, Andy Kawalec, talked me into painting them with some chrome spray paint. By the time I did that and lettered Olson Racing Team on the side with a magic marker, I felt as cool as any USAC driver who had the Kangaroo skin boots.

I was almost complete with my safety apparel to start racing. Racing uniforms were optional back then and I wouldn’t be able to afford one anyway. I decided to wear my best pair of blue jeans that I wore to play baseball in. They had an iron-on patch on the right knee that was torn out when I slid into second base and came up about two feet short of the bag. I wore a white T-shirt much like Jud Larson wore back in the day, only his had the Mobil Oil horse on it and mine had magic marker lettering done by me. I needed a safety jacket to cover my arms so I went down to the local Firestone dealer and bought a red Firestone racing jacket, again like the one Mario had on in the picture. The jacket was not the most fireproof. It was a thin plastic that would probably have ignited like the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz” from the slightest spark but at least it covered my arms. My racing apparel finally was all set to go. Now I was ready to become a real racer.

We converted my ‘58 Opel into a modern day NASCAR Next Gen-style car by gutting the interior, arc welding some small straps in the right front wheel to reinforce it, and building a small tube water pipe roll cage which also was arc welded into place with a few holes burned through it and a whole lot of extra rod left in the tubing hanging out. We welded a tow bar mount on the front bumper. It was ready to head to the track, towing it with my 1963 Chevy station wagon.

So off to the Rockford Speedway I went, looking like a professional driver. The car was ready to take on all the Goliaths. I would like to say that I lapped the field that first day, but in reality I had to run wide open around the top just to keep the momentum up and when I finally fouled one of the plugs, I lost a lot of power. Then as I came off the fourth corner, some hill rod in a ‘59 Cadillac drilled me and I flipped down the front straightaway, knocking the windshield out of the car and breaking the water pipe cage. The good news was Hugh Deery came running out of the grandstands with a huge smile on his face carrying the roll over trophy that he presented to me. So, I had that going for me.

After my Opel crash, it looked like my stock car career wouldn’t get me to Daytona, but later that summer I rebounded with my ‘58 Chevy station wagon that ran until it finally blew up. I graciously donated it to the High School Homecoming committee, who sold tickets to hit it with a sledgehammer for a dollar a hit.

One year later, I was able to get my first midget and started that road to women, fun, and fortune, continuing for the next 52 seasons. I’m still trying to get it right. I was told by Kurt Mayhew, who like Ronald Reagan was known as “The Great Communicator,” “You can’t have everything because where would you put it? “I humbly disagree. I may have come close to having everything with my memories from the past. KO

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