It is an odd time for midget racing as a discipline. On one end, we may see some of the brightest young talent in America behind the wheel of a midget, and it is clear that some movers and shakers in the racing industry have their eye on the sport.
Yet in 2020, there were so few events and the problems that plague the sport at the upper echelons were there for all to see.
In terms of return on investment, midget racing may be the most irrational slice of what is already a nearly irrational enterprise. When it comes to attention, midgets get only a fraction of the headlines when compared to sprint car racing.
Some of this is understandable. There are a whole lot more people racing sprints and more places around the country, and globe, where those cars perform.
Additionally, there are a plethora of marquee events for sprint cars, like the Knoxville Nationals, Kings Royal, Williams Grove National Open, Little 500, Tuscarora 50, and the Hulman Classic.
Sadly, in 2020 the biggest midget races after the Chili Bowl were lost to COVID-19.
That was bad enough, but it got a lot worse. On Oct. 25 we lost Bryan Gapinski. There was a time in our racing past where midget racing was the hottest property in motorsports, by far. And among the many places where the discipline grew deep roots was Wisconsin.
If it were not for Quinn McCabe, the Badger Midget Auto Racing Ass’n may have also become a footnote to history. That it has survived is a good thing.
With a heritage that reaches back to the 1930’s, Badger is a proud group that has featured an unbroken chain of Hall of Fame racers and owners and legions of equally passionate fans.
All of that history was in Bryan Gapinski’s DNA. Bryan loved midget racing to the depths of his soul. He loved Badger to the depths of his soul. Furthermore, he loved midget racing history to the depths of his soul. Count me among the many who loved Bryan for all of this.
Bryan performed so many roles in the sport and did all of them well. He was a car owner from 1990-96. He was an announcer who covered some of the biggest midget races in the country. Bryan also served in public relations roles, and he was a writer to the very end.
I cannot think of a single individual at this point in history who cared more for midget racing than Bryan. The best example of this was the creation of the National Midget Driver of the Year awards.
Maybe you attended the Chili Bowl when Bryan made these presentations. His intent was to shine the spotlight on the accomplishments of a special group of people. It was about them; it was never about Bryan. Except, to those of us who knew the story, it really was.
It really was because that was his baby all the way. He conceived the idea, he created the methodology used to determine the awards, he did the legwork to publicize the contest, he secured the hardware, and he did the presentation.
He made it happen by virtue of hours of hard work. It was a completely selfless act.
The most important thing to realize is that there was so much more to the man. If you followed him on social media, he didn’t spend a lot of energy posting pictures of himself with racing people, it was almost totally about his wife and children. He so loved his kids.
Given that he had a delightful, almost childlike, personality as well, it was easy to see that he just wasn’t doing things dads are supposed to do; he was doing things good dads do, and was loving it himself. It makes all of this so much more difficult to swallow.
His wife Jenna admitted that she didn’t quite know what to make of this racing thing he was involved in when they started dating. I suspect that by the time she said “I do” as she looked across to see National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Famer Dan Boorse standing there as Bryan’s best man, she knew it would be at least a part of her life too.
She got right in there the best she could, and later juggled the responsibilities of having a career and being a wife and mother. Their life was blessed with two children, now 10-year-old daughter Kailey and seven-year-old son Tyler.
This needs to be said again. As much as Bryan loved racing, as anyone who knew him can attest, it was surpassed by his love of family.
The racing community has lost a giant, but more important now is the reality that Jenna has lost a husband and two young children have lost their father. There will be support now, but the task incumbent on many of us is to make sure the support is there for a long time.
We can’t be there all of those lonely times when Jenna misses Bryan, or when two young children try to grapple with a world without Daddy. We have to vow to tell these children how special their father was.
I had the chance to work with Bryan on several occasions, most notably for me now at the last Belleville Midget Nationals held to date. I’m going to cherish that memory.
Bryan and I would chat often via text about some cool piece of racing memorabilia he had found or been gifted. That’s how racing history nerds roll. I will also remember the conversation when he told me he had cancer and, essentially, said it was terminal.
Understand this: Bryan was 56 years old when he passed. By today’s standards he could have expected decades to come and a chance to savor milestones in his children’s lives. He desperately wanted to experience a 25th wedding anniversary. I talked to him by telephone twice after that. There was never a complaint. In fact, he was nearly upbeat.
Denial? Perhaps. Yet, who cares? I hope everyone who reads this will think about Bryan when your biggest issue is that your livestream buffered too many times or you thought a race track was poorly-prepared.
Bryan was destined for the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame. While I wish with every fiber in my being that he could have lived to see it, I can only hope now that when that time comes it brings his family far more joy than pain.
The hardest thing about aging is that you are forced to say goodbye to people you have shared this journey with. There is an old bumper sticker that was in vogue for a time that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” That’s a crock of you know what.
A winner is someone who, at the time of their passing, is remembered as a good, decent person; a hard worker who made the lives of those around them better.
That was Bryan Gapinski. He was, by any yardstick, a good man.
If you would like to help his family, a GoFundMe page has been established at https://www.gofundme.com/f/bryangapinski.