PERRIS, Calif. – Perris Auto Speedway has long been known as the Southern California home of major league sprint-car racing.
Superstars of the open wheel sport have awed and thrilled the fans there since the day the track first opened in 1996. Now, as the famous Riverside county clay oval is set to host its 18th Sprint Car season opener with the AMSOIL USAC/CRA Sprint Car Series on, Saturday, March 9th, one of the track’s beloved drivers, Damion Gardner, is returning for a full season on his favorite racetrack.
Gardner first arrived on the Southern California scene in 2002 driving his own silver No. 20 Sprint Car. A few years later he earned rides in two of California’s most famous cars. The Harlan Willis No. 45 and the legendary Ron Chaffin bright red No. 50 car. It was in the latter that he won the 2005 USAC/CRA championship.
For the past four or five seasons, the likeable driver who calls Concord, California home, has plied his trade in the AMSOIL USAC National Sprint Car Series spending the racing season based in Pittsboro, Ind.
However, much to the delight of the fans on the west coast and most notably at Perris Auto Speedway, Gardner is returning home to roost and race on the highly competitive USAC/CRA circuit in 2013.
“I am really excited to be back,” Gardner said. “I appreciate all of the fans for all of their support for a long time. I know there was always a question as to whether I was still a west coast guy or a Midwest guy. You know, I have always been a west coast guy and I am glad to be back.”
On top of being back on the west coast, he will also be a regular at Perris Auto Speedway. Since first setting a wheel to the place in 2002, the track has been his favorite and likewise, his daring racing skills have made him a favorite with many of the Perris fans.
“Of all the places I have raced in the country, I would say Perris is the best,” the dark haired driver stated. “It is funny, a lot of fans from back east that I met, I would tell them to come to Perris. I would be kind of curious as to what they thought so when I would see them again I would ask them, ‘hey, what did you think?’ Ninety-nine percent of the time they would say it was as great as I told them it was going to be. It is just a great place to race. It is a great environment. Every night it is a show and that is what I like to be a part of. Racing is one thing, but it is fun to entertain and put on a show the fans remember.
“I think Perris was the first track where I had a decent amount of success,” Gardner said. “Perris pretty much gave me the opportunity of what would come in the future. The fans there are great. That is what makes me so excited to go back.”
Unlike most of the racers in the USAC/CRA series, Gardner is not a local to Perris. He does not live within minutes of the track nor does he live within 100 miles. He is hundreds of miles away in Northern California, but he considers the commute well worthwhile.
“I live in Concord, by Oakland and San Francisco,” Gardner mused. “It is a good six or seven hours to get down there to Perris. Sometimes I fly. I flew down there for one or two years (in the days he was a regular in the SCRA and previously with USAC/CRA). It was pretty good when you could get cheap flights, but they are not as cheap anymore. It is going to require a lot of driving or flying, but that is ok. I would rather drive further and race at a good track than push my car across the street and race at a bad one.”
Gardner has had a lot of success at Perris. He has won scores of main events there including two wins (2009 and 2011) in the prestigious Budweiser Oval Nationals. And, when he won the 2005 USAC/CRA championship, a majority of the races were there.
“It has been good to me,” he enthused when talking of the track at base of the Lake Perris Dam. “I do not know why. Maybe because I feel it is a show there and that platform makes me excel or who knows? Maybe the shape of the track. I just do not know.”
“The grooming of the track fits my style,” he continued. “As far as them taking care of the track, they do as good a job if not better than anyone. If you are fast at Perris, there is going to be a way to get to the front. Not many tracks can say that. There are plenty of nights I have run fifth, sixth or seventh at other tracks and felt like I had a car to win but there was just no where I could go on the track to get to the front. That is never the case at Perris.”
Before Gardner came south in 2002 to race in the SCRA Series at Perris, he was a winged sprint car racer. Once he took the wing off, he fell in love with running a traditional style sprint car.
“I love non wing racing so much,” he exclaimed. “When I first did it in 2002 it spoke to me. Wing racing was fun, but when I started racing non wing, it was everything I think racing should be.”
The slender racer knew he was coming home for 2013, but he did not know he would be driving for the Alexander’s until about three weeks ago and it came about at a Tuesday evening dinner.
“Every Tuesday night there is a big bunch of guys who go to dinner,” he said with a laugh. “All of these guys from down in the area (South Bay) go. Ron Shaver from Shaver Engines, Jason Leffler when he is in town. Me when I am in town. A lot of guys frequent this dinner event and I think he was out with them (Shaver with the Alexander’s) and told them I was coming back and looking for a ride. That got us talking and I guess the Alexander’s talked to their sponsors. Everybody got excited and we put it together. They are pretty good guys who want to win races. It was kind of last minute and they said they wished I would have told them earlier, but with the way things have been going, I just did not know what was going to be going on.”
Over the past four or five years in Indiana, Gardner has been running his whole racing show. In fact, he was a hands on owner and driver. Now he is back living in Concord and with the Alexander cars located hundreds of miles away in Torrance, that will present a bit of a change for “The Demon” in 2013.
“They have really good equipment and plenty of guys,” Gardner said of car owner Steve Alexander and his team. “Guys that are really into it and want to win races. That is the start of it. I am just going to try and bring what I know that can add to it. Like tuning in motors, shocks and so forth. I just want to compliment what they are doing. I want to take a team that is winning races and I want to try and win most of the races. I want to dominate. That is what I really want to do. With these guys, from what I can tell, the ingredients are there. We have just got to put it all together.”
In joining the Alexander silver cars, Gardner will also gain a teammate in the always fast Nic Faas. While he has competed against Faas, Gardner does not know him real well.
“I have seen him through the years,” he said. “He has been back east for some races. He is young and he is fast. I don’t know what his goals are and what he wants to do in racing. We will see how we can help each other.”
In his past years on the west coast, Gardner was a gasser chasing the wins. He won a lot of them and he also won the second ever USAC/CRA championship in 2005. As of yet, he is not sure whether the team will be pushing for wins or for a championship,
“We have not really talked about that yet,” he stated. “I am assuming they (Alexander’s) would want to win a championship. I guess I have not really thought about that. For me, when I was coming back out here, my main focus and my main goal was to be winning races. When I moved back east it was all about trying to win a championship. It definitely kind of changed the way I raced. I had to try to think about how to do things different, finish races and so forth. It was fun and I would not change nothing, but it was definitely not as fun as just trying to win races. There is nothing like just trying to win races, so if I can do it that way, that is how I want to do it. I want to try and win races. Win em’ all. Win more than anyone. For now, that is my focus.”
Midwest fans need not fret as they will still see Gardner on their tracks.
“I am living back out here now,” Gardner said. “But I will still do some racing in the Midwest.”