OLSON: Family Bonds

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Olson
Kevin Olson

As I enter the second month of Rod Sterling’s cruel joke on the world, his latest episode of The Twilight Zone, I keep waiting for his announcement that this has all been a test to see if we could survive and exist in a world of no auto racing, motorcycle racing, working on race cars with friends or watching any sporting events live on television.

This test of survival also includes the elimination of meeting your buddies at the local pub to discuss the latest race or victory by the Chicago Cubs while enjoying a cool beverage or two, or going down the road in your station wagon pulling your open trailer with your Kurtis Kraft midget sitting proudly in front of the two-pole tire racks full of Ascot and ribbed tires.

I expect Rod to make the announcement at any time now that mankind has failed this test and, until we are able to figure some alternate ways to go on in the actual event of auto racing and sports ending without jumping off the Tallahassee Bridge, we will be subjected to the pain of only watching iRacing.

Rod will tell us that these tough times take tough measures if we are to get back to normal again.

I must admit that not all of this new style of life because of the Corona beer virus has been bad, and I think some good has actually come out of it so far. We have all had to have the yellow flag thrown at us and slow ourselves down a bit. It’s made us realize how important spending this time with our families has been, drawing us even closer together.

We can appreciate and cherish the time we have now for the smallest of things to do and learn from our kids, that we might not have ever taken. And we have time to think back to earlier days spent together as kids ourselves, with our own parents, brothers and sisters.

It has allowed me to reflect on memories of my youth, when my brother Loren and I got hooked on auto and motorcycle racing the first time we went to watch Red Aase, Mel Kenyon or Bobby Udell at the Rockford Speedway running a variety of different cars, from ‘40 Fords to ‘55 Chevy convertibles, to a Henry J with a Cadillac engine in it and the driver sitting in the rear to wheel it.

We would count the days, marking them off the calendar, until the arrival of the Illinois State Fair in August, when my dad and mom would take us to Springfield to watch guys like Johnny Thomson, Jimmy Bryan, Tony Bettenhausen and Jud Larson go at it for 100 miles of wheel-to-wheel racing on the Saturday of the fair. And then Joe Leonard, Sammy Tanner, Carroll Resweber and Babe DeMay went handlebar-to-handlebar for 50 miles on Sunday.

At this young age, watching these super brave heroes together made a bond between Loren and I that have lasted from those days of the ‘50s (yes, I mean the 1950’s) to this day, some 60 years later. I would sit in the grandstands digesting all the racing while Loren never put down his pencil the entire day. He took all the times for qualifying and recorded every finish of each event of the day, and later recorded it at home in his book of personal records. We consumed every bit of information we could read on all the races, and begged our parents to take us to places like the Rockford Speedway, Springfield or Sun Prairie every chance we could.

Loren and I got the chance to race, ourselves, in the late ‘50s, when my dad bought a quarter-midget. He and I raced around the Midwest splitting the driving duties until I was able to get a ride with another guy who had a sister car to our Race Kraft quarter-midget.

We both won our share of races, and Loren seemed to be a little quicker than I was, which always inspired me to get faster. We were finally done racing the little midgets when we grew out of the legal age, but we never lost the desire to keep racing.

When I got into high school, I started racing in the Road Runner division at the Rockford Speedway, while Loren sat up in the turn four grandstands and recorded it all. He never missed a race until that day back in those troubled times of the late ‘60s when he got that letter in the mail stating “Uncle Sam Wants You.”

Loren’s race watching came to an abrupt halt when he joined the Navy. While I continued on my racing career of Road Runners and bought my first midget, Loren completed his Naval boot camp and, as his luck would have it, he was attached to the Marines as a hospital corpsman. With this attachment also came the duty of going through yet another boot camp, this time with the Marines. Then he was shipped off to the Far East and war time duties in places with no race tracks, like the Philippines and even a stint in Vietnam.

Loren returned after his four years of service and went back to his old job as a postman. He traveled with me when not working. In a bit of contrast to my work career, Loren never missed a day of work and retired a few years back from the post office. Meanwhile, I missed approximately 91 percent of the days of real jobs due to being off racing somewhere.

I remember one Turkey Night when I had gone racing for a month, Loren got up Thanksgiving day and decided at the last minute that he couldn’t take not making Turkey Night again. He rushed off to O’Hare Airport and hopped a plane to Gardena to get to Ascot Park. I was lining up for the 100-lap grand prix when I looked over and there sat Loren recording times in his notebook. When the race was over, down he came. Since his decision to come was last-minute, he had no suitcase or coat.

Another time, I was racing at the Daytona Beach Memorial Stadium for a week and staying at the Safari Beach Motel when he came strolling in with a paper bag full of clothes. He had hopped a military plane down to Tallahassee and hitchhiked to Daytona, and didn’t miss a qualifying time or heat race rundown.

Loren still wanted to race, and I put him in my midget a few times when I had another ride. He ran really well for the amount of experience he had in midgets. He finished sixth one night at Albert Lea, Minnesota. I was always so scared that he would get hurt, and finally realized how my poor mother must have felt when I went off racing. I just couldn’t take the worry, so I had to park the car.

He still ran some races in a few different cars, including the famous 50 roadster of Ernie Fredrickson one night when Jim Jones owned it. With Loren’s postal job, he wouldn’t have been able to run a full schedule of races, but he went along in the van with me whenever he could.

Today, it is safe to say that no other person in the midget world has more facts and figures than he does. Loren has written a book called Midgets of Wisconsin that has a complete list of just about every midget race and driver that ever turned a wheel in Wisconsin. And, it is 100 percent accurate. He has a memory and recall like Donald Davidson, and if he can’t answer your question right away, he will find it in his notes.

Over the last 50 years, I have spent most of my summers running at Angell Park in Sun Prairie. Other than when Loren was in the Navy, he and Paul Krueger scored all those races every week, with very few problems or inaccuracies. Up until about two years ago, Loren and Paul were the backbone keeping the Sun Prairie machine working every Sunday night. But, with the electronic scoring today, they were supposedly no longer needed. (Although, transponders screw up a lot more than those two ever did!) Loren was also asked to score the Indy 500, and did so for 14 years from the late ‘80s until after the turn of the century. He and Don Kenyon’s son Randy single-handedly did all the manual scoring for the biggest race in the world. When the computers went down one year, they were the ones who did it all with pencils. And, scoring the 500 was not a high-paying job.

Loren would go down a couple of times a month to get familiar with the cars and colors. On the night before the race he would sleep in his Volkswagen in the infield behind the scoring tower to be there for the six o’clock start of race day. When it was all over and wrapped up, Loren would drive straight back to Sun Prairie, some 350 miles away, to sit with Paul and score. Dedication is putting it mildly. He never got the appreciation he deserved for his dedication, but he never complained or cared.

Unfortunately, I have to use Loren as my personal memory of places I raced, or where I finished, due to my many hits to the melon on a wall somewhere or from drinking massive amounts of alcohol and killing most of my brain cells. I’m always amazed when he tells me things that happened at a race, and then I start to remember those precious memories.

So, I guess for me these virus days have had some benefits to go along with the pain in the ass of staying in our cocoons. I think I finally have come to realize that, along with my all-time heroes like A.J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones, I have always had another real life hero, just as big as those guys, by my side all my life.

While I skipped through life running around the world doing only exactly what I always wanted to do, my brother went to work every day, and served his country for four years during years of war and conflicts. He did it all without the glory I got for enjoying the life that few others could ever have had. And while my accomplishments were so important to me, it took a stupid virus to show me that others probably did things much more important.

I wouldn’t trade a minute of my life for anything. I have sure been lucky to have had such a great life with a whole family of people like my grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, kids and grandkids, and can’t believe my great fortune. I always admired how close Mel and Don Kenyon were all their lives, traveling and working together, and I feel like Loren and I shared a lot of that closeness too.

So, I guess in a small way the yellow flag was out long enough during these weird times to allow me to appreciate all I have had in my life. So, Rod Sterling can kiss my ass. Stay safe everyone and hug your kids. KOolson bug

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