The early morning text that we had lost Kevin Olson was sobering to say the least.
I first really spent time with K.O. during the Belleville Midget Nationals in the 1980s when he terrorized the lounge of the Bell-Villa Motel armed with stink bombs and quips.
In that room were some of the biggest names in midget racing. They were the same people who had a squirt gun and water balloon fight on the courthouse lawn where the draw was completed to determine what night a driver was assigned to compete.
The watchword was fun. No one talked about the next level. Yet, when the helmet was pulled on these same people attacked the banks with a ferocity to behold. The funny thing about Kevin Olson is that there were some in today’s world who didn’t understand how truly great a racer he was. He was in the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame because of what he did behind the wheel, not because he had a quick wit.
The loss felt like the death of Peter Pan and had great significance to me and others beyond basic grief. This felt profound. It felt like the passing of a far more innocent and pure time in our sport. The reality is, that ship sailed long ago and it isn’t turning around. Still, this moment felt like the last brick had tumbled.
I thought a lot about this after a recent conversation with 1989 USAC National Midget champion Russ Gamester. When I saw that Russ picked up a win during December’s Rumble in Ft. Wayne, I almost applauded.
Russ first appeared indoors at Ft Wayne 38 winters ago. He is a third-generation member of a midget racing family. His grandfather George Gamester was first involved with USAC midget racing in the 1960s. Mel Kenyon, Joe Saldana, Ken Nichols and the Shuman brothers all won in his car.
George Gamester passed in 1982 and if there was one thing he was very clear on it was that he did not want any of his family members to race. His reasoning was sound. He had been around long enough to see bad things happen. His widow was not so rigid and the very next year Russ was behind the wheel with the help of his father and brother.
In an interesting note, in 1977 George Gamester purchased a midget chassis from Grant King. It would be his last race car. When Russ crossed under the checkered flag as a winner in December, it was in that same car.
Russ Gamester was the USAC National Midget Rookie of the Year in 1984, but by 1989 he knew he had a chance to make a run at the title. Yes, he had the old Grant King car, but he also went to Bob East for help. Bob was willing to build a chassis for the Gamesters but it had to be able to accept a Volkswagen engine. He was surprised to say the least.
The Volkswagen had been the hot ticket at one point, but those days were over. The Sesco, Pontiac, Cosworth and Gaerte engines held sway. Gamester knew he would be down on power, but he had to make do.
There’s more to the story. Gamester purchased a block from former champion Steve Lotshaw and built the engine himself in a converted laundry room. We aren’t talking factory support or shock dynos. What we are describing here is the old art of rolling up your sleeves, working within your budget and trying to make something happen.
In 1989, he hit the ground running. He won indoors at Ft. Wayne in January and stayed on top to the end. In a season that tested the resilience of his team, Gamester won two features. There were 21 different winners during the campaign and Olson and Rich Vogler hounded Gamester to the very end.
By the time he had collected his hardware at the awards banquet he decided there would be one thing different about his car the following year. Honored to be a champion a big No. 1 was affixed to the tail tank of his midget. Perhaps, in a harbinger of things to come in 1990 the series champion was Jeff Gordon.
Gamester raced ASA stock cars for a time and has also won in USAC sprint cars, but may be best known among a subset of fans for his work in the Silver Crown Series. Russ has scored six times in the big cars with victories coming on both dirt and pavement. He has made 201 starts, which ties him for the top spot with Brian Tyler.
It’s still a simple family operation. Gamester’s last USAC midget win came at Bloomington (Ind.) Speedway in 1994. He used a little chicanery to snooker Tony Stewart on a late-race restart. It reflected the resourcefulness that has allowed him to stay in the game so long.
Russ Gamester is 57 years old. To this day he gets in a micro and wins at the nearby Circus City Raceway and has fun doing it. He will still drag his midget out from time to time to race with USAC knowing he has scant chance to win and has entered a world that is nearly foreign to him.
Just because things are different doesn’t necessarily make them bad. The USAC National Midget Series is a compelling show, but it is conducted on a fiscal platform that is difficult for Gamester to fathom.
In 2022 you aren’t going to win with a chassis built in 1977 or with an engine assembled in a laundry room. There was a time when Gamester not only did this, he was also the best in his class when the points were tallied. He was the last man to win a championship with a Volkswagen engine and he is damn proud of it.
When Russ Gamester was a child all he could think about was racing a midget. Midget racing was a passion for his grandfather and so it was for him. It was also a passion for Kevin Olson, who chased Gamester all throughout the 1989 season. The days of homemade engines, stink bombs, Grant King race cars and light bulb repairmen are almost over. Not everything about yesterday was great. Far from it. But there are days when one longs to turn back the clock.