ANDERSON, Ind. — For more than a quarter of a century, short-track pundits believed Gene Nolen’s legacy in asphalt sprint car racing would be defined by a failure to win the famed Pay Less Little 500.
The 500-lap non-winged sprint car event, held annually at the high-banked Anderson (Ind.) Speedway quarter mile and considered one of the crown jewels of the discipline, was one that Nolen had longed to win — but it always seemed like the race slipped through his fingertips year after year.
However, Kody Swanson finally delivered for Nolen in the 2018 edition of the event, ending a winless drought akin to the relationship Dale Earnhardt had with the Daytona 500 for two decades.
It cemented Nolen’s legacy as a true legend in grassroots open-wheel racing, if he wasn’t already, and that box finally being checked only became more significant when Nolen passed away last week after a battle with illness.
Anderson Speedway President Rick Dawson had nothing but positives to offer when asked by SPEED SPORT to offer his thoughts on Nolen’s impact on both the Indiana bullring and the short-track community.
“Gene was instrumental in giving his drivers and crew members the opportunity to achieve success through hard work and perseverance,” said Dawson. “Many of the people he helped would not have otherwise had the chance for success that they accomplished had it not been for Gene. His drive, humility and compassion has carried on through these individuals, who are now passing it on to their followers and will continue to do so.”
Swanson’s first Little 500 win with Nolen in 2018 — his second win overall in the event — was made special when, according to the California native, he climbed from his car afterward and was immediately met with a heartfelt smile and congratulations from an emotional Nolen.
“That made it that much more special,” Swanson told the Franklin, Ind., Daily Journal of his 2018 Little 500 triumph. “It was just neat to team up with him and be able to give him his first Little 500 win. To see the pure joy and excitement (on his face), that took it up a level.
“Gene’s commitment to short-track racing is something that has always stood out. It makes it fun to go out and do well for him.”
The multi-time USAC Silver Crown Series champion added a second Little 500 victory for Nolen Racing last May, putting himself into an exclusive club of drivers who have won the event three times or more.
However, what was most memorable about that night wasn’t that Swanson helped Nolen to hoist the Little 500 winner’s trophy for a second consecutive year, but rather how good the cars of Swanson and his teammate, Shane Hollingsworth, were.
The duo led 499 of the 500 race laps for Nolen Racing, a feat of dominance by one team at the Little 500 that may never be replicated again.
“The Little 500 is a very hard race to win; we tried to do it for many years and got close, but never did it until last year,” Nolen said after Swanson’s 2019 win. “Shane’s lap times were comparable with Kody’s this year. Kody looked like the sure winner all night, but something can always happen. Luckily, he was able to win again, but I didn’t realize we led that many laps until a reporter told me after the race.”
Those back-to-back Little 500 victories were both the salve on a longstanding irritation and the proverbial cherry on top of a hall-of-fame ownership career for Nolen, who was inducted into the Little 500 Hall of Fame in 2010.
“We’ve watched many people work tirelessly to win the Pay Less Little 500 and seen many go without success in achieving it. It took legendary car owner Larry Contos many years to capture it, and likewise, it took Gene many years of hard trying to do the same,” Dawson noted. “To have two (Little 500) champion trophies as an owner is a tremendous statement to the race and the racing industry as a whole that hard work and dedication do pay off in the end.
“In the end, just as in life, Gene was a true champion.”
Greg Nolen, Gene’s son, confirmed in the wake of his father’s passing that Nolen Racing will continue to field a Silver Crown entry for Swanson this season — as well as Little 500 cars for Swanson and Hollingsworth — in accordance with his father’s wishes.
However, this year’s Little 500 will still have a noticeable void, because Gene Nolen, his quiet smile and his unparalleled work ethic, will no doubt be missed.