The phone rang Monday morning and the voice said: “Did you hear about K.O.?”
Immediately I thought, “Oh no, he’s finally done it. Kevin Olson — ageless midget racer; noted author; lover of the old school; and friend to all on four wheels — has finally succeeded in killing himself in a race car.
“Where did he eat it?” I asked.
“No, he’s fine,” came the response. “He won last night at Sun Prairie.”
What? This loveable loon and former USAC midget champion won at one of the fastest, raciest tracks in the Midwest … at the age of 68?
Yep, on the same weekend that 63-year-old Sammy Swindell sat on the pole for the Kings Royal sprint car show at Eldora, Olson made it to victory lane at the place where he started racing 50 years ago.
I dialed him up Monday afternoon for confirmation and he answered from a bar in Evansville, Wisconsin.
“It’s true,” he hollered above the noise. “I started at Angel Park (Sun Prairie’s other name) in 1970 in an old Kurtis chassis. I haven’t won anything since 1998 because I’m 100 years old and I can’t see any more, but I got lucky.
“I didn’t quit partying until dawn. I couldn’t sleep. I’ve been drinking Crown Royal all afternoon, so I’m buzzed and I’m still buzzing, but I can die tonight with a smile on my face because I won again at the Prairie.”
In the past couple of decades, K.O. has worked for the IMS radio network (and conducted some of the funniest interviews ever); written a book about his life in racing (“Cages Are for Monkeys”); penned a monthly column for Sprint & Midget Magazine; and showed up at the Chili Bowl with his open-face helmet and the hopes he could somehow make it to the C Main.
But in his day Olson was a damn good midget racer. He captured Turkey Night at Ascot Park, the Hut 100 at Terre Haute, and a total of 23 USAC features in addition to owning a pair of USAC championships in 1982 and 1987.
“It was a nothing race – a little midget race nobody gives a s*** about – but to me it was as big as Turkey Night or the Hut 100 because I’ve been washed up for years. I wanted to win one more time at Angel Park before I died, though, even if I had to run until I was 90,” said the native of Rockford, Ill., who now has 47 midget wins at Sun Prairie and is in the Midget Racing Hall of Fame.
“I got the lead running the bottom because I’m not the brave guy any more, but it was an old man’s track and you had to search around for traction. Scott (Hatton) was running high and we kept trading the lead, and I just barely nipped him.”
Naturally, he had to confess what really helped prepare him: “I was drunk before both of my big wins at Ascot and Terre Haute, and Jack Calibrase and I got hammered for two days before Sunday’s race. Tom Bigelow once told me that if you’re hung over you’ll want the race to end sooner so you’ll go faster. It worked.”
The win also ended what had become a painful July tradition: “I broke my neck in a midget race on July 19 and my back another time in a crash on July 20. Then an engine hoist fell on me on July 19 a couple years ago, and I was in a motorcycle crash on July 20 last year. So I think July 21 has ended the curse and now I’m good to go for at least another year.”
It’s not easy to get hired at age 68 but Donnie Kleven (at left in photo above) bought a Spike chassis with a Ford engine for K.O. to campaign this year at Angel Park. Olson also got some help from Denny Lamers (his car owner when he won the Hut 100) and Honest Jack’s Used Cars (I think he might have made that one up).
He grew up racing with Stan Fox, Tim Pangborn and Scott Dennison before becoming buddies with Sleepy Tripp, Jeff Heywood and Nick Gomeric. They raced, laughed and partied together up and down the midwest highways in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Sadly, Foxie died in 2000 in a passenger car accident. All the others have long since hung up their helmets. We’re all hoping this win in the way-past-sundown of his career will make K.O. finally walk away.
“I was gonna quit, but then I woke up this morning and said, “Hell I can still do this and I’ve got a new deal, so let’s keep going.” It’s pretty hard to kill you off these days because the seats and cars are so good and it’s pretty safe. I do think there’s a lot of false bravery out there because of that, and the real men raced back in the ’60s with no roll bars or cages.
“I’m not one of those real men like A.J. or Parnelli, but I gotta say it was so cool to hear the grandstand all pulling for me at The Prairie. I think they were hoping I’d win so then I’d go away. But that ain’t gonna happen.”
It’s also a great excuse for a new round of K.O. T-shirts celebrating his latest entry into racing immortality.