ROCHESTER, IND. – The year was 1969, the Beatles last public performance happened on the roof of Apple Records, the Pontiac Trans Am debuted, the Woodstock Festival attracted an audience around 500,000, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, the first ATM is installed in the U.S., and the roar of racing engines emanating from a garage in 1969 which moved into its own facility in 1984.
Nestled along the shores of Lake Manitou in northern Indiana resided a racing production facility. The sounds of machining and manufacturing parts was eerily missing on this cool day in June. The solitude and quietness at Gaerte Engines by TOPP Performance Race Parts was only broken up a constant ringing of the phones and an auctioneers voice throughout the legendary facility founded in 1969 which liquidated all the assets on June 18-19, 2019.
The company started by Willard Earl Gaerte (National Sprint Car Hall of Fame 2007 inductee and many other Hall of fames) began out of a garage and blossomed into one of the premier and innovator engine builders in the world. Willard, known by most as just “Earl” first built powerful racing engines for local drag racers, but soon found his niche in sprint car and midget racing.
The small shop quickly grew into a multi-room production facility with a cult following from racers in nearly every racing series and local tracks around the world. At the height of production in the late 1990’s, Gaerte employed 37 people in the large shop and shipped out 550 engines. He kept specs and details about every engine purchase in a file cabinet.
He built powerplants for the top names in racing, but cared even more for the local weekend racer who needed something reliable at a fair price. He gained the most important characteristic of all, respect from the racing family. His role in the development of a four cylinder midget engine ranks among the hallmarks of technology in the sport. The 1600cc engine built from an idea he put to paper in the 1980's are still competing today.
Earl passed away the week of the Knoxville Nationals in 2011. His son Joe and daughter Brenda would continue the legacy their father had built until 2017 when they were aquired by TOPP Performance Race parts on March 8, 2017.
The sounds of machining and manufacturing parts was eerily missing on this cool day in June. The solitude and quietness at Gaerte Engines by TOPP Performance Race Parts was only broken up a constant ringing of the phones and an auctioneers voice throughout the legendary facility founded in 1969 which liquidated all the assets back in June.
As winning bidders walked out with remnants of the once mecca to many racers, one has to get sentimental. As buyers and bidders passed through the hallways and offices, they would stop, point at faded photos and a smile would fill their face. They gazed and looked through the hundreds of photos on the walls from racers of every genre who utilized Gaerte’s knowledge and innovations to victory. It was a quick visual history of what life was like for the past 50 years at Gaerte Engines. Gaerte Engines was family owned (until 2017).
One of the first sprint car racers to use a Gaerte Engine was Paul Hazen (Columbia City, Ind.). Hazen began racing in 1957 and is still a winning car owner today who has compiled one of the most prestigious lists of over 50 top drivers who crawled behind the wheel of the #57 for Hazen.
Another well-known name is 20-time World of Outlaw champion Steve Kinser, who collected the first World of Outlaw Championship in 1978 with a Gaerte powerplant and that winning horsepower can certainly be attributed to the “King’s” successes.
“My dad, Karl and Steve Kinser were working together early on,” commented Joe Gaerte. “Dad owned a car from 1976-79 mainly racing around Warsaw, Ind., and then I started racing in 1985 with the 3G numbered car.”
Joe Gaerte remains active and continues sharing his knowledge learned from all the years he spent with his father. He is currently the sprint car crew chief with Kyle Larson’s Racing dirt venture with fourth generation racer Carson Macedo (Lemoore, Calif.) and vying for the 2019 World of Outlaws Rookie of the Year honors.
Gaerte and Macedo have been together since 2017 when he drove Gaerte’s famed 3G. A call from Macedo asking about wanting to run a sprint and a midget would pull the two entities together. In 2018, the duo raced the All-Star Circuit of Champions (currently Ollies’s Bargain Outlet All Star Circuit of Champions) and would finish second in the final standings with five wins in the series. The two have combined for 16 wins across the dirt tracks of America.
“A lot of race tracks he hasn’t seen or some that I haven’t been to this season,” added Joe Gaerte. “We have been running among the leaders a lot this season and we’re both learning. The Kings Royal we were running second in the heat when we cut a tire down in turn one. We were having a good weekend until then.”
“We have a special engine for Knoxville which we ran earlier this year, I brought it back and freshened it up in my shop,” said Joe. We will put a new body on the car and be ready with car owner Kyle Larson joining us once again for the Front Row Challenge in Oskaloosa. He (Kyle) will race on Wednesday of the Knoxville Nationals and Carson will qualify on Thursday night with both of the cars hopefully locked in without racing on Friday night as Kyle has some commitments with NASCAR.”
History is not to be lost forever once the assets from Gaerte Engines gets distributed, Greg Nicol from Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed was on hand to purchase many of the items to be added to their outstanding collection in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“As I stood in the same building where I had been before for the Gaerte Gathering, which was a meeting of all the major parts suppliers and builders from around the country each winter, this was before the PRI show got going strong. I thought how sad, that all this stuff from an icon in the industry was headed to,” added Nichol.
“The Museum of American Speed had several goals in attending the auction. The Gaerte sprint car, late model and midget engines were a power house in their day and we needed them for our engine collection. We also got a lot of memorabilia signage, posters, trophies, shirts, hats etc. we will be putting a display together featuring a lot of Earl’s accomplishments. I was able to work with Joe and we got the original trade show booth with hopes of having it for the background of the display.”
Their hope is to open a wing showcasing items from Gaerte Engines in the near future. The three story over 150,000 sq. ft. facility founded in 1992 by “Speedy” Bill and Joyce Smith, is dedicated to preserving and displaying physical items significant to racing and automotive history.
Editor’s Note: This is a special for the Knoxville Journal-Express.