Even in dark times, one can find evidence of symmetry in life, and even glean meaning from events that cause one to experience profound grief. But the effort to capture the essence of a complex man – one who lived a rich and full life – always seems to fall short of the mark.
Yet, when one makes the effort to look past the present, it’s not uncommon to find that so many disparate puzzle pieces fit neatly together, and collectively tell the story one seeks so desperately to share.
Such is the case when we ponder the life of Gene Nolen, who passed earlier this year at the age of 77.
At the time of his death, Gene was not just respected by his peers in the racing world, he was revered. His departure provokes a litany of possible clichés.
Yes, while he was in the thick of the contest until his last days, he truly was a representative of another period in our sport.
His presence, and demeanor, reminded all that there was a time when many owned race cars for the sheer joy of it.
The stark reality is that sometimes clichés speak truth, and with Gene’s death we mourn at multiple levels. He was the embodiment of many countervailing forces.
In his last year, those new to the racing scene may have barely noticed a frail older man, slowly traversing the pits in his S.U.V. while endlessly doting over his beloved dog Barry.
Sure, he was everyone’s ideal grandfather. Yet, behind a wide smile, and an impeccably gracious manner, a substrata of high tensile steel could be found. He loved to compete to the depth of his soul. It drove him forward every waking moment.
Just a year before his death, Nolen was asked how he managed an international business, with scores of employees, and also led a top-flight race team.
In a moment of pure candor he admitted, “It’s a challenge.” But then, he quickly got to the heart of the matter by noting, “I live on challenges.”
True to his character, he looked his final challenge directly in the eye. Make no mistake about it, to paraphrase the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, this man did not go gently into that good night.
Nolen was a man who was born at the right time, and the right place. He arrived on the last day of February in 1943, to parents Clarence (Bud) and Zola Nolen.
The family home where he was born was on the near west side of Indianapolis, not far from downtown and within earshot of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He saw Bob Sweikert drink the milk in 1955 and never missed another Indianapolis 500 until 2019.
Bud Nolen ran a Sinclair service station at the corner of South Keystone and Prospect in Indianapolis, and found time to compete in a stock car at the Indianapolis Speedrome. It is not surprising that Gene would take an interest in racing, provided the context of his life.
However, the seed was planted even deeper by listening to a radio broadcast of the Hoosier Hundred live from the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
Nolen graduated from Arsenal Tech High School in 1961, and eventually took some night classes at Indiana Central College, now known as UIndy.
With trouble brewing in Southeast Asia, he took matters in his own hands and enrolled in the National Guard. After passing through Fort Knox, he ended up at Georgia’s Fort Gordon, where he was trained as a member of the military police.
While he undoubtedly longed to return home, this was a period of his life he found enormously beneficial.
Back in the Hoosier State, Nolen showed an immediate aptitude for business. While he didn’t hold a degree in engineering, he was well versed in common sense and pragmatics. In 1974, Nolen and three associates founded what is now known as Manar Inc.
The firm specializes in plastic injection mold technology, with applications in everything from the automotive to the aerospace industry. Nolen helped establish plants in Indiana, Tennessee and China.
In his later life, after he had purchased his original partners’ shares in the company, he took the bold step of turning the firm into an employee-owned business.
To accompany Nolen on a trip through his Edinburgh, Ind., plant gave one the clearest picture of his persona. He spoke to each employee by name, many who had served for years. Nolen knew them as people, not just as workers.
However, he was the boss. There was no ambiguity about that. The overall style present in his interactions with his staff was also reflected in how he shepherded his racing operation.
Nolen had dabbled on the fringes of the sport for years, but when he decided to get serious, he drew from his relationship with noted engine builder Glen Niebel.
Glen became famed for developing potent V-6 engines, and had already tasted success at big races like the Copper World Classic at Phoenix and the Little 500 at Anderson Speedway. Gene also caught V-6 fever, and it stuck with him throughout his career.
Nolen’s first days as an owner came in the midget, but he also migrated to sprint cars. With Paul Huntington at the controls, Nolen cracked the top 20 in USAC sprint car points in 1986. He continued his close association with Niebel, and in 1989 he purchased a Silver Crown car from his longtime friend.
They were very close and, in Gene’s words, “I went to the races with him a lot so I could learn.”
There was one slight catch.
“He was a really smart guy. Really, really good on pavement,” Nolen says. “But I have to be honest with you, he wasn’t worth a damn on dirt.”
In order to get better results, Nolen admitted that he sometimes had to pull the wool over his pal’s eyes and take charge of the setup on the sly.
This tactic alone produced some immediate benefits.
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