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Champion for Autism Awareness and two-time Great Race winner Rex Gardner passes

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Photos courtesy Tommy Lee Byrd and Great

The Vintage Car Rally Association (VCRA), The Great Race, Hemmings Motor News, and the Race for Autism lost a great friend and hero this week, with the passing of Rex Gardner of Grove, Oklahoma. Rex has been a fixture in The Great Race since 1984, the second year of the contest, and won the event twice driving a 1917 Hudson Indianapolis racer. In recent years, he has campaigned his flathead V-8-powered 1935 Ford coupe with his grandson, Kolton Hastert, as navigator.

While The Great Race was on hiatus for several years, Rex and two of his friends, Vic Thompson and Charlie McKinney, formed the VCRA as a way to keep rally racing enthusiasts in touch with each other and continue to race using the same time, speed, distance format.

When another of his grandsons, Justyce, was diagnosed with Autism in 2000, Rex became instrumental in raising awareness of the disorder and raising donations to help autistic children and their families realize a better quality of life through the generosity of others. To that end, Rex and the VCRA started The Mid-America All Star Rally & Benefit for Autism in September, 2006, and invited friends from previous Great Race rallies to participate. As teams were competing, Rex was able to raise over $20,000 for his charity. In 2007, Rex approached Hemmings Motor News publisher Jim Menneto about sponsoring a rally in Branson, Missouri. The 2007 Hemmings Branson Vintage Car Rally was a big success, and led to three other Hemmings Challenge events held from 2008-2010 in Rogers, Arkansas; Springfield, Missouri; and Bowling Green, Kentucky. Each gained new racers and also accumulated more generous donations for autism.

The VCRA continued to expand its reach by sanctioning additional regional rallies, like the Sugar Valley Rally in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska (beginning in 2008), and the Coker Challenge in Chattanooga, Tennessee (beginning in 2010). At each event, Rex continued to secure additional donations. When the Great Race returned in 2011, Rex and grandson Kolton participated in the event and raised funds for their Race for Autism charity. To date, Rex has been responsible for raising over $970,000 for autism and dispersing it to worthy organizations who focus on this issue. Well over $55,000 was raised during the 2019 Great Race alone, and Rex received the Great Race Spirit of the Event award for his fundraising efforts at the closing ceremonies in Tacoma, Washington.

Rex receives the Great Race Spirit of the Event award at the end of the 2019 running.

As if he didn’t have enough on his plate, Rex also started his race car building business, Flat Motor Research, in 2005. The company constructed and prepared rally racing cars and built engines for many other teams in the sport. Often, during rally races he participated in, Rex could be seen up to his elbows in oil and grease, helping fellow competitors get their cars running again so that they could show up at the starting line the next day. He was a military veteran as well, having served in the US Army from 1958-’61. Rex was also a drag racer and participated in local demolition derbies, too.

Before his passing, Rex assured his racing friends from his hospital bed that the 2020 All-Stars for Autism Rally in Springfield, Missouri will go on as planned, and his hope was to push his total of monies raised for autism over the million dollar mark. More information regarding his May 6th-10th, 2020 All Stars for Autism Rally in Springfield, Missouri can be found on the website.

The family is arranging a Celebration of Life for Rex on Saturday, November 16, at the Nichols-Stephens Funeral Home in Grove, Oklahoma. Those who wish to pay their respects are welcome at 10 a.m., with a memorial service at 11 a.m. A reception will follow at the local VFW Post 8360.

Hemmings Motor News extends our condolences to the Gardner family and thank them for loaning Rex to the Great Race and VCRA families for over 25 years.