GAYLORD, Mich. — Whether it’s micro sprints, midgets, or full-on 410 sprint cars, California has always been known as a hotbed of open wheeled racing action, and the drivers who call that state home are some of the toughest competitors in the nation.
That is certainly the case with Concord, California’s Damion Gardner. But Gardner’s racing start didn’t begin with the torque of a sprint car. Instead he started on the straight and narrow. “My father and grandfather have always been very mechanical and worked on vehicles, so I grew up with that passion,” Gardner explained. “One of our family friends was into truck pulling and I just wanted to do anything that involved a motor so I got into pulling. I started working for my friend Bill at a 76 Gas Station and he was involved in stock-car racing and knew that I wanted to race bad, so he gave me a street stock. I put an engine in it and we ran it four nights that summer, after that I was hooked and started racing dwarf cars. My main goal became to make a living racing at some point and sprint cars seemed like the best choice given the tracks in my area.”
Not long after getting behind the wheel in 1998, Gardner began racking up accomplishments running at the local level and with CRA.
The 2004 Jeff Bagley Classic winner was gaining national attention less than 10-years into his career, and in 2006 he was approached by Pat Kehoe of Pace Lighting with the opportunity to test his skills on the slick tracks of the Midwest running with USAC.
“Pat came to me and told me that if I wanted to start a team, he would do it with me. He was up front and told me that I wouldn’t win for a while,” Gardner remembered. “Knowing he was realistic about the changes was a relief, especially because coming here was definitely a challenge. It’s a lot slicker and a whole different mentality. The first year I was out here I didn’t even win a race, which was the first time I hadn’t won in I don’t know how long. It was the hardest year of racing for me. When I hadn’t won in the past it was because I was young and new, so then to come here after being accustomed to winning on a regular basis was very difficult.”
Now as his fifth year as a “Hoosier,” making his residence in Pittsboro, Indiana; Gardner has definitely found his racing stride once more. The 2008 Chili Bowl Midget Nationals winner has been a constant contender in the USAC Sprint Series and has definitely found a new home with the series.
“I never grew up dreaming of racing NASCAR, never really knew about IndyCar Racing as a kid; because of that I think when I started racing I set my goals a little lower and I am totally happy being right where I am at,” Gardner said. “My main goal is to win a USAC National Championship. I’ve been trying to win a National title and in 2011 we really struggled, sliding back from where we were, so now for 2012 we will just have to re-group and try again.”
The Pace team finished 2011 strong and is already on their way to a stellar 2012. By winning the Oval Nationals in Perris (Nov. 5th) Gardner added his name to the history books as one of only three multi-time winners of the event (He also captured the event in 2009). That victory combined with a seventh-place finish at the Finals in Hanford (Calif.) earned Gardner a sixth-place points finish in the USAC Amsoil National Championship.
Gardner is a true racer who loves competition, but he also believes racing to be 100 percent a team sport “One of my best memories was winning from last at Perris (Calif.) and later finding out that my crew chief on the No. 50 car had promised his dying mother that we would win for her that night,” Gardner said. “With us starting in the back nobody thought that it would happen. After the race when he told me the scenario I could just tell how elated he was and that was awesome.”
For Gardner, Racing is about much more than what happens on the track. Damion enjoys being involved in all the aspects and spending weekdays in the shop and weekends with the guys at the track is more than a career or a passion, it is truly a life’s dream come true.
“Whether it’s winning a race or even almost crashing. It’s great to come back to the pits and laugh over what happened or almost happened. Just enjoying those moments and the camaraderie with these guys is great. I like winning and being successful for the group because we enjoy doing this as a group.”