Sunday, March 18, 2001

Gus Hoffman was racing legend, good guy

By Terry Flynn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I said goodbye to an old friend this weekend. Gus Hoffman died Wednesday. I don't think I'm alone when I say he was an auto racing legend in the Greater Cincinnati community of drivers, mechanics and all the rest of us who love motor sports and automobiles.

        His daughter, Jean Schmidt, called to give me the sad news, and I realized after I'd given my condolences to her that the empty feeling in my gut was the same sense of loss hundreds of people who had been lucky enough to know Gus would experience.

        Gus was 90, and I'll settle for that myself. He knew auto racing from the real “early days” when it was all guts and glory and every driver knew how to replace a burned piston or rebuild a transmission.

        I guess that's why I enjoyed just about every minute I spent with the hawk-nosed gray-haired man everyone knew as “Old Timer.” He genuinely enjoyed the sights and smells and the good and the bad of auto racing. He'd seen it all, and he was always ready to pass on his knowledge, along with a few great stories, anytime you showed up at the garage behind the white house out there in Miami Township.

        I first met Gus, along with his wife, Jeanette, sons, Dick and Tom, and the twins, Jean and Jennifer, in the early days of Hoffman Auto Racing's efforts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1973 I think. He was outspoken and more than a little gruff at times, a man who knew what he wanted and how he planned to get there. After I'd conducted one long interview for a feature story, we both knew we would be friends. With Gus, it was that kind of relationship.

        He was a self-made man, a successful businessman who made his share of money building homes and running lending institutions, coming through the depression and World War II wiser for each experience. But there was absolutely no pretense to him. He didn't like to wear a tie, and did without a suit coat whenever possible. His friendship was the same, regardless of your station in life.

        I was happy to find out Friday night that he would be buried in the red, white and blue pit crew uniform with the big letters “KROGER” across the chest he had worn so many years before at Indy when the supermarket chain was a sponsor.

        “It just seemed like that was what he would want,” Dick Hoffman said. No doubt about that.

        If you showed up on a Wednesday night while Gus and Dick and the crew were thrashing over a race car, the first thing you had was a beer in your hand from that refrigerator in the back.

        For Gus, auto racing was USAC midgets and sprint cars. Dick, his eldest son and partner, didn't have to drag him into the Indy Car years, but it took more than a little nudging. Typically, once he was there, it was all out racing and working within the local business community to find sponsors like Kroger, American Financial and Schoenling Brewery. I still have a racing team baseball cap in a closet somewhere that says Schoenling Little Kings and Hoffman Auto Racing.

        Working more often than not on a tight budget, especially compared to his racing peers and friends like Roger Penske, Gus and Dick still put a first-class race car on the line for nearly a dozen years at the Brickyard. A couple of times the girls were praying in the pits as drivers like Larry “Boom Boom” Cannon and Jerry Sneva made 11th hour, hang-it-out runs to squeeze into the 33-car Indy 500 field. Man, that was fun, especially afterward in the Gasoline Alley garage when everyone could laugh and forget the tension of just minutes earlier.

        He loved old cars, and had a huge barn full of relics from the very earliest days of automobiles up through the 50s and 60s. After retiring from the savings and loan business, he spent a lot of happy hours working to restore those pieces of rolling auto memorabilia.

        Gus is in the Sprint Car Hall of Fame and the National Automobile Racing Hall of Fame. Legendary drivers like A. J. Foyt and Troy Ruttman drove his midgets 50 years ago. But he was probably more proud of his grandson, Rob, learning the race car business and keeping the spirit of Hoffman Auto Racing alive for another generation.

        So long, Old Timer. Save a spot in the pits up there for me.


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