Steeped in history, yet bogged down by several major issues, USAC was at a crossroads a little over a year ago. So, their Board of Directors made a change at the top in order to bring the 53-year-old sanction into what was termed a "new era."
The Board tapped Kevin Miller as the new CEO and President of USAC, while naming Jason Smith to the position of senior vice president of Racing Operations. Miller came to USAC from Chrysler after a 23-year stint in the automaker's Performance Parts and Motorsports division. Most notably, he led the development of Mopar's initial V-8 aluminum block, which today can be found powering many USAC teams. And in 2002, Miller led an initiative to relaunch the Mopar brand, which included building strong brand ties to Tony Stewart Racing.
In contrast, Jason Smith actually worked for USAC from 1998 to 2005 as its National Series Coordinator. Smith left the sanction in 2005 to form the Premier Racing Association, not coincidentally, it was the same time that the ill-fated new pavement Silver Crown car came into being at the push of the then-leadership of USAC.
A Silver Crown car on dirt....
A Silver Crown car on dirt. The new regime at USAC parked the next generation pavement Silver Crowns and went back to the original formula for the division Todd Ridgeway
Miller and Smith inherited a sanction with a strong core but some serious challenges, especially in a faltering economy. Remember, when these guys took over, gas was just beginning its meteoric climb into the stratosphere. 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 one 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 1930s while the Ford Focus Midgets are the newest ones dating back to 2002.
One of the biggest challenges for Miller and Smith was found in the Silver Crown division. When they came on board, there were actually two types of Silver Crown cars, a traditional version and the next generation pavement version. The traditional car looks very similar to a Sprint Car, but is actually much bigger-1,500 pounds versus the 1,200-pound Sprint Car. Miller says that there really isn't a major issue here. Switch over to pavement and you have a different story. Introduced in 2006, the pavement Silver Crown cars look like nothing you've seen before. It's as if a Sprint Car fell out of the sky and landed on top of a WKA Kart. The car and its design was to serve one purpose, and one purpose only, to launch USAC into the future and back onto the world stage. (See story in February 2007 Circle Track.)
Sprint Cars on dirt, one of...
Sprint Cars on dirt, one of the core divisions of USAC, and one that is healthy according to new President and CEO Kevin Miller. Bob Hesser
The idea was to ride the coattails of NASCAR and use this next generation pavement car as the hook to expose NASCAR fans to USAC racing. Races were scheduled as a companion to the Sprint Cup Series at selected tracks around the country. But the car and concept was met with skepticism and low car counts. Ultimately, it didn't work. However, there was still interest among the car owners and drivers who first committed to the division.
With that in mind, Miller's first step was to park the next generation Silver Crown cars and form an owners' exploratory group. In essence, the OEG, as it's being called, was formed to examine and determine if the original spirit of the next generation cars was a viable business model. As it was originally, the idea is to create a destination series within USAC. "We want USAC to include a complete ladder system from entry level division all the way up to the premiere division," says Miller. The destination series would ultimately be the final stop on a driver's road to the Indy 500. In essence, USAC would be the ultimate training ground for North American Open Wheel racers.
The OEG chose to rebadge the program as Gold Crown to differentiate it from the Silver Crown cars. They also spent more than a year redesigning the body and look of the original next gen car. Designer Bruce Ashmore stands proudly in front of a model on display in USAC's booth at the December 2008 Performance Racing Industry trade show in Orlando. "We really refined the lines to make it appealing to the fans. The power plants remain the same as the current Silver Crown cars, but we were really going for a look all its own." The design is light years ahead of the boxy cars that first appeared on the scene in 2006.