Press Release

Remembering Jerry Gappens

(Story by Dave Argabright)

(ROSSBURG, OH – June 17, 2024) The raucous crowd was excited as they readied themselves for the 30th running of the Late Model Dream at Eldora Speedway on June 8. Race cars inched forward in the staging area and people milled about in the concourse behind the grandstand and in vendor row.

High above it all, in the official’s tower centered along the main grandstand, a chair sat empty. Despite the euphoria of the coming race, despite the festive surroundings, despite the beautiful June evening, there was something—someone—missing.

Jerry Gappens.

Jerry died unexpectedly on May 28 of complications following a medical procedure. Serving as Eldora Speedway General Manager since 2022, Jerry led the speedway through crucial post-pandemic seasons and was named 2023 Promoter of the Year in the 410-in sprint car class by the National Sprint Car Poll.

In the days following Jerry’s passing the motorsports community responded with waves of heartfelt tributes. From industry leaders to everyday fans, people spoke of Jerry’s deep passion for the sport and his caring, kind nature.

The big man with the big heart had a long, great run, and he touched countless people along the way.

From the beginning, Jerry was a race fan. That fundamental love for the sport carried him through his 40-plus years in motorsports. He began racing sprint cars at Kokomo Speedway as a teenager, just a few miles from his family’s home in Windfall, Indiana.

While attending Ball State University in early 1981, Jerry decided to mail a job application to Chris Economaki of National Speed Sport News.
That decision would have a profound impact on the arc of Jerry’s life, as Economaki soon called and arranged an interview. Chris hired Jerry for the position of Advertising Specialist and he began work with the June 17, 1981 issue of NSSN.

Jerry often laughed as he recalled those early days. He knew nothing about advertising, or publishing. But he was eager and ambitious and he learned much under Economaki’s tutelage. In due course he rose to become Operations Manager at NSSN.

In 1992 Jerry headed south to join Speedway Motorsports as senior VP of events and marketing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In 2008 he was named general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway where he served until leaving the Speedway in 2015.

In 2018 Jerry decided to come home to Indiana, where he began promoting the weekly show at Gas City/I-69 Speedway. It was a major life change for Jerry, a step back to his roots. After four seasons at Gas City, Jerry joined Eldora as General Manager.

Whether he was leading one of the most significant speedways in the nation or promoting a grassroots Friday night program at a small dirt track, Jerry’s dedication, determination, and attention to detail never wavered.

Fans spoke in awe of how Jerry greeted them personally at the track campground, or how he stood at the exit gates at the end of the night thanking fans for coming. It was a personal, old-school style of promoting that will never go out of style.

The most significant element of Jerry’s life was his affection and respect for his fellow man. He was a supporter, an encourager, a cheerleader. With positive words and actions, he built people up. He used patience and a soft voice to deal with conflict, and he made everyone feel important.

I’ll confess to some personal bias as I describe Jerry Gappens. I’ve known Jerry for more than 40 years, and our respective career paths were often in parallel. I was an occasional contributor to NSSN in the early days of Jerry’s tenure there. One day in late 1987, sitting across a lunch table from Jerry, he and Associate Editor Keith Waltz invited me to begin writing a column in NSSN. The very thought was intimidating; NSSN was the largest and most influential racing newspaper in the nation, and I was an inexperienced writer still struggling to learn his craft.

With Jerry and Keith’s encouragement, I agreed to give it a try. It was ultimately the most significant step in my professional life, and it happened only because Jerry and Keith believed in me. It is impossible to repay someone for such an important act, but I am eternally grateful.

As time passed, I realized I was just one of many people who were affected by Jerry’s kindness.

A story was told at Jerry’s funeral service of the day at Charlotte Motor Speedway when basketball superstar Michael Jordan was on the grounds. Jerry stood talking with Jordan and a couple of other men, including the man who mowed the grass and kept the grounds at the speedway. Spotting a family member nearby, Jerry waved him over. Jerry introduced him to Jordan and the groundskeeper—with equal respect. He made the groundskeeper feel just as important as Michael Jordan—an act never to be forgotten by the man.

That was the Gappens way. His world was one in which all people are important, worthy of respect—and yes, worthy of love.

This was plainly evident in the days following Jerry’s death. Social media was filled with personal anecdotes from fans and colleagues, telling stories of generosity, kindness, and friendship. With his easy laugh and the twinkle in his eyes when he smiled, Jerry was a warm ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.

It’s painful when our friends leave us much too soon. We are left with our memories, and gratitude for a friendship that spanned a great many years. Jerry’s life was one of impact and meaning, especially among the people he touched along the way. All of us are left to contemplate the life of a great human being, a man whose life was defined by accomplishment, meaning, and love.

RIP, Jerry. Racing people from across the land will never forget your great leadership and kind heart. You made the world a much, much better place.