Pictured in victory lane at IRP are Kinley Rice (Logan Seavey’s girlfriend), Logan Seavey, Ronnie Gardner, Gardner’s wife Amber and their son, Finn. (Rich Forman photo)

Ronnie Gardner: Anxiety, Uncertainty & A USAC Title

It was well over an hour before practice began at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park but there was already a beehive of activity around Logan Seavey’s Rice Motorsports-Abacus Racing Silver Crown car.

All that was left for crew chief Ronnie Gardner to do was fret and pace. The movement was as much to ward off the chill of a dank and uncomfortable day as it was to disperse nervous energy. It was the third year in a row that the title would be decided in the final race of the season, but this time Gardner’s team had the upper hand. Three hard years of work went into this moment.

In 2021, Robbie Rice made a nearly unilateral decision to get a pavement car and contest the full slate of Silver Crown races. Nearly everyone was a hardtop novice. It was a satisfying year. Seavey was an easy choice for rookie of the year and winning the entrant’s championship was a significant accomplishment.

Heading into the 2022 finale at IRP it was clear that Seavey’s chance to unseat perennial champion Kody Swanson had improved mightily. Then disaster struck.

“We ran that Friday open practice deal and I think we were on the track for the second time of the day when the car lost all power,” Gardner said. “We had a broken camshaft. At that point we didn’t know what we were going to do. Do we take the motor out of the dirt car? We just had issues with it at Du Quoin. So, we are hitting up everybody we know on the phone to find a motor. Finally, we ended up putting the dirt motor in the car, but it had the wrong pan.

“We were up all hours of the night either trying to modify a pan we had or find one that could fit. The two blocks were different so I couldn’t take one off the pavement motor and put it on the dirt motor. I think I slept for about an hour and a half.”  

The result was predictable.

The team vowed this year would be different. They knew what they needed to do to get to the top. Their pavement program had to improve.

“We had the right package on the dirt,” Gardner said. “But if we were going to win the championship our 10th-place finishes on the pavement needed to be fifth-place finishes at least.” 

Seavey set the tone when he captured the runner-up spot at IRP in May, but challenges awaited. A series of mechanical issues hampered the team at Winchester Speedway at the onset and a broken right-front wheel ended their night prematurely.

The Half Miles

Yet, that is the nature of Silver Crown racing and Gardner knew that points would be made up down the road. Wins at Port Royal and on the mile at Springfield, Ill., helped their cause, and when the teams signed in at Eldora for the 4-Crown Nationals, Gardner was confident. When he says he “has the driver to beat on half-miles,” the record backs him up. On a glorious night where Seavey had already etched midget and sprint car victories on his résumé by taking the Silver Crown feature and earning the bonus for leading the most laps, he carried a 16-point lead into the finale at IRP.

Seavey had matched wits with Kody Swanson all year and it came down to 100 laps on the pavement. This was still Swanson’s bread and butter. As he looked around, Gardner said he had little trouble sleeping the night before and pronounced himself reasonably calm. He admitted the nerves would kick in when the green flag waved. Whatever anxiety he had when qualifying started amped up when Swanson grabbed the pole and claimed three bonus points. Then the rain came, moving the race to Sunday.

Logan Seavey at Eldora Speedway. (Frank Smith Photo)

“Now we had to do it all over and sleep on it, which kind of sucked,” Gardner said. “We were hoping Bobby Santos could keep those three points from getting into Kody’s hands. He was so fast in practice, and I was hoping that would translate into qualifying. I knew we weren’t getting the three points, and three points is another position on the race track that we would have to make up.”

On Sunday, Gardner climbed to his spotter’s stand and looked on in disbelief. Tanner Swanson did not jump off the starting line and Seavey ran smack into the back of him. He fell to ninth place and Gardner thought, “This is going to be a complete uphill struggle.”

Gardner won seven USAC Western States midget championships in his driving career, but never did it come down to the final race. Yet, even if he had been in that circumstance, he admits he feels far greater pressure as a crew chief.

“I think working on the car is a lot more stressful,” he said. “Because in the end there are more people you can let down. It is a little bit out of your hands. You second guess everything you did. Is that on tight? Is this the right choice? When you get in the race car as a driver and flip the switch there is one task ahead of you and that is getting the best finish you can. For me it was a whole lot less stressful to drive than it is to put a race car on the track for somebody else.”

The Final Race

Once again, Gardner hoped he had done all he could to help his driver and team succeed. He watched Swanson pull away from the field and had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Kody had already won a midget feature on this day, but during the 500 Sprint Car Tour race he jumped out to a big lead but faded at the midpoint. As he watched Swanson manhandle his Silver Crown car, he discerned a similar pattern. “Logan and I watched the sprint car race and he was good for 12 or 15 laps and the car just started plowing,” Gardner said

With Swanson out front and the qualifying bonus already in his pocket, Gardner knew if they finished at least fourth, they were untouchable. Then Swanson began to fall back and eventually ducked into the pits under caution to work on his car.

A few laps past the halfway point, Swanson dove low to make a pass that didn’t work out.

“I have always been able to race under the line at IRP,” Swanson said. “What I forgot was while they cleaned the track after Trey Burke had a problem there was a mess left on the apron.”  

Locking up his left-front wheel, Swanson collected Derek Bischak and made wall contact as well. It looked like the championship was decided at that moment. It wasn’t. 

“I saw the smoke and saw him hit the wall,” Gardner said. “But I didn’t think it was enough to hurt the car and he didn’t even come to pit road under yellow.”

For a moment Gardner could relax.

“I didn’t think he could get all the way back to us,” Gardner said. “Because he was really using the right-front tire by running as low as he could.”

Gardner was mistaken. Soon Swanson had Seavey in the crosshairs. Gardner thought “Well, OK, here we go.”

A Conundrum

It was here that Gardner and the Rice-Abacus team were in a true conundrum. Swanson was showing the absolute heart of a champion, and somehow, he was moving forward. He had no chance of catching his brother Tanner, who was in a class of his own ahead of the field. 

However, the big prize was still up for grabs. Once Swanson got within sight of Seavey one school of thought was to just let him go. At that point, if nothing changed, Seavey had done enough to secure the title.

“The problem is if we let him go maybe the next guy does, too, and suddenly, we are on the outside looking in,” Gardner explained. ‘I know Robbie wanted me to tell him to slow down, but sometimes when a racer slows down, they make a mistake. I wanted him to keep the mindset that we are going to pass the next guy. I didn’t want to mess with his rhythm.”

There was one more important factor in the decision-making process.

“I have enough respect for Kody that I never thought he would drive into the side of Logan,” he said. “He was going to try to force him into a mistake, but he was never going to drive in to him.”

One thing is clear, this is a time when Gardner earned his pay.

“I didn’t stop talking for 30 laps,” Gardner said with a laugh. “Finally, I looked up and there were two laps to go and I said, “OK, Logan, let him go, all you have to do is cruise from here.”

There may have been a moment in the final sequence when ego came into play. It was going to be sweet to dethrone the King, but it also would have been nice to finish ahead of him. All the calculators were put away and Seavey’s sixth-place finish was enough to take the top spot by seven markers.

While Swanson was disappointed, he was less distraught about the outcome than he was about inadvertently collecting Derek Bischak. On the way to congratulate Seavey, his first stop was to offer an apology to Derek, who he reported, “Could not have been more gracious.”

In Gardner’s mind this filled an empty hole in the team’s résumé.

“I know people said we won the championship in 2021, but I left disappointed that we didn’t get Logan his title,” Gardner said. “Something was missing.”

All that was left to do was celebrate.

“I didn’t get to sleep until the wee hours of the morning,” Gardner said. “We stayed at the suite at IRP way too late. I think we stayed until we ran out of liquor. We had a lot of fun.”

Gardner is a racer at heart. It is a part of his family heritage. He will get behind the wheel some in 2024, but he has also made his mark beyond the cockpit.

Rice Motorsports-Abacus Racing will be back. So will Kody Swanson, Justin Grant, C. J. Leary, and others. Now Seavey will be the man they’ll be chasing.