The new-generation Silver...
The new-generation Silver Crown pavement cars can top 195 mph at tracks such as Kansas Speedway, a 1 1/2-mile tri-oval. Photo by Bob LeSieur
While acceptance of the new Silver Crown car has been slow and the Sprint Cars have held steady, USAC's biggest success has been with the Ford Focus series. And that is having a major effect on the Midgets. After a period of decline, Midget racing is making a resurgence, and Helmling attributes it directly to the Focus: "These guys who run the Focus Midgets want to move up, and when they do they move into the Midgets." The increased growth in Midget racing is evidence that the Focus Series is doing exactly what USAC intended by providing an entry-level open wheel series.
"It is a great bridge from the Quarter Midgets or go-karts to the full-sized Midgets," continued Helmling.
The biggest challenge for USAC is continuing to elevate the entertainment value for the fans. One of the ways that is accomplished is through the delivery of a successful racing product. As a sanction, it has a bottom to top plan that begins with the Focus and ends with the Silver Crown. The Focus series is in good shape and continues to grow.
Aaron Pierce strapping in...
Aaron Pierce strapping in for the Silver Crown event at Kansas, which he would win. Photo by Bob LeSieur
The trick for 2007 and beyond is boosting the participant numbers in the pavement Silver Crown cars. USAC has tapped that car as its crown jewel, but its inaugural season fell short of expectations. "The car count wasn't what anybody expected or wanted," says Competition Director Owen Snyder III. "But the participants that did get involved were fairly happy with the product."
"I was one of those guys who was totally against them," says Bud Kaeding, a six-year veteran of USAC racing. But his mind changed soon after he strapped in: "I ran Second at Phoenix and had a lot of fun driving the cars. They-the new cars-are a lot more fun to drive than the old Silver Crown cars because it's really up to the driver to get the car around the track." From that Phoenix race, Kaeding went on to win the 2006 Silver Crown Championship.
It seems that the biggest problem with the Silver Crown cars is getting the word out. "Our car counts weren't there this year," continues Kaeding. "But that will come. I think a lot of people waited to see if it was going to be around for the long term."
2006 Silver Crown champion...
2006 Silver Crown champion Bud Kaeding prepares for the Kansas Speedway race. Photo by Bob LeSieur
"We decided to sit back and watch and see how it develops," says Stewart, who fields race teams in both the National Midget Tour and the National Sprint Tour, but opted out of Silver Crown for 2006. "We haven't discounted it; we're considering it. I really like the concept behind it. It gives the drivers and USAC great exposure. It's going to grow and get bigger as time goes on."
To help spurn that growth, USAC is relying on NASCAR. By running Silver Crown races (e.g., the Kansas event) in conjunction with Nextel Cup weekends, USAC exposes the drivers, teams, and sponsors to a wider audience and potential new fans, and gets their cars on bigger racetracks. Bigger tracks equal more excitement. For example, the Silver Crown cars cruised around the 1 1/2-mile Kansas Speedway almost 20 mph faster than Kasey Kahne's 178-mph pole-winning speed. With bigger car counts, that type of racing could easily grow into some of the most exciting in the land.
Helmling is emphatic that thenew-generation Silver Crown Cars are here to stay and is paying careful attention to the marquee series. In 2007, they are starting the season later (March) in order to give more teams more time to prepare more cars. In addition, they are working to increase the Silver Crown schedule for both dirt and pavement by a minimum of one and possibly two races. With venue numbers increasing and positive responses from drivers like Kaeding, the Silver Crown series should attract more participation in 2007. That additional participation should translate into better racing, which elevates the appeal to the fans.
NASCAR star J.J. Yeley continues...
NASCAR star J.J. Yeley continues to compete in USAC events when time allows. Courtesy of NASCAR
USAC, as a whole, has the formula for success-a strong entry-level series that feeds talent into the upper series. They are continually turning out top-flight talent that is hitting the big time. At the same time, USAC's wide variety of cars affords racers the opportunity to enjoy a motorsports career without ever leaving the sanction.
"There were enough races in USAC where I could quit my job and drive for a living," says Stewart
Think USAC is just about open wheel cars? Wrong. The sanctioning body actually goes well beyond just the four main series. While USAC may no longer sanction the Indy 500, they still have a big presence at the Brickyard. Each year in July, the Formula 1 cars race on Indy's road course under the USAC sanction in the U.S. Grand Prix. In addition, they are involved in sanctioning rally racing through the United States Rally Championship.
USAC also is the U.S. certification representative for F.I.A. So, if you're heading to the Bonneville Salt Flats to attempt a land speed record, USAC will be there to certify the results.
They also certify a significant amount of automotive test data. For example, 16 USAC personnel just completed a 35-day test in Laredo Texas at Chrysler's testing facility. They were there to certify the results of a 100,000-mile test of Mercedes' new E-Class diesel.
With such a wide presence, USAC truly goes from the county fair to World's Fair.