Hall of Famer Olson to ring in New Year at ‘Rumble in Fort Wayne’

From Tony Barhorst

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — With the 13th annual “Rumble in Fort Wayne” falling on New Year’s weekend, promoter Tony Barhorst figured a postrace pit party featuring a well-known racing personality was a given.

And who better to ring in the New Year than Hall of Fame driver Kevin Olson?

The irrepressible Olson, the self-styled clown prince of midget racing, will greet fans and spin tales on Friday, Dec. 31 during the opening night of the two-day indoor race fest at the Memorial Coliseum Expo Center. And he just found out he’ll be taking a few spins around the track, too, as a substitute driver for Tony Stewart Racing.

“I’m getting too old to run hard,” the 57-year-old Olson said, “but I’m still drinking beer.”

Olson may just get the last laugh. He learned Wednesday that two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart has approved him to fill in for injured Mike Fedorcak in a Tony Stewart Racing midget. In between trading jokes, he’ll be racing both Friday and Saturday.

One of the most accomplished drivers in the long history of midget racing, Olson won the USAC national championship in 1982 and ‘87, bagged five Badger titles and notched victories in the Hut Hundred, Turkey Night Grand Prix and at the Belleville High Banks. He was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1997.

Yet all of that was overshadowed by his reputation as a zany, fun-loving guy who would do anything for anybody, especially if it involved a laugh. Whether looking through a helmet visor or beer goggles, Olson was the leader of the pack.

Olson first competed at Fort Wayne some 35 years ago, when the midgets raced indoors at the hockey arena adjacent to what is now the Expo Center.

“My memory ain’t too good,” said Olson, who uses ain’t like a second-grader tormenting an English teacher, “but we used to have a good time in Fort Wayne the night before. I remember going to the drivers meeting and having glitter fall out of my hair. We went to a dance club the night before. I had glitter in my hair from the strippers.”

A full-time racer most of his career, Olson liked to claim that he made his living as a light bulb repairman.

“It just went on all over the world,” he said, tongue in cheek. “People will still bring me light bulbs to repair.”

And the trend toward the longer-lasting, curly-Q fluorescent bulbs won’t deter him.

“We’ve got that in motion,” he said, not skipping a beat. “Fluorescent, LTD — keep ‘em coming.”

One of Olson’s most memorable stunts involved an actual business enterprise. For several months in late 1994 and early 1995, he traipsed around the country with a motorized bowling pin to promote the 100th anniversary of the American Bowling Congress and its sponsorship of buddy Stan Fox’s Indy 500 car.

Olson embarked on a 35-city tour, starting in Manhattan and ending in Los Angeles, towing a golf cart outfitted with a 12-foot bowling pin behind his Dodge van. Once he arrived at the next city, he would drive the pin practically anywhere — on streets, in parks, on sidewalks — to call attention to bowling.

“It really accomplished nothing,” he said of the marketing campaign, “but we got to sit in bars at bowling centers and drink beer.”

Olson’s sense of humor served him well in a career interrupted three times by accidents that nearly ended his life. In 1983, just after winning his first USAC championship, he broke three vertebrae in his back, The following year, he fractured the C-1 and C-2 vertebrae in his neck. A year later, as he helped a stranded motorist, the vehicle was rear-ended by a drunken driver while he peered under the hood. He was “all torn up, especially my shoulder.”

“Since then, I’ve been pretty lucky physically,” he said. “Just mental illness since then.”

These days, Olson races only occasionally — he would like to run 10-15 events in 2011 — but stays close to the sport as a columnist for Sprint Car & Midget magazine and as a special assignment reporter on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, which covers the Indy 500 as well as the IZOD Indycar Series.

In subbing for Fedorcak, who is sidelined by a shoulder injury, Olson steps into one of the top cars in the Rumble Series — the black No. 97 Munchkin chassis built by Fedorcak and entered by Stewart, himself a seven-time Fort Wayne winner. Fedorcak drove the car to victory at Fort Wayne in 2002 and has had a second place, four thirds and a fourth since then. Stewart notched six of his Fort Wayne wins in a similar Munchkin.

Midget racing has changed greatly during Olson’s time, and he longs for the old days, when drivers worked on their cars and mom-and-pop businesses were sponsors. It cost him $3,000 to launch his career, and “that was for everything — chassis, engine, tow vehicle, spares,” he said. “I mean, everything.”

The sport has become “more of a business,” he said, with top teams spending $300,000 to $400,000 annually, engines costing upwards of $50,000 and cars so technologically advanced that rookies can be instantly competitive.

“Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for safety — but the cars are so safe that 16-year-olds can drive them,” he said. “With a little training, he can beat a guy who has been racing 10 years.

“They’ve really eliminated the grassroots racers who can afford it,” he added. “I think it’s sad. Midgets are the greatest training ground in racing. They teach you how to race and race good.”

Olson delivers his words without a hint of bitterness. That’s just the way he sees things, even though he wishes they were different.

Olson has raced in Australia on New Year’s Day, and he expects a festive crowd for the Rumble in Fort Wayne.

In any case, he’ll be smiling.

“We always had fun before, during and after the race,” he said. “It made it enjoyable.”

PLENTY OF RACING: A full day of racing is scheduled for both New Year’s Eve (Friday, Dec. 31) and New Year’s Day (Saturday, Jan. 1), with spectator gates opening at noon and the main portion of the event at 7 p.m. each day. The five-division program features midgets, winged outlaw modified midgets, Slingshots by Tobias, karts and quarter midgets, all racing on a 1/6-mile track on the Expo Center floor. Additionally, ATV stuntman Henry “The Pit Bull” Rife will attempt a world indoor record jump of cars at Friday’s program. The pit party, open to fans, will follow.

The first 1,000 fans to purchase a ticket at the Coliseum box office will receive a $10 gift card from Crazy Pinz Entertainment Center in Fort Wayne. Evans Toyota, Hoosier Window & Siding and Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka join Crazy Pinz as presenting sponsors of the Rumble.

MORE INFO AVAILABLE: Information on tickets, special hotel rates and entries are available at www.rumbleseries.com or by e-mailing Barhorst at tbracefest@aol.com.