Midget racing has been around...
Midget racing has been around since the '30s. Note the differences between these two car designs. Photo by Todd Ridgeway
Next to NASCAR and FIA, USAC might be the best-known sanction in the world. The Speedway, Indiana-based organization has a storied history with quite a story. The United States Auto Club, or USAC, was formed when the American Automobile Association (AAA) withdrew from auto racing following the infamous 1955 24 Hours of LeMans disaster in which 82 people were killed when a car crashed into the crowd. USAC effectively took AAA's place as the top sanction in the world for what they termed Championship automobile racing.
From 1956 to 1979, USAC sanctioned the United States National Championship; a title won by world-renowned drivers such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Al Unser Sr., and Tony Bettenhausen. But in those days the sanctioning body had a reputation of unpredictable rules enforcement, which eventually led to bad blood between the sanction and the car owners and drivers. It spilled over in 1979 when the lion's share of the teams competing in USAC's Championship Series broke away and formed their own organization, Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART.
While a lawsuit ensued over which organization had the right to use the word Championship, the fight eventually settled down. For the next 18 years, USAC sanctioned the Indy 500, as it had since 1956, while CART kept the race on its annual schedule.
Tony Stewart is one of several...
Tony Stewart is one of several USAC champions who have found success in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series. Courtesy of NASCAR
The peaceful coexistence ended in 1996 when Tony George started the Indy Racing League and split with CART, decimating big-time open wheel racing in the U.S. USAC became the sanctioning body for the IRL, but that only lasted until the 1997 IRL race in Texas. At that event, USAC officials errantly scored Arie Lyendyk two laps down, when in fact he won the race. The debacle, which included A.J. Foyt slapping Lyendyk in Victory Lane, was USAC's final racing event for the IRL.
USAC weathered its exodus from big-league open wheel racing just fine. As far back as the mid-'50s, USAC sanctioned the National Midget Series and the Sprint Car Series. In fact, they have crowned a champion in each of those series since 1956. They also added the Silver Crown Series in 1971. Originally, these series were feeders for the Championship Series. Today they are some of the most coveted championships in open wheel racing, and arguably, one of the best paths to the upper echelon of motorsports. Six of the last 10 NASCAR Nextel Cup Championships have gone to former USAC champions.
One of the reasons that you see a high number of USAC vets in the upper levels of NASCAR has to do with talent.
Brian Tyler shows off his...
Brian Tyler shows off his Silver Crown dirt car. Note the many differences between it and this pavement Silver Crown car shown below. Photo by Larry Kellogg
"You learn to be versatile racing in USAC," says four-time USAC Champion and defending Nextel Cup Champion Tony Stewart. "You race a 900-pound Midget, a 1,200-pound Sprint Car, a 1,400-pound Silver Crown Car on dirt and asphalt-three different types of cars on two different surfaces at tracks ranging from half-mile up to mile and a half. Because you have to constantly adjust to each one, it doesn't get you in a habit or pattern.
Habits and patterns can be bad and are easy to get into when you race just one type of car. The versatility that Stewart spoke of is the very reason that Nextel Cup owners continually look to USAC for their next superstar.
The bulk of today's USAC is made up of four series, each racing a different type of car on dirt and pavement. The Silver Crown cars are the big dogs running on tracks 1 mile and larger, while Sprint Cars usually race on tracks 5/8 mile and smaller. Midgets are the oldest type of USAC racer with designs dating back to the '30s, while the Ford Focus Midgets are the newest ones dating back to 2002. Let's take a closer look at each one.
There are two types of Silver Crown cars: a dirt version and a pavement version. The dirt car looks very similar to a Sprint Car but is actually much bigger. Tucked in the 96-inch wheelbase is a fuel tank that holds 75 gallons of methanol-plenty of juice to finish a 100-mile race sans pit stop. Silver Crown cars get their muscle from a 355ci American production-based engine that produces over 700 hp. Put that in a 1,500-pound car and you have a monster that is super quick and wildly nimble.
Switch over to pavement and you have a radically different animal. Introduced just last year, the pavement Silver Crown cars look like nothing you have seen before. It's as if a Sprint Car fell out of the sky and landed on top of a WKA Kart that had been injected with a massive dose of Balco's best steroid cocktail. The car and its design serves only one purpose: to launch USAC into the future and back onto the world stage.
"We wanted to take USAC open wheel racing to major venues across the country," explains President/CEO of USAC, Rollie Helmling. "We would never have had the opportunity to do that without the new-generation cars."
Tracey Hines slinging mud...
Tracey Hines slinging mud in his Sprint Car. Photo by Larry Kellogg
The cars were initially met with skepticism, which is evident when you watch them race. The final race of the season at Kansas saw just 13 cars take the green flag. Still, if they can get the car counts up, the Silver Crowns have the goods to put on a great show.
The cost of a new Silver Crown race car can run as much as $80,000 for a pavement car and a little less for a dirt one. While that is a lot of bread, the Silver Crown series is a premiere league where a championship often means a shot at the lucrative world of NASCAR. Previous Silver Crown champs who have hit the big time along with Stewart include Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, and J.J. Yeley.
Ironically, the little cousin of the Silver Crown cars, the Sprint Car, sports more horsepower (800) and a lighter weight (1,200 pounds). That adds up to an even gnarlier monster. Like the Silver Crown cars, Sprints run on pavement and dirt. However, unlike the Silver Crowns, the cars are hard to tell apart.
Matt Westfall wheels his Midget...
Matt Westfall wheels his Midget through a turn at Eldora. Photo by Larry Kellogg
In most areas of the country, these babies are powered by 410ci V-8 engines with aluminum blocks and cylinder heads. However, the USAC Western States Sprint Cars have a maximum of 360 ci. All the motors use fuel injection and methanol.
A typical Sprint Car costs between $50,000 and $60,000. Most teams have separate cars for pavement and dirt tracks, although you can run the series using just one.
Two and a half pounds per horsepower-now that is a power to weight ratio any motorhead could appreciate. Now check this out: If you are 5 feet, 10 inches tall (the average height for an adult male), then you are as tall as the wheelbase on a USAC Midget. According to the rules, the wheelbase must be 66 to 76 inches, giving a fair amount of latitude to car designs.
More latitude is found in the engine rules, which is terrific if you're the creative type. USAC Midget motors must be normally aspirated, internal combustion, four-cycle, piston type engines with a maximum of six cylinders. All engines are fuel injected and burn straight methanol. From there the sky's the limit. Have at it.
Only 4 years old, the Ford...
Only 4 years old, the Ford Focus Midget is USAC's wildly popular entry-level series. Photo by Larry Kellogg
Midget racing dates back to the '30s. In terms of the basic concept (slam as much power as you can into a teeny frame), little has changed. While they are designed for and race on oval tracks that are 1/2 mile and smaller in length, a USAC Midget can achieve over 150 mph on a 1-mile track thanks to a motor that produces 325 to 350 hp and a minimum weight of 900 pounds.
Although cheaper than a Sprint Car, a competitive Midget will still run you $40,000 to $60,000 without bells and whistles. Like the Silver Crown cars, the Midget alumni list reads like a who's who in motorsports: Gordon, Stewart, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Parnelli Jones, and Mel Kenyon.
Only 4 years old, the Ford Focus Midgets are perhaps USAC's most successful series. Of the 250 feature races USAC sanctioned in 2006, just over 100 of them where Ford Focus Midget events. The reason is simple-cost, or lack thereof. A competitive race-ready Ford Focus Midget will run you about $26,000. A brand-new complete engine alone is $8,995, while a rebuilt one will cost you a mere $3,995.
"It's a great incubator series," says Helmling.
USAC is known for producing...
USAC is known for producing some great racing action. Photo by Larry Kellogg
As you might guess, the cars get their name because they use the same motor found in the Ford Focus. The guts of the four-banger are no different from those running down the highway. But make no mistake: These engines get the job done, putting out 180 hp. All Focus motors come from S.C.R.E.A.M. (in California). They begin life as cast-iron blocks straight from FoMoCo. S.C.R.E.A.M. adds a traditional Hilborne-style fuel injection system, crank trigger, and a clutch with a starter, so these little gems are completely self-sufficient. As spec motors, the only things that competitors are allowed to maintain and calibrate are the fuel, ignition, and lubrication systems.
When partnering with Ford to create the motor, USAC wasgunning for a powerplant that would require rebuilding only once a year. They got more than they were expecting. "The motor is more durable than anyone expected," says Helmling. "We haveteams running multiple seasons without rebuilding."
Talk about cost control. Unlike other USAC series, the rules package of the Ford Focus Midgets make it necessary to run the same car whether you race on dirt or asphalt.
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.