CONCORD, N.C. — Kenny Rogers, who died late Friday evening at the age of 81, is considered one of the greatest country music artists of all time.
He earned 24 No. 1 hits, sold more than 50 million albums, earned six trophies from the Country Music Awards and was a three-time Grammy Award winner.
However, many racing fans will forever associate Rogers with two things — his role as racer Brewster Baker in the film Six Pack and the Kenny Rogers Racing Team sprint car fielded by the Gambler Chassis Co., which produced winning sprint car chassis’ for more than a decade in the 1980s and ’90s.
What you may not know is that Rogers wasn’t directly involved with Gambler Chassis Co. or the Kenny Rogers Racing Team. In fact, the race team and Gambler Chassis Co. were the brainchild of C.K. Spurlock, who was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame last year.
Spurlock himself raced in the 1960s before leaving the sport to pursue a career in the country music industry in Nashville, Tenn. It was during his time in Nashville, where he worked with some of the top stars in the business, that he met and began working with Rogers.
Rogers was already an established country music act when he released his sixth studio album, The Gambler, in 1978. However, it was that record that would skyrocket him into mainstream stardom and eventually led Spurlock to name his sprint car chassis company after the record.
“I promoted Kenny Rogers worldwide for over 20 years,” Spurlock told SPEED SPORT via phone Saturday afternoon. “I named Gambler (Chassis Co.) Gambler because I was so involved in Gambler, the record, and the business with Kenny. He did some pictures with the car and of course was interested in the car, but he had nothing at all to do with the running of the business.”
Before Gambler Chassis Co. was founded, Spurlock fielded cars branded as the Kenny Rogers Racing Team utilizing chassis built by Bob Trostle or Gary Stanton. It wasn’t until 1980 when Spurlock decided to build his first chassis, leading to the start of the Gambler Chassis Co.
“I’d never intended on getting into business at all,” Spurlock recalled. “I built my car exactly like I wanted it. We went to Florida with it and the car was extremely fast. I had a friend I had told I would build a car and he got mad at me because I only built one. Then (someone) stole my whole rig, my motorhome, my trailer, all my parts and my car down in Dallas, Texas.
“Bobby Allen, who’s is a sprint car racer, stopped by my shop and asked me what I was going to do. And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know Bobby. I’ve got to make up my mind.’ He said, ‘Well, you’ve got all that tooling back there don’t you? Memphis is in two weeks, you’d better get off your ass and get to work.’ So I built another car and decided to go into business.”
So that begs the question, why did Rogers’ name and brand become involved in sprint car racing in the first place? Spurlock said since he was heavily involved in promoting Rogers’ concerts and records, it made sense for him to use his sprint car operation to promote Rogers.
“The car, real big down the side, said, ‘Kenny Rogers Racing Team.’ Real little up in the airbox it said, ‘Gambler Chassis Co.’ I was using Gambler Chassis Co. to promote Kenny Rogers. Not Kenny Rogers to promote Gambler Chassis Co.
“I’ve never been much of a self-promoter. I’ve never named a company after myself. No where did you see C.K. Spurlock in connection with Kenny Rogers and Gambler Chassis unless somebody else put it there,” Spurlock said. “I did not put it there. I wasn’t in the business to build me. I figured I would be an offshoot of whatever business it was. You know, if you’re successful, people come to you, if you’re not, that doesn’t matter.”
Spurlock’s first Gambler Chassis Co. car was driven by Danny Smith in 1980. Smith drove the car for a little more than two years, earning top-10 championship finishes in ’80 and ’81 with the World of Outlaws.
“In 1980, I got in the Gambler car for East Bay,” Smith told SPEED SPORT in a story published in April of 2019. “C.K. Spurlock had called me looking for somebody to beat Steve Kinser. We won our first Outlaws feature at Big H in Houston and managed to beat Steve a few other times as well.
“It was quite an adventure. Having Kenny Rogers’ name on it attracted a lot of attention, mostly women trying to find Kenny,” Smith added. “He was hot at the time, so local radio stations would sponsor us in different towns.”
Over the years Spurlock grew Gambler Chassis Co. to be one of the top chassis companies in sprint car racing, with the likes of Brad Doty, Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell and others driving cars built by Spurlock via Gambler Chassis Co.
However, were it not for the creation of the Kenny Rogers Racing Team by Spurlock, there may never have been a Gambler Chassis Co. For that, and for many other reasons, Spurlock will never forget his late friend and business partner.
“I trusted him implicitly and he evidently trusted me implicitly,” Spurlock said. “I would not obligate him to something I knew was disrespectful to him or that he would not want to do. And that’s the way our life was.
“He was just a phenomenal man,” added Spurlock. “I don’t know how to express in words what my opinion of Kenny Rogers is to be truthful with you. He was a phenomenal person and a great friend.”