Interview by Scott Daloisio
(CA, May 28, 2013) In August, sprint car racing megastar Damion Gardner plans to inaugurate a land speed record for sprint cars at the celebrated Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Why does a driver who has had so much success racing sprint cars on sticky clay oval bull rings across the United States want to go faster than any sprint car competitor on a tough, salt surface? What inspires the wiry racer and what makes him tick?
The easiest way to get the answers was to pepper the passionate driver with the relevant questions. In this session, he was straight and to the point about where it all commenced and about his day with destiny on the patch of salt that first felt the wheels of a car in 1907.
Q: How and when did you get started in racing? Was it something that started when you were a kid?
Gardner: No, not when I was a kid. I was always into cars and hot rods. I had junker four wheelers and motorcycles and we would race them around, but my family didn’t race. We always did stuff with cars. Fixed em’ up and stuff. For some reason, I always wanted to race cars. Everything was a race. When I got older, I started truck pulling and then I met a guy and we started racing cars.
Q: How old were you when you started truck pulling?
Gardner: About 16. That was more or less because I wanted to do something with anything that had a motor in it. I was always working on them and driving them. I just wanted to do something in racing. Truck pulling was my first opportunity at competition so that is what we did.
Q: Did your dad pull as well or did he just help you?
Gardner: My dad did it, too. My dad had a buddy with a truck who did truck pulls and my dad had a big four-wheel drive truck. His buddy talked us into going to the first truck pull. That turned into us hauling our truck (on a trailer) to the truck pulls because it had gotten so big and bas ass that you had to have a trailer to haul it. The guy who used to haul or bad ass truck to the races wanted to race cars. He owned a 76 station and he bought me my first race car. Pretty much all of these guys I was involved with, as long as I worked my ass off on the cars, they would help me out with them.
Q: Correct me if I am wrong. That first racecar was a dwarf car?
Gardner: Nope! My first year I only raced four races and it was an enduro car.
Q: You are telling a guy who announces your sprint car races that you started in enduros? I am loving this.
Gardner: Yeah, yeah (laughing) enduros.
Q: How long did you race the enduros?
Gardner: I pretty much did it one season and it was four races. Enduro cars were supposed to be cheap. The first thing I learned is they weren’t that cheap. I spent a lot of money making it look cool. I wanted it to be my racecar and I did a lot of work to it. After four enduro races it was just junk.
Q: So then it was on to dwarf cars?
Gardner: Yeah, the same guy that bought me the enduro car bought two dwarf cars and we started racing them. I raced dwarf cars for a couple years and then I bought a sprint car.
Q: Was it a 410 sprint car?
Gardner: I bought a 360 winged sprint car at first. I raced it up there (Northern California) two years and then I bought a 410.
Q: You raced the 410 in the old NARC Series?
Gardner: Yep! I ran NARC for two years and then I went to non-wing racing.
Q: At first in non-wing racing you stayed here in California.
Gardner: Yeah. My first non-wing race was at Perris and it was basically on a fluke. Perris used to start the season earlier than anyone in February with a day race. My buddy Kevin Urton – he is kind of my mentor – every year he would call me and say we should go to Perris. We would be in the shop and we had no money because I never got any of my sponsorship money until April. We would be sitting in the shop in like January and he would call me up and say, “Hey man, you should go down to that SCRA race at Perris.” For two years I would tell him that is too far to go and this and that. Finally he called me the third year and said, “If you do not go with us, we will go.” So I went down to Perris for the first time in February of 2002 and never went back (to wing racing).
Q: You did fairly well right off the bat in non-wing cars didn’t you?
Gardner: Yeah, that was the whole thing. The first time we did not qualify good. We qualified like 20th, but by the time the day was done we started 18th in the main near the back and finished sixth. The next one came up and we decided to go again. My sponsors at the time worked on the car, too. They got jacked up about it. They did not mind traveling and they did not mind spending some money. It was kind of as much up to them as it was to me. They wanted to go. The second time I don’t think we made the show. We went back again and by that third time you could see I was making strides and making up some ground there.
Q: You ended up doing very well. You won mains, you won the 2005 USAC/CRA championship. You went back east to run the USAC National Sprint Car Series. You even won the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals. How does any of that transpire into going to Bonneville and trying to go 200 miles per hour in a sprint car and set land speed records?
Gardner: It is a lot of different things. Basically, I do not know (laughing). It is me getting older and having done a lot of things in sprint cars. Meaning, I have done the national series and won races in sprint cars and midgets. I guess it is trying to do something outside of just your norm. in sprint cars. It is like a splash. Perris Auto Speedway, SCRA and Ron Shuman probably did the biggest things in my career as far as getting me known and getting my name out there. Other than that it has been only me doing self-promotion and the lot. Even the way I drive when I race. I try to splash bigger than anyone else. That is how I make money. It has kind of disenchanted me with the way the whole sprint car world is. We have all been doing it the same way for forty years and we are just getting beat up by other sports, you know? Monster trucks, supercross and any other sport like that. You name it and they are just going over the top of us, because they are figuring ways to get to the kids and all of that. So, I was trying to think of a way to make another splash. I thought, I like Bonneville and I like hot rods and it would be cool to go to Bonneville so that is why I am going.
Q: Did this just come to you over night or had you been thinking of it for a while?
Gardner: I basically lost my sponsor. He passed away last season and at the end of the year it did not work out with the family (the sponsor’s family) and it ended (his relationship with that sponsor) abruptly. I did not want to scrape it together and go run for peanuts trying to make it back on the national tour. I was thinking what could I do that would be fun and make a splash. Me and Steve Watt were sitting on the Speed Demon streamliner at P.R.I.. I was talking about what can we do with a sprint car that is extreme. What could we do? Obviously he comes from working on the Speed Demon and he is a fabricator and he does great stuff. He said, “Why don’t we go to Bonneville?” I said, “That is perfect!” Some other friends of mine were talking about taking a sprint car and doing a flip and all of this stupid crap. Guys with motorcycles do two or three flips. That is not for a sprint car really. I thought Bonneville would be cool. Making it the fastest sprint car on the planet is all right.
Q: I was going to ask you why you chose Steve “Biggie” Watt, but you kind of answered that. He is involved with both sports and you were both at the right place at the right time.
Gardner: Exactly! I was walking around P.R.I. trying to think of some ideas of what I could do outside the box. Obviously I was going to have time this year to do it because I do not have a
job (laughing). I just happened to roll up on him and we were just talking. Next thing you know, it all came together.
Q: Was he receptive to it right away?
Gardner: Oh yeah, right away. It is just one of those things where we are trying to put the money together now, getting sponsorship and getting people behind it. We have a lot of product people who are behind it and who have given us stuff to make this happen. There won’t be anybody saying I do not have the money to finish it or I do not have the time to do it. Biggie knows that if I make a commitment to get something done, I will get it done. He knows that so he does not mind committing his time and effort because he knows I will be right there with him.
Q: What is your biggest fascination about Bonneville?
Gardner: My biggest fascination is the old schoolism of it. The rawness. I was kind of born in the wrong era. I appreciate the old school guys who build their hot rods, come up with new ideas and they stab it together themselves. Then they go out to the track or the speedway and watch what they have done and see what they can achieve with their hands and their tools. You look at NASCAR and even sprint cars now. We just buy everything off the shelf. Some kid with a rich dad can pretty much have a car better than yours because he has more money. When it comes to Bonneville it is still kind of a raw sport where a lot of guys are still doing a lot of stuff in their garage. They show up and see if they can go fast.
Q: You say you like the idea of building cars in your own garage. How much extra fabrication are you guys going to do to this car in Biggie’s shop?
Gardner: There is going to be a lot of fabrication and a lot of trick stuff. It is not going to be like taking a regular sprint car. It is going to be all narrowed up and have a trick body. Aero is probably going to be the biggest problem with this car – keeping it on the ground because it is so light, has so much horsepower and it is short. It is going to want to spin out and hopefully it doesn’t fly through the air, you know? That is part of what we will have to do. It is still pretty kind of grass roots. Me an Biggie will fab. a lot of the stuff ourselves and with help from our friends in the industry. It is going to be a lot of one off stuff. We gain and try to get as much knowledge as we can, but at the end of the day, none us really knows what it is going to do.
Q: This car is one of your pavement cars from when you raced the USAC National Series, correct?
Gardner: Yeah, it is a 2010 Beast Chassis pavement car with a 410 Shaver.
Q: Same engine as you ran in it back then?
Q: What is the fastest you have ever driven anything in the past and how fast do you think you will go at Bonneville?
Gardner: The fastest I have ever gone? Gotta’ be whenever we went to Iowa or Richmond in a sprint car and it would be 146 (MPH) or something. When I say 146, that is an average so top speed would probably be around 160.
Q: You are talking of going over 200 at Bonneville!
Gardner: Yeah, I could be wrong, but I think 200 is achievable. A sprint car has reached pretty close to that. There have already been sprint cars that have gone in the 170’s and 180’s. I think the Silver Crown Cars at Milwaukee have gone almost 200, but the problem was they could not keep the back of the car on the ground. That is a problem we will be facing. So I think 200 is pretty achievable or something just over 200. 250 is probably going to take some extra work, you know?
Q: You have not tested the car yet, but that is coming soon. You and Biggie are prepping the car. How are you prepping yourself? Both your body and your mind?
Gardner: Nothing more than I do just to drive a regular sprint car every weekend, which is working out and staying in decent shape. I think what is prepping me mentally, once again it is no different than my weekly sprint car prep, is just doing my homework and making sure that I feel we have all done work and understand the mechanics and have done all the research we need to have put in this car. If we have done that, when I get to the track that is going to equate to confidence. I am going to be confident that we have put together a good piece and we know what we are doing.
Q: Throughout a majority of your career, you have driven on tight bull rings a half-mile or smaller. What if anything can you take from those tracks that will help you run flat out in a straight line at Bonneville?
Gardner: I don’t know. Just general experience of the car, feeling the car and understanding the car. I think we have learned from bigger tracks like Iowa and Phoenix in a Silver Crown Car about the wind. It is more about aero and how the car moves around and what it feels like. That is probably all you are going to get from the other stuff. I have also been talking to my friends who have taken winged sprint cars to mile tracks. Talking to those guys to get all of the knowledge I can to get a better understanding on what we are going to be dealing with.
More information on this exciting pursuit of pure speed will be forthcoming over the next few weeks and months. Be sure to share the news with all of your friends in the world of speed.
Gardner’s endeavor will be documented in a made for TV documentary titled “The World’s Fastest Sprint Car.”