Traditional Sprint Car FanSite

See You At The Races!!!

by Gary "Hammerdown" Costa

Coming Through The Pack With "The Demon" Damion Gardner

Thanks Damion for doing this for us fans...
DG: Hey, no problem!

How did you get the nickname "The Demon"?
DG: It's kinda funny. My dad's friends would call me "Demon". When it actually took place, or became "official" I was in Dwarf Cars and this guy Frank Munroe I raced with, thought I should have a nickname. He thought "The Demon" was suiting. I would be in the back, and go to the front. It was like I was a whole different guy. Like I had 2 personalities. I think everybody has that. You have the good side and the bad side. My style of racing has been like that, and I've gotten better at being that aggressive. But when you're that aggressive sometimes you pay the price for it!

You started your career in Dwarf cars. You were the 1995 Rookie Of The Year. 1996 saw you garner 10 wins, finishing 2nd in points, in 1997 you not only won the Nor-Cal Dwarf Championship, but stood with the trophy girl 15 times!
DG: Yeah, we did pretty good!

You even won the most improved driver that same Championship season, go figure!!!!!!!
DG: (laughs) Right ! yeah, yeah!

Why did you decide to move up to the Sprint Cars?
DG: I wanted to move on, my dream was to be a NASCAR type and go there, but I had a smaller dream, you know NASCAR seemed so far away I didn't come from a racing family, and I didn't really know anybody, so that seemed kinda out of reach. But I always wanted to just be a hired driver that can drive for a team, one of the best teams, a team that has all the ideas and things I have in mind like I did, winning, the money that it took to win and be successful and that's what I worked at trying to get to.

What adjustments as a driver did you have to make from the Dwarf Cars to the Sprint Cars?
DG: Well when I went winged racing, that was the biggest challenge I ever faced. I went to the wings because Stock Cars were dying kind of, and it was really the only avenue that I had to go to at the time. So I decided to go that route. When I drove a winged car it took me a long time, it took me probably a year, and me being as meticulous as I was, I mean I tried every set-up on the planet. And at the time it really didn't matter, it was more or less me just trying to figure out how to drive the thing. It was a BIG learning curve just to figure that out.

1998 was your rookie Sprint Car season, you took home Rookie Of The Year honors at Placerville and finished 4th in the final point standings. Pretty damn good for a rookie......
DG: That probably wasn't as good of a year either!!!!!!! (laughing) I breakdown every aspect from the team. My driving, how I'm driving the car. I watch other guys, and what makes them successful and why am I not being successful. I do that every week. I try to learn from the last event.

Can you share something from your first race?
DG: Actually, I was decently fast out of the box. I had a guy with me, this guy Kevin Urton. I don't know if you know of him....

Gary: Shit yeah....
DG: Yeah, he's bad ass, and he's a big Placerville guy. So we went to Placerville. Some people don't realize, just pulling a tear-off at Placerville in a heat race is something you've got to figure out, how and where to do it. I want to say I was 3rd quick or something. Everyone was pretty excited. Then came the heat. I think every corner I went down into I drove off the end! I would come back on, pass 2-3 guys and then drive off the other end! I looked fast, just looked out of control. So, I come in, I walk over to Kevin, he's leaning on the fence. I'm looking for some words of encouragement or something. I say, "so what do you think?" Kevin says "Hey, is that thing hard to drive or do you just make it look that way?" And that was the truth, I made it look PRETTY difficult! And that was the first night out.......

Your 1999 season was pretty successful too. Running in the tough Civil War series, you racked up 7 wins and finished 2nd in the points, with fierce competitor Dave Robinson, Jr. edging you out by only 51 points.....
DG: Right, right. We had a good year. Actually that was a really good year. I was pretty excited about that season. We got back to winning, and we like that. Yeah, we didn't win the Championship and that was a little disappointing, but we won a lot of races and that's what I like to do

Any memories stand out from running with them?
DG: It was a lot of fun! Man I'll tell you, back then when we got to run Chico, Placerville and all that. The tear-off issue was always tough. Back then we didn't quite have as good of tear-offs as we do now. We would put on as much as you could, which was like 22. You run a 30 lap feature, and you just wished you could put more on there, but you can only put so many. Then going down to the big tracks like Hanford and San Jose those were a little more challenging, because the car acts different on the bigger type tracks.

Then in 2000, you swapped the 360 for a powerful 410, and traveled the NARC/GSC tour. You racked up a win in both series too.....
DG: Yeah, we won at Chowchilla and Santa Maria that year!

You've also racked up a win in the USAC Western States pavement Series at Albuquerque in 2001, and did a wing dance at Calistoga. How did you feel after winning at such a legendary place?
DG: It was great! It's a joint that you have to put on your resume. If you win at Calistoga, your name goes with a bunch of great drivers. It's a historical place, it's a fast joint, so when you win at Calistoga you were the fastest car that night. To win there you have to be fast. Unlike Chico and some other places where you can muscle your way to the front. Calistoga is just about SPEED, it's cool to win there!

At this point in your career, you have raced against some really tough dudes, why do you think you achieved so much success in a relatively short time in the Sprint Cars?
DG: I work real, real hard at it. Racing has always come first. I don't know exactly. Everything I've gotten I've worked hard to get it. I think I'm coordinated which makes the driving part a little easier. I don't know that I'm naturally a great Sprint Car driver. I just try to break everything down on a night we would win. We would still go over everything, and figure out how we could have done better. I would take that approach from my driving all the way to the crew, everything. So that every week we would get better and better. We never really got to peak in the winged stuff I think. Every year we had a decent year we moved up a level. We went pavement than non-wing, so I don't think we really peaked. We were pretty inconsistent, we would win one, then run eighth, then run second and run tenth. That's what we needed to figure out, was how to be consistently up front.

Vinnie Lattner/Kevin Urton, what do those two names mean to you?
DG: Kevin has helped me out since day one to now. The past 3 years or so, he's been more of a mentor. Kevin is a guy I can talk to, a guy I can trust. He gives me his personal opinion on things. He's seen the ups and the downs, and he's been able to help me along the way.

Vinnie has helped me out a lot. He has experience running with Paul and Bobby McMahan, so he helped me with the big tracks right away. Vinnie learned me the whole time we were racing. He learned the things I liked, and the things I didn't like. Vinnie learned what I needed to go fast, he is a super crew-chief. He knew exactly what needed to get done. The first year we went on tour, he did an excellent job! We've always been a little underfunded, but over worked. Everyone of my guys on my team from day one, has always been about hard work.

People might think you had a big budget back then...
DG: It's all been done with sponsor money, and every dime I can pinch out of my regular working wage. I was lucky enough to have a couple of great guys who got me a big sponsor down in Arizona. That's what enabled me to go 410 racing.

Then we move to the no holds barred 2002 season. Again, you were turning heads up North, how and why did you guys make the decision to run that first Perris race?
DG: *Laughs* Me and the guys were working in the shop, this was in January sometime, and we were just putting our winged cars together. The SCRA opener was coming up. Kevin calls, he says "Hey you should go down there!" We have talked about going to the Oval Nationals for a couple years. We were just burnt out at the end of the year. I told Kevin if we go, you're gonna help us come finish the car and go down there with us. I said let me talk to my guys, I'll call you back. So I got off the phone, talked to my guys, and they said, what the heck we'll go. So Kevin came down, we put the car together....and that was it!

Can you share something from that first hot lap session?
DG: It was awesome! The first time I got in a non-winged car everything felt like it should, just how you drove it made sense!

Why the decision to stick with the Non-Winged deal?
DG: I think the first night, we started like 20th and run like 5th or 6th! We had so much fun, and I just threw it out there "wanna go next week" and they said "hell yeah!". Here we go, we're off again. We would never have dreamed to drive to Perris 20 times a year. If you would have asked my guys before that, they woulda told you no way!

I mean, you really have to do a lot of traveling to race with those guys. Do you drive to the races still?
DG: I did when I drove for Harlin in the #45 and in the beginning for Ron Chaffin. Now I just fly every week.

That first year is absolutely impressive. You finished 3rd in the points with 4 wins, on 4 different configurations. Perris, Williams Grove, Ventura and Manzanita. And you tore up the Perris clay to record the first sub 15 second lap in a non-wing car which still stands at 15.954 on Halloween night of all nights!
DG: Yeah, yep! It was pretty awesome! I'm working on breaking it again! Yeah, that was very cool.....

To date what would you say is the biggest win you have?
DG: The coolest venue, I gotta say the win at Williams Grove was pretty cool. We were pretty awesome there. It took a driving style and technique that was really fun. Personally, I would have to say mentally and driving. The race at Hollywood Hills, NM. I had to change things and do things different things to win that race, because as the race went along, I had to evolve during the race. Personally it was one of my favorites. I lead for a long time, then halfway through it, I got passed, and went all the way back to fourth. I had to figure a new strategy and I just never gave up and kept digging, and charged back to the front and won it. That race I had to do things a lot different. I ran harder than I've ever ran. I just felt I wanted more than anyone else.

It seems like you never give up or fall out of the saddle. You are just as strong at the end of the race as the beginning. Never give up doesn't apply to you.....
DG: Especially now with the #50 car, and at stages with the #45. The #20 was obviously a little more ragged just because I was trying to figure a lot of things out. We're at the point, where we're good EVERY night. I thought about this the other day, you can't win 'em all. You're going to get the 2Nd's you're going to get the 3Rd's their's going to be nights when your car isn't good enough to win, and you've got to figure out when that is. Trouble is lately, my car is good enough to win EVERY night!

Damion, what happened my friend when you were thumping the field and wadded her up at Tulare that year?
DG: One night I won at Perris and they said I just killed 'em. That night I was running 95% the whole time. The car was so good, I thought about looking up at my guys and see if I had a big lead then I realized, hey I'm not running that hard. I knew I was fast. Then their's the nights I'm running super hard and it's a lot of fun too. It's fun to be on the edge, you've got to find the edge to know where you can go to. If you never hit the edge how do you know what you can get away with? Sometimes you so wrapped up in the fun, which it's supposed to be fun, you get going so fast and you just realize how much fun it is! It's just so much fun running the car that hard. Every once in a while you make a mistake. I'm not saying I'm a daredevil, I just have fun out there.

Ever get scared?
DG: Their was a time in my career when it was hard to fly down the straightaway at Calistoga and haul it into the turn. A guy told Brad Furr at Calistoga one time, if you want to be fast, just put your left foot over the torque tube and hold the right one on the floor the whole time and you'll be quick. I remember doing that, just holding it on the floor and haulin' the mail! It's hard, sometimes your right foot slips up and you can't explain why. So yeah their was a time I wasn't that confident and wasn't that confident with the car. I realized once I started to get fast and won some races, I wanted to be SUPER FAST!!!! I just decided I'm either going to be fast, or crash. I would rather crash going to the front, than crash running around in the back.

You've done some racing out in the Midwest too.....
DG: Yeah, a little bit. We're spoiled out here with our track conditions. I have a big appreciation for those guys that can drive on those tracks.

How do you like running at the Chili Bowl?
DG: I like it! I haven't really got to be involved hands on with a Midget. I just show up and drive, but it's a lot of fun. You go there you drive hard, everybody's gotta drive hard! Yeah, it's a lot of fun, I enjoy it.

2003 you took the helm of the potent Harlin Willis #45 and racked up 7 SCRA main event wins. Did you feel any added pressure knowing Cory's success in that car?
DG: I don't know, the pressure to do as well as the guy before me has never crossed my mind. You've gotta be about winning races 'cause that's what I'm about. You know my style, it's a little different than some. If you want to ride around some nights and get good finishes I'm probably not your guy.

Then is 2004, legendary car owner Ron Chaffin hired you to wheel to the lil' red sucker. Can you put into words what it was like to be chosen to drive a car that has so much history behind it?
DG: It was a big honor. It doesn't really get any better than that. They've won a lot of Championships. They just have a understanding for what it takes to win.

What's it like to work with the great Bruce Bromme, Jr.?
DG: Bruce is the best! Some people think drivers are babies, they're this and they're that. Bruce just has a real understanding that if you have a good driver and the driver is happy, he will do things to make stuff happen that you can't believe! He knows the driver has to be happy, he always has good equipment, that's just a given. He takes very good care of the cars, maintenance is great and he doesn't let his pride get in the way.

In your first season together, I think some people started to wonder if Ron made the right choice. Stop #6 at Hanford on the USAC/CRA tour things began to click. You finished the season with 1 SCRA and 8 USAC/CRA main event wins, with a 2nd place finish in points. In your opinion, what brought the change?
DG: I was going to the shop every week racking my brain trying to figure out some things. The car didn't feel that good, I wasn't that confident with everything. I felt like I drove every lap as hard as I could and would only get a 5th. I felt like I just couldn't make it happen. Things that Bruce did for Richard weren't working for me. It's funny, me and Bruce got into little scraps. He told me I gotta drive it and I told 'em he's gotta fix it! (Damion Laughing) We had a talk one day, he was all about making me feel comfortable. We ran a coil sway bar EAGLE, ran second with it. Went back to the standard 4-bar car and just went out and killed 'em. When I got out of the car, I told him this felt like home, he said well let's order some up! At the end of the day it's all about winning.

Is Championship on your mind?
DG: It's always on our minds, the back of our mind. If I win a Championship, it's because I'm winning races. I'm not going to change my style and everything to win the Championship. If I win the Championship it's going to be the way I want to win it. It's going to be because we were the fastest and best car that year!

I see a pattern here Damion, I'm sure the fans do to. You just keep getting better and better......
DG: As you move up and up in levels of competition, it gets harder and harder. It takes 2-3 years. That's to put the team together, learn the car, and learn the specific skills to drive that car. It takes that long just to put the pieces together. And then if you have anything go along that interrupts that, then it might take a little longer. But for the most part I've been able put the plans together, within a few years of every type division, and wherever I'm at I'm able to run pretty good.

When you're strapping in, what are some of the things that are going through your mind?
DG: I've already done my pre-planning in the beginning of the week. I really don't think about a lot. I've already gone over how I'm going to change things in my driving, how I'm going to be calmer. I really don't like to think about anything.

So during the week you're already making a plan of attack?
DG: I'll think about maybe we have a good set-up at a certain track we're going to. If we try anything, what are we going to try, and what are going to be the effects of what we try. What do I need to change in my driving. If I have a bad race for instance, I will think about what went wrong, and what can I change to make that not happen again. You want to stop and think, and maybe you can do something different.

Have you always been such an intense person?
DG: Whenever I've done something I try to be the best. I was good at sports when I was younger, good at things I did, but never gave it my all. I used to be a wrestler in school, probably could have been way better if I would have put hard work and effort in it, but I was having a good time and wasn't really interested in that. When I decided to race, I decided I wanted to be one of the best. At the end of the day I wanted to look back and say I gave it my all!

What is your ultimate goal in racing?
DG: If I was just one of the best Sprint Car drivers, that would be alright with me. I look at NASCAR, and I have a understanding for how it works. From how you run the team to how you work on the car. The thought process that's involved. It makes me want to be there, because I really think I can do it. But then again, some days I'm down at Bruce's working at the shop, and we're having a good time, we're collaborating back and forth and things are going good. I'll stop and look around, and I will think, this is what it's all about!

Is their anyone you would like to thank?
DG: I just want to thank all the guys who have sponsored me or worked on my car. All those who have been involved with my first car to my last car. They always knew their role and did their role. Every one of them that was involved is a big part of why I'm here today, and who I am today. My parents. My dad taught me when I was younger, bottom line, if I wanted things and if you work hard, you get 'em. Kind of what I've always done. I wasn't always the smartest, I just worked harder at it. A special thanks to Brad Furr, he's always helped me along the way. I never would have been able to race without him.

OK buddy, thanks again and good luck on the rest of your year!
DG: Thanks, no problem!

*Unfortunately you can't get the full force of this interview. As myself and Damion ventured deeper into the interview, the more intense he got, especially when he talked about driving the car. Thanks for all the laughs my friend. This interview is dedicated to my 5 year old daughter Kyra, who claims "The Demon" as her boyfriend*

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