by Dennis Dalman
Like father, like son.
That phrase is apt for the father-son team of Gary and Nathan Olson of Sartell. Both are mechanically brilliant, both love working with cars, both are expert drag racers and both brought home trophies from a recent tournament at Brainerd International Speedway.
Gary, driving his 1979 blue Camaro, won the 12.0 (seconds) Index Class Eliminator, winning over Steve Elzy of Lindstrom.
Driving his 1968 maroon Firebird, Nathan won in his class in the 13.5 (seconds) Index Class Eliminator, beating back K.C. Brager of Pillager.
Drag racing, basically, is a type of auto racing in which cars (usually two at a time) compete to cross a finish line. Unlike round-track racing, drag racers follow a short, straight course, usually one-fourth of a mile. The race requires extraordinary concentration, coordination, split-second timing and a command of reaction time, elapsed time and speed.
According to answers.com, drag racing got its name from how some hot rods, starting off at maximum power, would shoot into the air, causing their back bumpers to “drag” on the road for a few seconds.
The races won by the Olsons are known as “dial-in” races. Each drive estimates (“dials in”) to the half second the time it will take his or her car to cross the finish line. If the car goes faster than the dialed-in time (called a break-out), it loses. Thus, a dial-in race is all about performance and several factors other than mere speed. If it were only speed that determined winners, only rich people with expensive souped-up cars would win. By adding the other fine-tune performance factors as criteria, the skills of the drivers are at least as important as the forward momentum of the cars.
Both father and son are in the “Muscle Car” category of racing. Within that category, there are three kinds of races: three-car showdown, show and go, and muscle-car shootout.
There are only two tracks dedicated solely to drag racing in Minnesota – Grove Creek Raceway in Grove City, Minn., and another one near Litchfield, although Brainerd Raceway also has an area for drag-racing.
Gary, who has shelves full of trophies, began racing in the mid-1990s, following the lead of his older brothers – Lyle, Loren and Raymond. Nathan, who began racing in just the past year, was good at the sport from the get-go and has already won a couple of trophies. Both Olsons believe there must be something genetic in the skill since Gary’s brothers in Foley have all been drag-racers. Nathan’s Firebird was once driven by his uncle, Loren, who raced with it. Then uncle Raymond owned the car and also used it for racing before selling the classic machine to Nathan.
Gary is very proud of his son.
“He’s such a good kid, and we are very proud of him, whether it’s his drag-racing abilities, his dedication at high school (he’s got a 3.7 grade-point average), his being a Big Brother or his avid guitar-playing skills. He’s a great kid.”
Gary is also proud of his wife, Kelli, and daughter Kira, a student at Hamline University who is now studying in Akita, Japan.
“Kira’s not into racing,” said her mother. “She’s more of a cat and book person. I call myself the ‘support staff’ for Gary, Nathan and the other racers. I make sandwiches, do the dishes and love to watch the cars racing. It’s a lot of fun.”
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of Kelli’s involvement and support for our family’s hobby,” Gary said. “She’s definitely a key player.”
Gary, 45, is a heavy-truck mechanic at GATR Volvo in Sauk Rapids. Nathan, 17, a Sartell High School student, works as a small-engine mechanic at Joel’s Mower Service in St. Cloud, and Kelli is a government-compliance agent for the USDA Food Program for daycare businesses throughout a wide area of the state.
Not surprisingly, the Olson family is quite typical of drag-racing families who tend to be very family-oriented with tight bonds among members. At race tracks, families enjoy one another’s company as much as they enjoy the racing itself, whether as dragsters or spectators.
Drag racing can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be, the Olsons noted.
“You can get into it for very cheap,” Gary said. Every Wednesday at Brainerd Raceway, you can bring your street car onto the track, and for only $20 you can race until dark. You don’t need any experience to try it. It’s like a community up there, with like-minded people talking cars, comparing notes and having fun.”
Nathan most of all likes the sportsmanship of drag racing.
“Win or lose, you always shake the other guy’s hand,” he said. “There’s real camaraderie, and we even root for one another. It’s not cut-throat.”
Racers earn and accrue points for every race.
“That’s my goal for the next few years, to be the season tops for the SE 2 (Strip Eliminator 2) class,” he said.
In the SE 2 class, the competition starts with 80 to 100 cars through the season, finally being whittled down to the top 10 for the final races. Nathan has already been within the top 10 of an SE 2 competition.
Both Gary and Nathan intend to keep racing for a good long time.
“I want to keep drag racing in my family,” Nathan said. “It’s good to have a dad who races because we learn a lot from each other.”
Winner Nathan Olson of Sartell hoists his trophy after winning the 13.5 ICE competition at Brainerd International Speedway. His father, Gary, (at left) also won his competition on the same day. Second from left is Gary’s wife and Nathan’s mother, Kelli; and at right is their friend Keegan Spanier, also of Sartell.
This car, a 1968 Firebird, is what took Nathan Olson of Sartell to victory recently at the Brainerd International Speedway.
Gary Olson of Sartell holds his trophy after winning, along with son Nathan (second from left) at Brainerd International Speedway. Behind the group is Gary’s 1978 Camaro, his winning car. At left is Keegan Spanier of Sartell, a friend of the Olsons; and at right is Kelli Olson, the wife of Gary, and mother of Nathan.