By RICHIE MURRAY
Half a century ago, Ronnie Duman was a mainstay on the USAC National Championship trail and the annual running of the “Hoosier Hundred” at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
The five-time Indianapolis 500 starter, who was twice a winner of the “Little 500” at Anderson (Ind.) Speedway, made five starts of his own at the “Hoosier” between 1962 and 1967, including a stint as a relief driver for George Snider in the J.C. Agajanian-owned No. 98 during the 1965 race.
Half a century later, there’s another accomplished racer who shares the same first name and arrives from the same bloodlines as Duman. Corona, California’s Ronnie Gardner, a four-time and defending USAC Western States Midget champion, is set to make his USAC Silver Crown debut Thursday night in the 63rd “Hoosier Hundred” at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
Ronnie never met his famous grandfather, who was killed in a racing accident at the Milwaukee Mile in the 1968 “Rex Mays Classic,” but the 29-year old is well aware of his legacy.
“I know quite a bit,” Gardner admits. “My uncle and mom told me many stories when I was growing up and I’ve researched some to learn more. Then, you meet people along the way who knew him and they tell me a story or two. It’s pretty neat.”
Despite intentions of making his Silver Crown debut at the Indy Mile, this won’t be Ronnie’s first appearance at the “Hoosier Hundred.” His uncle, Jack Gardner, was a very successful SCRA sprint car and USAC Silver Crown team owner based on the West Coast. In 1997, the Gardner team migrated to the Midwest for the summer and the Gardner-owned Sprint Car won its first USAC National Sprint Car race with Bill Rose at Paragon (Ind.) Speedway. Meanwhile, the team’s Silver Crown car finished fourth at the “Hulman/Hoosier Hundred” that May with Cory Kruseman at the wheel.
Sitting underneath the covered grandstands that day was nine-year-old Ronnie Gardner. Though known primarily as a West Coast guy, Ronnie spent much of his childhood in Speedway, Indiana, just about 15 minutes down the road from the Indiana State Fairgrounds mile and, literally, a stone’s throw away from the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I was born in California, but I moved to Indy when I was four,” Ronnie explains. “I lived in Speedway until I was ten, then I moved back to California. My Grandma owns two houses on Georgetown Road in Speedway. I think there are a few that are still standing. You could throw a rock from her porch and hit the turn four entrance gate.”
Growing up with such a lineage of racing history surrounding him, you might’ve guessed that Ronnie started his racing career at a young age and was bred for stardom right from the beginning. Yet, Ronnie didn’t take the most common route. In fact, the first race he ever competed in was behind the wheel of a 410 c.i. USAC/CRA Sprint Car in 2009 at the age of 21!
In the short period of time since, Ronnie has taken to racing like a duck to water as he racks up one milestone after another. He is the first driver to win four Western States Midget titles in a row, something even the legendary Sleepy Tripp never accomplished. His 21 career victories place him fourth all-time on the series win list. In the last two years, Ronnie has passed names such as Wally Pankratz, Page Jones, P.J. Jones, Jason Leffler and Rusty Rasmussen as he’s moved his way up the win list to quickly become one of the most accomplished racers on the West Coast.
That brings us to Thursday night when Ronnie takes on the newest challenge of his career at the controls of Ted Finkenbinder’s #03 Silver Crown car in the “Hoosier Hundred.” Driver/owner deals occur in many different ways, but Ronnie and Ted’s agreement almost seems like a throwback to the days of yesteryear. It started with a conversation, led to a phone call and ended with a deal.
“I have to thank Ted for giving me this opportunity to race in the Hoosier Hundred and live out a dream of mine,” Gardner praised. “Lately, I’ve been hanging around Ted more and more cause I’m dating his Goddaughter, Amber. So, we would be hanging out, drinking or what not after the races, and a couple of times I’ve just joked with him, ‘Hey Ted, how about we load that Crown car up and go run the Hoosier Hundred?’ But I didn’t think he’d actually do it. Well, about a couple weeks ago, he called me up and asked if I still wanted to do it and, of course, I said yes!”
Ronnie hopes this one-race deal can develop into something more down the road, but for now, he’s focused on realizing a dream that has been a lifetime in the making.
“Running the Big Cars is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Ronnie relays. “I was a fan of the sport before I was ever a driver. To be a small part of that history is cool to me. I’ve always dreamed about running the Hoosier 100. Even just to drive a Silver Crown car in general is special. I spent a lot of my life in Indy and to compete in an event my grandfather raced in is going to be pretty cool.”
Spectator gates open for Thursday night’s “Hoosier Hundred” at 3pm. Practice is set for 5pm, ProSource/B & W Auto Mart Qualifying at 6 and racing at 7pm. Forty cars are entered for the event, making it the largest anticipated field for a Silver Crown event since 2005!
The “Hoosier Hundred” will be streamed LIVE on http://www.SpeedShiftTV.com/. As always, you can watch each and every USAC event one-day after the race on-demand at http://www.Loudpedal.TV/.