Kyle Conaway doesn't run USAC, but his team and ones just like it are being targeted by Ke
Toward the end of January 2008 Kevin Miller was appointed the head of USAC, the 50-plus-year-old sanction that was formed when AAA got out of the auto racing business. By many accounts, Miller and the other new hires, including Jason Smith and James Spink, inherited a hornet's nest of problems. Fixing them and moving the sanction forward would be a challenge to say the least. Several months after Miller and company took over, Circle Track sat down with the former Mopar Brand Strategist and got his take on those challenges and how he was about to tackle them (April '09 Circle Track). With the dawning of a new decade, we thought it would be the perfect time to ring up his Speedway Indiana office and check on how the series is doing.
First up on Kevin's mind was his impending trip to East Bay Raceway Park for 2010 Speedweeks. Miller had inked a deal for a three-day show at the 3/8-mile clay oval just outside Tampa, Florida.
USAC young gun Dakota Armstrong at Toledo.
"I am very excited to be back in Florida. Getting back into that Speedweeks environment is very important to us to grow our brand," says Miller. "The dates (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights) aren't ideal but they were in one of the sweet spots we looked at. The Outlaws end on Sunday at Volusia and the All Stars start on Thursday at East Bay."
Despite that sweet spot between the two competing winged dirt Sprint sanctions, Miller couldn't convince East Bay management to take the gamble on USAC. So, he did.
"This is not a track promotion, this is a USAC promotion," explains Miller. "We're renting the track, we're paying the purse. The track liked the idea a lot but didn't want to take the gamble so we're taking the gamble even though we don't normally promote races."
Bobby Santos (outside) and Damien Gardner (71) at Toledo in USAC Sprint Car action.
Becoming the promoter of record is something new that USAC has been doing to really expand its racing product. "Our first promotion we ever did was Calistoga in 2008 and it sold out two nights in a row. We're trying to build events not just races. This Tampa thing is a fresh one we can get people excited about."
Miller's goal for Tampa? "It was kind of an off time and with Daytona being down there, there may be some opportunity to capitalize."
More Than USAC
When asked if he thought more sanctions would get into the promoting end of the business Miller was quick to say that he did. "What I see happening is the economy hitting the small businesses the most. And racing is full of small businesses. Our soft spot for booking races is more on the pavement side. Dirt Sprint Cars, dirt Midgets...we've got plenty of tracks that want those events. But on the pavement side it's a little more soft."
The Keith Kunz Motorsports team at Toledo.
USAC found that promoting more pavement events strengthened its overall schedule. So it's gone out and rented premium venues like O'Reilly Raceway Park, which is right in its backyard of Indianapolis. Three Thursday night Sprint Car shows yielded a good crowd and solid car count. In a similar promotion the sanction rented the Indianapolis Speedrome and brought Midget racing back to that facility.
"We're doing some creative things. We just can't sit back and watch our tracks fold up. One of our premiere tracks folded this past year and that was Manzanita in Phoenix (AZ). To find those venues is becoming a challenge, so we've had to step up and take the gamble not only for the fans but the competitors. We're trying to rebuild pavement racing."
So How Does A Sanction Raise Car Count?
"Great question. I have a strong belief that competitors want to race with you for the excitement you provide them. When we race in front of 5,000 to 10,000 people it's a lot more exciting than racing in front of 200-300 people. So what we want to do is work on our show. We made it a challenge at USAC internally for 2010 that 'it's about the show stupid.' We want to work on what our show is beyond racing."
Jerry Coons Jr. (69) and Bobby East (5) at Toledo.
That philosophy will permeate every aspect of USAC's behind the scenes thinking this season and presumably beyond. It's a philosophy that is borne from a completely different form of motorsports.
"I have two examples for you," says Miller. "Take monster trucks, they used to race side by side. Then they evolved their show into half racing and half freestyle. This year they are doing just freestyle, no more racing.
"My other example is from the same company-Nuclear Cowboys is an indoor freestyle motorcycle show. It's a choreographed show that takes weeks of rehearsals to get just right. In either case these guys are putting 80,000 people in their stadiums."
"So, to me a sanctioning body needs to become more of an entertainment company. At the end of the day we're competing for that entertainment dollar. We can easily look over at other venues and see that there is a lot of show around the event. And that's what we have to work on at USAC. We have to look beyond the fact that we have the officials and the tech and waving the flags and following rules. The fans are there to see a show, we have to worry about what happens outside of the racing."
Car counts at certain tracks like Eldora Speedway shown here have been perenially strong.
Doesn't That Approach Alienate The Hard-core Fan?
"From a sanctioning body you have to look at it from two perspectives. This sport is all about innovation; our competitors work hard to innovate and make their cars faster. On the other hand, you have to look at what's healthy for the sport especially in terms of car count. You can't allow a select few parties to come in and outspend everybody. That's what NASCAR and IndyCar have done. And I said we have to have common sense over the long-term to make sure we have healthy fields because at the end of the day fans want to come see a full field of cars. They don't want to see a short field of cars. So as a sanctioning body you have to be aware of the economics of your sport.
"Take for example, Midget racing today, you've got a sport out there that you have $30,000 to $40,000 motors, you have $6,000 to $8,000 rebuilds and these are four-cylinder motors. They have harmonics that are, quite frankly, difficult to keep healthy from a longevity point of view. There are a lot of issues in Midget racing today but when you're running for purses that pay $2,000 to win and $200 to start and you're putting a $40,000 engine out there as your main asset on the track we see car counts at big tracks plummeting."
Brad Kuhn (17B), Kevin Swindell (67), and Cole Whitt (outside) race for position at Toledo
Why And What Are You Doing About It?
"The big tracks eat motors and we hear guys saying 'I am not going to go out there and risk my biggest asset in my program for $2,000 to win.' We see that. So in an effort to combat it we had a meeting last July with every major engine manufacturer: Toyota, GM, Ilmor, Pink. We gathered them to talk about Midget racing, dwindling car counts, the frustration of teams, and so on.
You look at their purse and the promoter can't peel out more because the fan base isn't there. So you can see both sides of it. How do we look at the sport and adjust the economics to have balance and longevity? That's what we (USAC) are doing in Midget racing today, we're looking at a short-term solution and a long-term solution. One of the short-term solutions we are looking at is rpm limiters. Midgets have historically been different engine packages-VW, Cosworth, Pontiac, a lot of guys even cut a V-8 in half and make a four-cylinder out of it. So what you've got is a rule package that is very diverse, based on one thing, cubic inches. And over the years there's been the Midget engine of the year, the flavor goes up and down as people look for that advantage.
"As a sanction we're looking at it saying that this sport has gotten out of hand. How do we control that today? If you look at the Midget rules around the country which primarily follow the USAC rule book, you've got pushrod engines, you've got over head cam engines and they try to equalize them by cubic inches, but cubic inches alone don't really control the competition. If you look at every major sanctioning body out there they have either an rpm limiter or a gear rule in order to keep the competition level with some common sense guidelines."
Bobby East (L) and Father Bob East (R) at Winchester.
The Rev Limiter
"We're right now working with Ilmor Engineering in Detroit to develop a rev limiter for Midgets that would be universal and could be put on any engine package," continued Miller. "Then the rpms would be dictated by the engine package. It wouldn't be a common rpm across the board because we have over head cams which by nature have less torque than a pushrod engine so they may need more rpms. We're going through some equalization formulas to find what those limits should be. For that long-term view of the sport, rpms cost money. If you run an engine at 9,500 rpm, the rebuild frequency is much higher than if you run that same engine at 8,500. Those are the kinds of things we're looking at to help lower the costs for our competitors. When you have a $6,000 to $8,000 engine rebuild and these guys are rebuilding every five or six races and yet they're racing for $2,000 to win, common sense says something is wrong. We've got to look at how we better control the economics of the sport."
Is The Solution A Common Template For A Race Car?
"I understand the commonization of the cars i.e. the NASCAR COT (Car of Tomorrow), but we like diversity and quite frankly one of the reasons we're looking at rev limiters is to keep diversity in the sport, so you can continue with innovation of different engine platforms and you don't have a spec engines. Rpm limits are a way to control some of that."
Levi Jones is one of the premiere USAC racers of today and the future.
Have You Looked At EFI?
"That is something that definitely is in our interest level for the future. Today Midget racing has a lot of purpose-built motors that are upwards of $30,000. We think the only way to drive the price of the engine way down, which should be in the $12,000 range, is to look in what's in your current production OEs, the 2.4-liter platform. Almost every OEM out there-Honda, Hundyai, GM, Ford, Chrysler, and so on-has a stock 2.4-liter in its portfolio. I think long-term we may be looking at that platform with EFI as your solution where Midget racing needs to go to be healthy."
Is This Sport Headed Toward EFI?
"I think one thing that you look at is what the youth are into. A major difference in what the youth are into today versus the '70s is back then you'd get internally into the engine, changing the cam, valvetrain, and so on. Today's kids are into computers and tuning, so if you look at where you want to activate and where you want to get your new competition base from it's in computers.
"We lost a generation of competitors to online gaming, and we're going to have to get them back on their terms not our terms. I have a 17-year-old son who plays Warcraft and Halo in his room all weekend long. We've got to get them playing with cars again."
Dave Darland watches as crew prepares the car for Winchester action.
What About The Existing Fan Base?
"If we stick to just the diehard guys it doesn't take a rocket scientist to look into the grandstands and seeing the aging of your fan base. When I ran marketing at Mopar, one of the greatest words of wisdom came to me from a new boss. She was a female who knew nothing about racing. When we first started talking about the Mopar brand, she looked at me and said 'who will be your brand loyalist 20 years from now?' And that woke me up. We were a musclecar brand and it prompted me and my brand people to study the brand from the perspective of kids. So we spent a week in California literally talking to kids in parking lots who belonged to car clubs and it was eye opening. Many of them didn't know or care what the Mopar brand was. I learned a great deal that week and what I learned was that they didn't want to be like their father and they wanted to create their own identity.
Part 1 Conclusion
When we sat down to talk with Kevin the story was originally supposed to be contained within a single article. However, after a 90 minute chat we quickly realized that covering everything discussed was going to take more than one issue of the magazine. So we split it into two. In Part 1 of our two-part USAC review, Miller gave us insight into where USAC is headed both from a philosophical point of view as well as some practical applications. Next month we're going to delve into the state of the Sprint Car, Silver Crown, Focus, and .25 Series. In addition we'll talk Green Racing, gaining new sponsors and the strengths and weaknesses of the series. Plus we'll talk with some of the guys running in these series to get their take on the State of USAC. Stay Tuned.