On the West Coast, the original California Racing Association (CRA) started in 1946. In the 1990s, it morphed into the Sprint Car Racing Association (SCRA) before the USAC/CRA Series took over the torch in 2004. This year marks the 75th anniversary season of the three separate sanctioning bodies that are in reality, all the same one. In all those seasons, thousands of drivers suited up and raced in the sanctioned events and nearly 400 of them have won main events. However, only three drivers have won over 100 main events in the combined groups. Two of the three, Dean Thompson and Rip Williams, are in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. The other is current superstar Damion Gardner who will be in action in Saturday’s Amsoil USAC/CRA race at Perris Auto Speedway.
For years, Thompson has been credited with 105 wins, but some people insist he had more. Williams has a listed total of 104 wins leaving him one victory shy of Thompson. However, some people claim he won more! Likewise, Gardner’s victory numbers have a question as well. For some – like this writer – the total found is 101. But others claim it is 102. Two things are for sure though. One is that Gardner, who is the current point leader, has won eight of the first 17 USAC/CRA championships. That is more titles than anyone else in the combined three series. And in as little as three weeks’ time, that total could climb to nine. In addition, within a year from now, whether he currently has 101 or 102 wins, he will more than likely have more victories than both Williams and Thompson.
The journey to get to the current victory total for the Concord, California racer did not exactly start under ideal conditions. It was the SCRA season opening afternoon race at Perris Auto Speedway in February of 2002. To put it bluntly, Gardner did not even want to be there. It was a long drive from his home, and it was going to stretch his racing budget, but friend Kevin Urton would not hear of it and insisted they head south. An afternoon race on a dirt track can almost certainly tell you something you may not want to hear. Dry, slick and nothing like nighttime racing. However, it was a day that changed Gardner’s life. It is a day that will someday see his career culminate with his election into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.
“I knew from that day that this (non-wing) racing is where I wanted to be,” Gardner, the now former wing racer said via phone on Wednesday night. “Since then I have only raced winged cars a couple times. That was two years at Ohio Sprint Week.”
After his initial foray at Perris, the driver who goes by the moniker of “The Demon,” wowed crowds with his fearless racing style. While some fans and a lot of drivers were not very happy with him and his aggressive approach, a lot of fans made the daring driver their hero. For his supporters, it did not take long for their new-found favorite to adapt to his new discipline. A little more than two months into his first topless season, he out-qualified the field for the first time at Perris on April 27th, and on June 8th, he scored his first non-wing main event win. On that day, nobody gave it a thought that he would end up having a chance of being the all-time leading winner.
“I was thinking about winning a lot,” the now eight-time champion said. “I wanted to (win) and I was trying to figure out how to do that. But I was not thinking about numbers. Later I would formulate and think about how many races in a season it would take to be considered good. Not in a career, but in a year. I had that figured out, but it did not have anything to do with records or 100 wins. None of that.”
As time rolled on and the wins kept on coming, Gardner, who started in his own ride before getting seats in prestigious cars owned by Harlan Willis, Ron Chaffin, and Mark Alexander, started to realize he was getting into rarified victory air. He also got to know some of the greats in the sport and they made a big impression on him. That makes his staggering victory total even a little more special and important.
“It is important that the guys whose records I am breaking or whatever, they (the guys) mean a lot to me,” the slender racer said. “I am not considering myself better or anything like that. To be in the same statistical conversation with those guys kind of blows me away. I was learning about these guys as I was racing (wingless). Guys like Bubby Jones and Ron Shuman. I was learning about them then because I did not grow up doing this. They kind of became my friends and they taught me things. They were guys I could call for advice. At the point where I started to realize how great they were, this started feeling pretty good. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I tied Ron Shuman for the number of championships that these numerical things started to come up more often. It has been a lot of hard work and guys have given me a lot to accomplish this. I have a lot of people to thank along the way. I do not say much (about the records), but it kind of makes me smile and it feels good inside. It is kind of amazing and kind of makes me shake my head. I can’t believe it.”
Not only has Gardner won races and championships on the West Coast, but he spent several years winning and contending for the championship in the USAC National Sprint Car Series in the Midwest. When all is said and done, one day he is going to be elected into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. The thought is kind of humbling to the driver who at times can seem rather brash.
“I have only thought about it (being elected into the Hall of Fame) a little bit lately because people bring it up to me,” he stated. “These things are not something I ever thought about doing or achieving. It is pretty amazing that I have been able to win this many races and this many championships. I was fortunate. I got to do it the way I wanted to do it with sponsors and people helping me.”
After his time racing his own equipment in the Midwest ended, he returned to the West Coast. At that time, Gardner really did not have anything going on. But he ended up teaming with successful car owner Mark Alexander. Simply put by the sheer numbers of wins and championships, they are the number one traditional sprint car driver/owner combo in West Coast history. When you meet Gardner and Alexander, it seems like an “Odd Couple” relationship. Gardner is a very intense competitor and Alexander is as laid back as you can be. He does not say a lot and is usually in the background. While they are polar opposites, their prowess together means that not only will Gardner be in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, but Alexander will be there with him. It would be a big thrill for Gardner to be there together.
“I had won a lot of races with the 50 car (owned by Ron Chaffin and tuned by crew chief Bruce Bromme Jr.) when I left (for the Midwest) and I have been able to win a lot of races since I came back in the 4 car,” he affirmed. “It means a lot to me to team with Mark and Steve (crew chief Steve Alexander) for a lot of wins. I think the 4 car passed the 50 car for all-time wins out here. That is pretty cool that I was able to team with these guys and we could do that together. Mark is funny. He is kind of quiet and he does not say much. He kind of smirks and looks at you in a way that you know he is pretty happy about it.”
Whether it is 101 or 102 wins, the question had to be asked, which victory was the biggest?
“Oh wow,” “The Demon” said while taking a moment to think about it. “For me, there are these small victories where I overcome some thing in the night. You know, as far as adversity. Maybe I did not have a car good enough to win or I thought it was going to be a struggle and I won. But I think my biggest wins have to be my Oval Nationals wins. I mean, that is 410 sprint car racing and the guy’s names on that list (the other Ovals winners) are big. That is the pinnacle. That is the “Grand Daddy” and that is what you want to win. And it (winning the Ovals) meant a lot to the guys that have sponsored me. You know, Pace and Pat Kehoe. Ken at Scott Sales. And for Mark and those guys (the #4 car) because they had not won (the Ovals) until I got with them. Those wins all meant the same to all of us. It is the biggest race to win. To win that one is probably the best.”
In two weeks’ time, Gardner will be trying to make history as the first driver to win the Oval Nationals four times. But, before that, he will be trying to win another race when the USAC/CRA Series returns to Perris Auto Speedway this Saturday night. It may be win #102 or maybe it will be win #103. Who knows? To some, victory numbers may not mean much. To Damion Gardner, every single win means a lot.
Adult tickets are $30.00. For seniors 65 and over it is $25.00. Kids 6-12 get in for just $5.00 and children five and under are free. There will be plenty of tickets available at the ticket window on Saturday. We will not sellout. For fans who wish, advance tickets are available at www.tix.com
The Fairgrounds charges $10.00 for parking.
Camping at the fairgrounds on the grassy area outside of turn four will begin at noon on Friday. The cost is $25.00 per night.
Perris Auto Speedway is conveniently located on the SoCal Fair and Event Center (home of October’s Southern California Fair), approximately one-hour east of Los Angeles and one-hour North of San Diego. To get to the track, take the 215 freeway, on the Ramona Expressway and go three miles east to the fairgrounds. For directions on online, the address to enter is: 18700 Lake Perris Drive and the zip code is 92571.
Advance tickets for all other races on the 2021 schedule are also available at www.tix.com
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