This is part two of a remembrance of late USAC car owner Gene Nolen which appeared in the June issue of Sprint Car & Midget Magazine. To read part one, click here.
Gene Nolen’s commitment to the USAC Silver Crown Series came with both tangible and intangible, costs. While he had a strong and loyal team, resources were stretched thin.
For 2019 he made a bold decision. It was time to cut back to a one-car team.
He was also going to secure the services of the top driver in the series: Kody Swanson. The goal could not be more obvious.
Nolen already enjoyed a strong relationship with the four-time series champion, and it revolved around another of his racing passions: the Little 500 at Anderson Speedway.
Gene knew when it came to pavement racing, and the intellect needed to win long-distance races, Swanson had few peers.
In 2018, Swanson was still racing for De Palma Motorsports on the Silver Crown trail, so when it came to preparing for their first Little 500 together, Kody said with a laugh, “He didn’t talk about the Silver Crown cars too much, because we were competing against each other then.”
What he did learn quickly was how serious Nolen was about the Little 500.
“Other people have known about this for years,” Kody said. “So, I am glad I was able to experience it myself.”
Capping off what had been one of the most remarkable three days in short track racing by any driver, Swanson took his second win in the grueling 500-lap race and helped his venerable owner realize another dream.
Kody certainly was personally satisfied, but it became even more meaningful when engine builder Bill Tranter told him that “if there was one goal Gene was really after, it was that Little 500 win.”
Swanson won again in dominating fashion in 2019 and, to add to the night, his Nolen Racing teammate Shane Hollingsworth finished fourth.
The one goal lurking out there was a Silver Crown championship and, with the right man behind the wheel and a team focused on one car, it seemed in reach. But behind the scenes, Gene also knew he had some pesky health issues to deal with.
Heart surgery was in his future. In truth, it knocked him for a loop. Before the year was over, Gene was forced to attend races in a wheelchair.
It was tough to deal with. The silver lining was that this was a veteran team and the guy behind the wheel was the right driver to weather the storm.
Kody Swanson wears his emotions on his sleeve. It is something that he readily acknowledges and something that endears him to many. He is a man, like his owner, with depth of character.
Also like his owner, there is a fire to compete and resolve that never waivers. Swanson wasn’t about to back down, and that was demonstrated time after time.
His peers have known for years that Swanson may have a soft heart, but there is also plenty of grit to be found.
This was not an easy year, and one can argue it was Swanson’s most impressive performance. There was an obstacle to confront at the opening round at Memphis. There were more to come. Still, he kept winning.
A mechanical problem at Lucas Oil Raceway left a crack for Justin Grant, who had been a model of consistency.
Grant, who had been a series runner-up, now was in position to climb to the top spot in the standings. Swanson proceeded to slam the door shut at Madison Int’l Raceway. Yet, all the while, Terry Klatt’s team was finding its stride.
Kyle Hamilton, a former Little 500 winner, was handling the pavement chores for the team and posting fine runs. Hamilton broke through with his first win on the night Swanson and Nolen stumbled. Then, Brady Bacon, who was tabbed by the team to handle the dirt races, claimed his first win in the series on a memorable night at Williams Grove.
Now the entrants title was up for grabs as the season wound down. Then it came unglued. Two mechanical failures at DuQuoin forced Swanson to accept a gracious offer by Patrick
Lawson to hop aboard his car.
Swanson’s unprecedented fifth championship was all but secured, but Nolen’s entrant title had slipped away.
Racing is not a sentimental sport. When a competitor has a weakness, you exploit it without a second thought. That’s just the way it is.
Except, that’s not how it all went down here. It was hard not to be happy for owner Terry Klatt, who is a fine man, and team principals Dave Brzozowski and Bob East. However, so many were truly heartbroken that Gene’s moment in the sun had escaped.
Yet, there was Gene on the stage at the USAC awards banquet with a broad smile, looking forward to the 2020 season.
The frustration was that Gene had appeared to be improving. He was honored as the winner of the Emma Ray Award for Courage by the Hoosier Auto Racing Fans, and he was there to accept the honor.
However, what appeared to be a routine checkup suggested problems.
He developed pneumonia but, even then, he appeared to rally. Choking back tears, Kody Swanson recalls getting a call from Gene’s son Greg, who solemnly reported that his father’s body was giving out.
Nolen was not diagnosed with COVID-19 and, because of this, some members of the family were there to say goodbye. It provides some comfort to know that such a warm and gregarious man was not forced to face the end alone.
In typical fashion, before his surgery last season, he made it clear that his team should soldier on, no matter what.
Before he entered the hospital this year, he once again made his wishes known: the team would continue in 2020, and also field two cars in the Little 500.
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