Bubba Raceway Park
After father's passing, dutiful Gardner races on
By Kevin KovacDirtonDirt.com senior writer
OCALA, Fla. (Feb. 13) — Bob Gardner learned before the start of Friday night’s Bubba Army Winternationals opener at Bubba Raceway Park that his father had passed away following a year-long battle with cancer, but heading home to Creve Couer, Ill., wasn’t an option. | Complete Speedweeks coverage
All the 37-year-old Gardner could do was unload his Dirt Late Model, climb in the cockpit and go racing as he had planned. The late John Gardner Sr. wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“For my dad, my brother (41-year-old John Jr.) and myself,” Gardner said, “this Winternationals Speedweeks deal was our thing for the past four or five years. We came down here and spent the week racing here at Ocala or at East Bay (Raceway Park in Gibsonton, Fla.), and we’d go down to Fort Myers (Fla.) and enjoy some time with dad at his (winter) home.
“When dad found out (a dire diagnosis from doctors) two weeks ago, he said, ‘No matter what happens to me, you guys are going and doing that Winternationals thing. This is our thing … don’t let me screw it up. Just do what we normally do, go down there and race.’”
Gardner then paused. Speaking in the pit area of the 3/8-mile BRP oval after finishing 12th in Friday night’s 30-lap UMP DIRTcar-sanctioned feature, he smiled wistfully before continuing.
“As a matter of fact,” Gardner noted, “one of the last things dad said was, ‘If you gotta postpone the funeral, postpone the funeral.’ "
Gardner wasn’t about to disregard his father’s directive. If the man who kindled Gardner’s life-long love of motorsports wanted him to keep on racing even in the wake of his death, then that’s what Gardner was going to do.
“He got both of us involved in racing,” Gardner said of his father, who died at the age of 65. “He was a two-time Illinois state champion motorcycle racer, and I raced motocross 15 years because of him.
“When I turned 30 I was kind of tired of hitting the ground (in painful motorcycle crashes), so I got smarter and went to four wheels (on dirt tracks in the Midwest). It became something that was my brother, myself and my dad’s deal — most of this (racing equipment) is his, and we went stock car racing every weekend with him and came down here to Florida with him every February.”
Less than two months ago it appeared that the elder Gardner would again be able to join his boys on a mid-winter trip to the Sunshine State. John Sr. seemed to be gaining the upper hand in his fight with cancer, which had been going on for over a year.
“You hear these kind of cancer stories all the time — we thought we had it licked,” Gardner said. “Right before Christmas he went through surgery and had his bladder removed, and then we went down to his Fort Myers home over Christmas and New Year’s and he was feeling good, looking good. Everything worked out perfect — his six-week recovery was done, me, him and my brother went and did our golfing thing, and we thought he kicked its butt.
“But two weeks ago he came back home to Illinois for his checkup, and man … the cancer was back. It was Stage 4.”
When Gardner and his brother headed south for East Bay’s Winternationals a week ago, their father’s Hospice nurse said he probably had about two weeks left to live. Senior made it about half that time, succumbing just after midnight.
John Jr., who also drives a Dirt Late Model but not as often as his younger brother, was with his father when he passed. Junior competed alongside his sibling in the first two nights of East Bay’s Winternationals but flew home on Thursday morning to visit his father and handle business commitments at Oberlander Electric, the East Peoria, Ill., company that the Gardner brothers and two of their cousins now oversee after the quartet bought out the shares owned by their father and uncle last year.
“My brother got home Thursday morning and he got to hang out with dad for about two hours,” said Gardner, who left East Bay after Wednesday night’s program and spent Thursday night testing his car in an open practice session at BRP. “At 10 o’clock last night (Thursday) when we got done practicing here, I asked my brother if he would mind putting his cell phone on speaker phone so I could say something to dad. I said, ‘Hey, we was fifth-quick tonight in practice and we finally felt like we belonged here with these big boys.’ And that was the last time I talked to dad.
“I think at that point he was already incoherent … but I knew he heard me, and I know he’s watching now.”
That thought alone was enough to keep the approachable Gardner’s spirits up and a smile on his face. The scourge of cancer could not take away all his memories of his father.
“I heard Stuart Scott from ESPN say something about, ‘Just because you die from cancer, it doesn’t mean cancer beat you,’” Gardner said, referring to the sportscaster who died from cancer last month. “I’ll tell you what, my dad was Superman to me, and just because cancer got him, cancer didn’t beat him.
“I’ve had my moments here,” he continued, considering the emotions he faced spending Speedweeks without his father. “It’s just simple things — I look at something, like the hotel we always stay out down here, and I think of him. But I feel good about what I’m doing, because this was his last wish. I feel like I’m doing him proud.”
In fact, Gardner nearly honored his father’s memory with one of the best performances of his career. Still a relative newcomer to the full-fender division — he’s starting just his sixth season of competition — Gardner finished a solid third in his heat and spent most of the feature running in the top 10 before slipping to 12th at the finish.
“We were planning on staying at East Bay all week but we just couldn’t make the thing go there,” Gardner said. “And then I thought, Man, we can get UMP points (at BRP), so it’s just a better move to come here. We didn’t have any UMP tires, though, so we bought everything today … but I got a one-year-old right-front tire on this thing and with five to go I just couldn’t steer.
“I sure wish I would’ve got top-10 for him, but either way, it’s good. I’m happy with it.”
Gardner hopes that the promising run signals an upward trend in his racing career. He enjoyed significant improvement in his fortunes in 2014 and is confident of taking another step forward this season.
“We had our best year ever last year,” said Gardner, whose 52 UMP DIRTcar-sanctioned starts produced 22 top-five finishes (including two wins at his home state’s Farmer City Raceway), a second-place finish in the Illinois State points and 16th-place result in the national standings. “We got hooked up with Brandon Sheppard and got a Rocket, and Brandon kind of took me under his wing and now we really got the thing going.”
Gardner plans to focus on UMP DIRTcar-sanctioned action throughout the Midwest in 2015, but he has bigger dreams for the future — dreams that his father just might help him realize.
“Dad was pretty successful, and these next two months … my life’s gonna change because of what he set up for me,” said Gardner, who expects to enter Saturday night’s World of Outlaws Late Model Series event at BRP before making the haul home on Sunday to attend his father’s funeral memorial services on Monday and Tuesday. “I don’t know if it’s gonna happen this year, or next year, but I’ve always wanted to do a touring series for just one year, just to do it, just to say I did it.
“I’d really love to take a crack at the World of Outlaws and just do that tour. He’s got me set up where I can probably afford to do it next year, so if we get a crew wrapped up we can maybe tackle it next year.”
Would his father want him to chase the World of Outlaws circuit?
“Yeah,” Gardner concluded. “I think dad would say, ‘You know, you’re only young once. Let’s do it.’ ”