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Kevin Olson Is a Chili Bowl Throwback
The history of Midget racing is littered with daredevils and larger-than-life characters. Their icy stares from behind the wheel and mischievous grins in the pits are the subject of countless black-and-white photographs that illustrate a bygone era. At this week’s Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one man stands alone as a bridge to that past. His name is Kevin Olson.
In fact, Olson doesn’t even wear a full-face helmet. He opts instead for the open variety, paired with a fire-retardant head sock, goggles, and a blue bandana.
“When I first started racing that’s all we had and here I actually think it’s a little bit of an advantage,” the 64-year old Olson told OneDirt of his head gear upon finishing third in the D-Feature on Wednesday at the River Spirit Expo Center.
“It’s lighter, you’ve got more vision, and that’s one of the reasons I like it. The other reason is I just like that it gives me that feel from the old days. The crowd is such a big influence, they just love it. I do it as much for them as anything else. And I feel it’s safe. Now outdoors I probably wouldn’t do it, but here I feel perfectly safe with it. It’s kind of a little gimmick but it’s working and I like it.”
Over the course of his 46-year career the driver originally from Machesney Park, Illinois, who now also calls Evansville, Wisconsin, home has competed in vehicles including Midgets, Sprint Cars, 3/4 Midgets, Silver Crown cars, Stock Cars and motorcycles, and even once tested an Indy Car.
His illustrious career includes 27 USAC Midget wins to go along with the USAC National Midget championship in 1982 and 1987; he is a four-time Badger Midget Association champion; and he took home the checkers in two of open-wheel racing’s most prestigious events: the 1983 Turkey Night Grand Prix and 1986 Hut 100. At the height of his career Olson competed in 85 to 90 races each year and raced in New Zealand and Australia during the offseason.
As his driving days wind down he’d like to compete in 20 or so events each year, but his advanced age sometimes makes it hard for him to obtain a ride. Still he takes whatever opportunity he can get and his presence at the track is important to the sport.
“The sport needs some characters, they need things that people remember,” Olson said. “This is an entertainment business and I like to promote that end of it. Hopefully it’s working.”
He admits that he doesn’t run up front as much anymore, a fact exacerbated at this year’s Chili Bowl thanks to a bent steering rod due to on-track contact. Still, he is having fun and plans to be competitive on Saturday as he tries to wade through the alphabet soup of races en route to the A-Main.
Like so many others, to Olson the camraderie and partying are a big part of Chili Bowl week, nestled around some of the best racing by some of the best drivers on Earth.
“When that A-Main comes up Saturday night there’s absolutely nothing like it,” he said. “When they throw the green for that it just puts chills down your back because it is such a tremendous event. There’s nothing like the Chili Bowl, it can’t be duplicated and it’s one of those things you just plan for every year.”
Olson was also reflective about the state of Midget racing, and what he thinks it could be.
“When I first started racing I owned my own car, I bought a car and trailer and spares and wheels and tires and everything for $3,000. Now today I don’t even know if you can buy a rearend for that, “he said. “We didn’t make a lot of money, but even today you don’t make any money so it’s not that significant of a change there moneywise.
“Now it’s all high tech [though] and I just don’t think the Midgets were really supposed to be like that. It was more of a backyard thing which there’s nothing wrong with. It’s passed a lot of us by just because of that.”
He also believes that, much like the Chili Bowl, Midgets should be a standalone event instead of the support or companion races to which they are so often relegated today.
Yet although Olson is has seen so much change, he is nevertheless on what he is calling his “Fifth Annual Farewell Tour” and isn’t planning to call it quits anytime soon.
“I’m too dumb to quit,” he said. “I’m racing with a lot of kids that I’m four times older than; about five years ago I decided we’d have a farewell tour and basically it helps the t-shirt sales. So they’ll probably be 1o farewell tours.”