E.J. Dolner, an old-school car guy who was a top auto racer, owner and mechanic for more than seven decades, died March 10 of a stroke, his family said. He was 88.
Mr. Dolner, who owned a Foothill Farms auto-repair shop for many years, won championships throughout the United States with sprint, midget and supermodified cars. He was well known and well traveled on the racing circuit, transporting his cars on an old trailer hitched to a 1976 Chevy van with more than 400,000 miles.
“He got an award at Marysville (Raceway Park) for having the ugliest trailer,” said his daughter Yvonne Wilch, who worked with him in the pits for years. “He just said, ‘No one ever won a race with a trailer.’ ”
Mr. Dolner owned and raced cars in the Midwest before settling in California in 1953. He was a pioneer at the legendary West Capital Raceway in West Sacramento and was active in the Central State Raceway Association and the Super Modified Car Owners Association.
He raced in the USAC Silver Crown series with champions Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Jimmy Sills. He was a fixture at speedways in Chico and Placerville, and his No. 7 wingless sprint car has been “the one to beat” at Marysville Raceway Park, his daughter said.
A top-notch mechanic, he spent hours tinkering and experimenting under the hood of his cars to improve performance. Beneath his gruff exterior was a generous, caring man who helped racetrack rivals diagnose engine problems and mentored young pit-crew workers.
“He was 88 years old and still went to the races every week and still built his own motors,” racing veteran Dave Duncan said. “He knew more about chassis and engines than most people would ever think of knowing.”
Born July 2, 1925, in Omaha, Neb., Emil John Dolner learned the nuts and bolts of auto repair and racing early. At 12, he wore several layers of clothes and oversized boots to appear older and sneaked into the pits at racetracks to look over the shoulders of the best mechanics of the day.
He served in the Navy during World War II and raced midget cars while working at a repair shop in the Midwest. He married his wife, Frances, in 1952, moved to Riverside and was a civilian ground-support supervisor for tankers, bombers and missiles at March Air Force Base. He settled in Sacramento in 1960 and owned Speedway Automotive on Auburn Boulevard.
Mr. Dolner had few interests outside of cars and racing. After many years in the sport, when he lacked a driver for his No. 52 sprint car, he put on the safety suit and helmet and took the wheel himself in 26 races.
“At Placerville (Speedway), the announcer called out, ‘E.J. Dolner, still alive at 65!’” his daughter said. “He was up for rookie of the year.
“I didn’t even know he was racing,” she said. “I went down the pit afterward and hugged him and told him I was his biggest fan. The first thing out of his mouth was ‘Don’t tell mama!’ ”
Mr. Dolner was a Carmichael resident. Besides his wife of 61 years and his daughter, he is survived by his son Mark, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A celebration of his life is set for 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Bill McAnally NAPA Auto Care Center, 900 Riverside Ave., Roseville.