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. The new regime at USAC parked the next generation pavement Sil
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 the core divisions of USAC, and one that is healthy according
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.
Tony Stewart Racing teammates Tracy Hines (right) and Levi Jones are excited about USAC's
The Gold Crown cars are tentatively slated to hit the tracks in 2010, but that will only be if the OEG, Miller, and the rest of the USAC brass are happy with the program.
"We are not going to force this program into being, just because of a specific date," Miller says. "We want to debut the Gold Crown program when it is ready and market conditions are correct. If that's 2010, great. We want to do it right, not just fast."
Meanwhile, Miller reverted the Silver Crown cars back to the the traditional formula, running them on dirt and pavement.
Like the Silver Crown cars, Sprints and Midgets both run on pavement and dirt. However, unlike the Silver Crowns, Miller tags the Sprints, as well as the Midgets, as two problem-free areas. "The foundation of what we have lies in the Sprints and Midgets," explains Miller. In fact, the 2008 Sprint and Midget seasons produced some of the closest racing in any form of motorsport with Cole Whitt beating out Tracy Hines for the Midget Championship by a single point.
This model of the new Gold Crown car, USAC's soon to be launched destination series, was o
The 6-year-old Ford Focus Midgets is the other division that needed attention from the new management team. The original concept for the Ford Focus Midgets was a cost effective entry level series where youngsters and new racers alike could begin their journey to the upper levels of USAC. While the whole economical package initially worked, costs outside of the engine began to escalate to the point where the division was getting away from the intended purpose.
As you might guess, the cars get their name because they use the same motor found in the Ford Focus. In the beginning, all Ford Focus engines were sealed motors from S.C.R.E.A.M. a California engine builder. However, an internal decision from Ford Motor Company moved that contract from S.C.R.E.A.M. to the reknowned RoushYates Engines, the North Carolina builder of championship NASCAR teams.
"Having RoushYates building the motors brings a credibility to the Focus program that we did not have before," says James Spink, another new hire for USAC. Spink, formerly with 600 Racing, serves as USAC's Developmental Series Director. The motors were, and still are, economical spec motors. "The engine is the one area of the Focus program where cost was not a significant concern," explains Spink. "We're looking at other areas that need attention to keep that series economical."
Steve Arpin won Rookie of the Year in the Silver Crown division behind the wheel of one of
As Spink works to bring those costs back in line he says there will be a lower division with the Focus Series for younger racers who are ready to move out of Quarter Midgets but aren't fully prepared for the Focus class. The Junior Focus program will feature the same Midget based cars but with an engine that has less power. How are they going to accomplish that you might ask? "A restrictor plate will be placed in the ram tube to slow the cars," says Spink. That will allow the younger drivers to get their feet wet in the Midget class of race car. The beauty of the program is that when these youngsters are ready for full-on Focus racing, they don't have to buy a new motor, just take the restrictor plate out and you are good to go.
Taking this grassroots concept to the next level brought Miller and Smith to the Quarter Midget world. Until this year USAC had not sanctioned Quarter Midget racing, the acknowledged first step for many racers. The newly named .25 Midgets run the same rules as the Quarter Midgets across the country, four wheel independent suspension, full rollcages, and so on. But the .25s fall under the USAC sanction, enabling local clubs to have all the benefits of working with a national sanction.
"It's nice to be able to work with a professional sanctioning body to help keep costs curtailed and be governed by stable, consistent rules and safety regulations," says Eric Rankin, President of the Northwest Ohio Quarter Midgets Assocation, the latest club to join USAC's .25 Midget program. "We are looking forward to cross promotion with other forms of racing and at other venues to help promote our club and the sport of Quarter Midget racing in general."
The Ford Focus engines are now built by venerable NASCAR motor builder Roush Yates Engines
And that's the point. "We wanted to bring a true entry level division to USAC's offerings," Miller says.
"It goes back to the idea of creating a complete ladder system. You start in .25 Midgets move up to Junior Focus, then to Ford Focus and evenutally graduating up the ladder to the Gold Crown cars," says Spink. The Junior Focus division will be tied to the .25 Midget clubs with an eye on keeping costs in line. That coupled with a strong marketing program will help Spink achieve his goal of developing a younger USAC, in other words bring more youngsters into the sport.
In the .25 ranks, all eyes are on next year's .25 Midget Nationals which will be held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from July 8-11, 2009. The event consists of three days of racing on a temporary course constructed in the garage area of IMS. Qualifying races for the .25 Midget Nats will be held in Tampa Bay, FL; Las Vegas, NV; and Toldeo, OH. A cool twist is that the event will be streamed to a live audience on www.usacracing.com if you can't make it to Indy. If you can, you'll be greeted by free admission. In all, hundreds of drivers aged 5-17 from across America are expected to compete.
A Junior Focus division with restricted engines will join the Ford Focus Midget ranks in 2
In the original press release, Johnny Capels, USAC Chairman, stated, "USAC is excited to start a new era with Kevin and Jason on board." That new era is embodied in Miller's philosophy which is somewhat different than the previous regime. He doesn't intend to follow anybody's lead or ride on any other sanctions' coattails. His vision is that USAC needs to be a true grassroots organization, bringing new fans into the sport, bolstering youth participation in the sport and becoming a more accessible sport.
"That's a challenge given the number of races we sanction, but I want it to be a major event when USAC comes to town," Miller says. "We have to promote our events, and put on exciting shows where the fans want to be there."
"When we came on board, the schedules and most of the programs were already in place (more than 70 dates between National Sprint and Midget alone)," Miller says. "Now we are looking at where improvements can be made to make our package more marketable and promotable, not only to racetrack owners and communities, but to sponsors as well."
In late 2008, USAC began sanctioning quarter midget racing like these for the first time.
One idea is to grant fans more access to the drivers and teams by creating an open pit area much like NHRA drag racing. "We want to engage the fans and one idea is to open the pits early so that fans can get an up close and personal look at the cars and teams," explains Miller. That's the kind of access that helped build NHRA and NASCAR into the powerhouses they are today.
Another is the USAC website, a completely interactive site that even has a My Space style section for the kids who race in the different divisions.
"I'm excited," says Levi Jones, who finished Second and Sixth in the 2008 Sprint and Midget standings respectively for Tony Stewart Racing. "And I think that is a general feeling among all of the drivers. I know Kevin from his days at Mopar and Jason from when he was here before. I think they'll do a good job. I like the direction they're going."
Jones' teammate, Tracy Hines, is also optimistic about the change in direction. "They haven't been here that long, but so far they're going in the right direction," says Hines, who finished Third in Sprint Car points and Second in Midget. "We've got one of the most exciting forms of racing. There needs to be more promotion and marketing, though. It (USAC) needs to work with the promoters of the tracks to really get the word out that we're coming to town."
If Miller and company can fulfill their vision, you could see leaner, meaner, more exciting wingless Sprint Car racing coming to your town in 2009. We'll check back with the boys at USAC in a year or so and see how they're doing.