Earl Gaerte may not have been a familiar face to millions of race fans, but he was one of the most important, most talented, most respected figures in the US racing industry during my time here at PRI, which has now passed the two-decade mark.
Years ago, Earl would hold an event called the Gaerte Gathering at his Gaerte Engines shop in Rochester, Indiana. He would invite vendors for his engines, and it would end up being a folksy, friendly business gathering with some serious movers and shakers in racing when it came to oval track parts. A man of few words, Earl always had that kind of drawing power in the racing industry.
When I arrived at PRI, Earl had THE engine for midgets. Through Steve Lewis’ Nine Racing team, I got to experience Earl at work. One of my fondest memories was sitting back in the pits at the Copper World Classic at Phoenix International Raceway many years ago, watching Earl work with Smokey Yunick on a reverse rotation engine that was giving them temperature problems during qualifying. Stan Fox would eventually win that race, battling Pages Jones, in what Chris Economaki described as one of the best races he’s ever seen.
When editorial questions arose at PRI, I developed this single question for myself, “What will Earl think when he reads this?” It was a way of focusing on the truth versus temporary hoopla. I don’t think you could ever find a more honest man than Earl. And it still challenges the brain how one shop could produce engines that would win so many feature races and championships, in so many series, over so many years.
I remember when Earl agreed to give a seminar on operating a race engine business at the PRI Trade Show. Earl’s first words were pretty much what he told Doug Kaufman in his fine bio of Earl on the Gaerte Engines website (click here to read it). “If anybody tells you they’re making money in the racing business, they’re lying.”
The huge room was packed with hundreds of race engine builders from around the country. We never had a crowd like that for an engine builder seminar before or since. Every seat was taken. They stood along the walls. Eventually, we had to stop people from entering the room. Then, a crowd built up by the door so they could at least listen to Earl.
He told them don’t trust accountants. Don’t trust lawyers. And he maintained a pretty steady pace in his cadence at all the things that can go wrong, how big the demands are, and how uncertain the financial rewards. The audience was not disappointed. They sat in rapt attention. They laughed. They nodded in knowing agreement. They loved Earl. He said it the way it was.
For every PRI Trade Show, Earl was the one person I always had on my agenda every year to see. If everything was OK, he would say, “Can’t complain.” If he had something he wanted PRI to truly understand, he would wrap it up in a few words and hand it over. It was up to us to pay attention, and we always did.
When the economy fell apart, I visited with Earl in his booth at the PRI Trade Show, and he had a different kind of visage than I had remembered seeing before. This was a couple years ago. He told me he had about 16 new engines at his shop for a major stock car touring series that had just lost its title sponsor amid the economic chaos. If they didn’t sell, it would be a whole year down the drain, or worse. Earl gave me a stark appraisal that day of where the racing industry was. The economic storm was not going to skip over us. It was going to take us with it. Earl delivered the truth of things once more, and I was most grateful for his insight. Fortunately, the series boldly pulled itself together and kept going.
I remember seeing Earl at a funeral reception for Smokey. He was quieter than I had ever seen him. And he sure was sad. We had just lost a one-of-a-kind figure in racing.
And that’s happened again with Earl’s passing.
An extraordinary man. A great race engine builder. A true leader. He leaves a hole in the racing industry, having welded together such a unique and powerful place within it. We sure thank him for all of his contributions to racing, and all of his help in guiding us here at PRI.