The USAC boys put on quite...
The USAC boys put on quite a show for a packed crowd at East Bay's 3/8-mile oval during the Bubba Army Sprint Nationals in early February.
Under Kevin Miller's watch, USAC has made good progress in building its brand. He cut ties to the Gold Crown Series while starting the .25 Midget series for quarter midget racers around the country. While a good portion of last month's story concentrated on the Midgets, where Miller sees some of his bigger challenges, USAC still maintains its stable of Sprint, Silver Crown, and Focus series in addition to some others.
To the USAC faithful, this will come as little surprise. "I think the Sprint Cars are USAC's greatest asset," says Miller. But that doesn't mean there isn't opportunity. "410 wingless Sprint Cars, the car counts are great, demand is there, but that's dirt. USAC is one of the very few series that has a dirt and a pavement focus. The dirt side is healthy but the pavement side is weak."
The health of the dirt side was no more evident than in the recently completed Bubba Army Sprint Nationals at East Bay Raceway Park in Tampa, Florida. While the three day show battled one rain out and some chilly weather, a strong crowd and 30-plus cars showed up to throw down on the 3/8-mile clay track.
Levi Jones' hauler parked...
Levi Jones' hauler parked in the pits at East Bay Raceway Park for the Bubba Army Sprint Nationals, USAC's first visit to Florida since the 1980s.
"I don't think they've had (USAC) Sprints here since the early '80s at the fairgrounds," said reknowned radio host and event sponsor Bubba the Love Sponge. "Kevin asked me what my thoughts (about a USAC race in Florida during February) were, being somewhat involved in the Sprint community here, if this area would support wingless Sprints."
Growing up in Indiana, Bubba already had a love of USAC's wingless Sprints, so bringing them to the Tampa-area track was a no-brainer. "If you're a race car enthusiast, that's driving right there my friend," he says. "You don't have the luxury of the wing or the luxury of the spoiler; its 410 cubic inches on a 1,200 pound car. It's all about throttle control and getting the thing sideways. I knew for selfish reasons that I would like it and I thought I could get people to come out to support it as well. That was kinda my reasoning behind it.
"I grew up with USAC, a good friend of mine is in charge of USAC. I knew this area would support it, at least mildly, so that they'd be happy enough to come back for a second year. Weather issues aside, I think they'd consider what they did the first year a success."
One of the things that makes...
One of the things that makes USAC Sprint Cars so much fun to watch is the diversity of the racing platforms. Here is a Gaerte Engine...
Everybody we talked with at the track, from fans to drivers to car owners, thought it was a great show. "I think they have a ton of momentum to build on for the second year," continued Bubba. "Not only marketing wise but participation and people coming to the stands wise. Maybe that's enough to get people down here enthusiastic about wingless Sprints. It would be nice to see some people from Florida participate in the USAC arena."
With Bubba's help Miller and company booked East Bay, acting as both sanction and promoter. Something Miller says you'll see more of. "Like the case of the Bubba Army Sprint Nationals, we've booked our own tracks to get better venues," says Miller. "Going that route is something we're doing on the pavement side as well. In addition, we've contained the pavement side so we're not traveling very far to encourage car count. And we've done some things in the rules to control costs in the area of tires." As all racers know, tires and travel are two of the biggest line items on the ol' budget. By scaling back the distance traveled for pavement Sprinters, Miller and his management team can focus their efforts on building participation in that division.
"The state of Indiana has 200 dirt Sprint Cars and 30 or 40 pavement Sprint Cars," explains Miller.
While some may look at that disparity as a sign that pavement Sprint Car racing is a dying division, Miller sees it as an opportunity. And to that extent USAC has created individual championships for dirt and pavement. Don't worry, they're still crowning the National Sprint Car Champion. But these new titles will provide an opportunity for teams running either just a dirt Sprint Car or just a pavement Sprint Car to attain a level in USAC that they could not have previously done.
...next to a Kistler engi...
...next to a Kistler engine.
Miller calls it one of the key things they're going to do in 2010. So much so that they're doing it for the Midget Series as well. "Our Midget Series is similar, but not as weak on the pavement side," says Miller. "There are teams that run dirt, but there are also teams that really like the pavement. You see kids come up to the pavement Midgets because that's where they want to focus, they have aspirations to go to bigger pavement racing series. Both the dirt and pavement Midgets are strong. But you still have guys out there who can't afford to run two different cars. Hence the individual championships.
While Sprint and Midget are the marquee divisions of USAC, Silver Crown is a work in progress. "I think when we last visited, we just made the announcement that we were taking our new generation cars off the track," says Miller. "Bringing back the traditional Silver Crown cars has done a good job of bringing the car count back. But I think we continue to see a struggling with the definition of Silver Crown. It's a series that's full of tradition and I think it lost a lot of fan appeal when it went to the new generation cars, then back to the traditional cars. The question is how do we excite the crowd? We've got work to do in the Silver Crown series to reidentify what the series is and what the mission of our marketing is behind that."
A Real Challenge
Work being done to Jerry Coons...
Work being done to Jerry Coons Jr's car.
Between the three national series (Silver Crown, Sprints, and Midgets) USAC puts on 88 events. "Any other series-ARCA, Indy Car-they're really dealing with one major series. They may have a ladder system but they have their premiere series and premiere drivers and that's really their marketing thrust," says Miller. "At USAC we treat our Silver Crown, Sprints, and Midgets equally because they're not really a ladder to each other. Today, you have different competitors in those different series, people like Silver Crown, people like Midgets. Granted there are guys like Jerry Coons Jr. and Levi Jones who race in all three divisions but they're somewhat the exception rather than the rule."
Recognizing those racers who don't run all three, or even two, of those series is a real challenge. The recognition needs to be there in order to entice racers, more racers, to come run with USAC. It's a complex question Miller needed to answer.
"We looked at that and said how do we make a championship out of USAC where a guy with a dirt Sprint Car can have a chance to win this big championship? How do we take a guy with a pavement focus and get him the opportunity for a big championship, and how do we market those guys? We actually looked at the NASCAR weekly racing series which has a points structure that compares different cars and different tracks from all around the country."
In the background of the 2009 season Miller and his team did something nobody knew about. They took that NASCAR-style points structure and ran a parallel points system against their traditional points. What they found was eye opening.
Levi Jones puts a slide move...
Levi Jones puts a slide move on Brett Burdette during Night No. 1 of the Bubba Army Sprint Nationals.
During their November West Coast swing (from Nov. 1 to Dec. 1), the Top 10 in points changed dramatically. That led them down a path to create a new National Driver's Championship. The championship will work similar to the aforementioned weekly racing points and assign points against a driver's 25 best finishes out of those 88 national events. Now that doesn't mean you have to run all 88 events. Regardless of the number of events you run, only your best 25 will be counted toward this championship. Couple that with a $100,000 point fund and $40,000 going to the winner and that should generate some serious excitement.
"What it does is allows a guy, who may not, within his individual series, have a pavement and a dirt car to win a national championship," explains Miller. "You can win the driver's championship with just one car. To show you how strong that is, last year Bryan Clauson had an unbelievable season running a dirt Sprint Car; [he] didn't really run pavement and didn't really run the Silver Crown series. He would have won this National Driver's Championship had it been in place in 2009."
Miller speaks with tremendous excitement when talking about the Driver's Championship, a title USAC is treating as an equal championship. "It's not something that is going to be overriding all USAC divisions because we want to maintain the integrity of all USAC national championships. But this fourth pillar the driving championship will represent something equal. For example, a dirt Midget guy could win this championship, which is worth $40,000, where before the National Midget Championship only paid $10,000."
These are all things Miller and his team are doing to create a new movement at USAC, a club with a lot of tradition and history, but in need of some new excitement. Miller says that the new Driver's Championship will allow them to market more of their drivers to a wider fan base while putting drama into the end of their season.
Jerry Coons Jr. makes a move...
Jerry Coons Jr. makes a move to pass Hunter Schuerenberg.
A big step in the ability to put some marketing muscle behind these drivers is the addition of AmsOil as the title sponsor of the Sprint Car Series. The Superior, Wisconsin, synthetic lubricants manufacturer came on board in December.
"USAC came in as the sanctioning body for a series that we work with called TORC (The Off Road Championship), which AmsOil is the presenting sponsor of," explains Jeremy Meyer, AmsOil Race Program Manager. "There were perceptions of favoritism in off road in the past-sponsors pushing agendas, and so on. USAC came in with a blind notion of not being tied to anybody, and what I saw this last year was that perceived favoritism went out the door."
Miller's performance with TORC impressed Meyer enough to sign on the dotted line. "Watching them operate under stressful conditions (in TORC) and getting to know Jason (McCord) and Kevin over the year, I was very impressed with their professionalism and their ability to step back and see the big picture of everything and make fair, unbiased calls. That's why we came on board for three years. They have a good vision and we like things that have a lot of events and bring in a lot of people, but also have a lot of growth potential."
That vision, as Meyer sees it, is pretty straightforward. "They want to get back to being the top grassroots motorsports sanction in the U.S. At one time USAC was it, it wants to get back to that."
Ford Focus & the .25
Eventual winner Damian "The...
Eventual winner Damian "The Demon" Gardner about to pass Levi Jones.
Getting back to being "it" is all about the future. And the future of any sanction lies within gaining new and young racers, which has been a key concern for Miller since taking over USAC. To that end, in March 2009, USAC started a new division, a Quarter Midget series called the .25 Midgets. "That has really blossomed. In one year we've had 13 clubs sign on with USAC, primarily in the Midwest but a few in the South and a few in the West.
"Our first race was phenomenally successful. We had an event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that the people just raved about. We have a lot of momentum going into 2010 and now we just announced a 10-race championship for .25 Midgets which includes stops at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando.
The Disney connection is something that Miller should be really proud of, after all where else do 5- to 12-year-old kids who race want to go? Indy and Disney.
Bubba, a two-team owner in Quarter Midget racing, loves what Miller has done with the entry-level division. "There are two sanctioning bodies of Quarter Midgets," explains Bubba. "QMA is the NASCAR of Quarter Midgets, it never had any competition. Now, not only does it have competition, it has a really formidable competitor. USAC's come in and secured a race at Disney, secured a race at Indy, and done quite nicely."
Seven-year-old Tyler Clem...
Seven-year-old Tyler Clem is one of USAC's future stars currently running in its .25 Midget division. One of his goals for 2010 is to win USAC's new .25 Midget National Championship.
According to Bubba one thing with USAC that catches parents' eyes is that QMA only sanctions Quarter Midgets whereas USAC has four additional divisions where kids can move up to as they get older.
"When your kid hits 12 or 13 and doesn't want to do Quarter Midgets anymore, and he's been in it for 6 or 7 years, there's no other form of racing to move to in their sanctioning body (QMA). Whereas USAC has Ford Focus, Midgets, wingless Sprints, Silver Crown. USAC is a business of a racing company and I think that a lot of parents like that. Now I'm not saying anything bad about QMA, we race them both. But I think if Kevin can continue to market and grow at the rate he's doing now, it's a win-win for the racers because now we have two sanctioning bodies both of which do good things."
By creating the .25 Midgets, Miller has corralled a group of young racers who, when they're ready, can move up to the Ford Focus. "We've already sold four or five Focus Midgets in the last three or four months to Quarter Midget kids who have seen this USAC thing and have said, 'wow, we want to be a part of it,'" says Miller.
"We got into Quarter Midget racing to build our next generation of competitors and that's happening. That's been a good connection. The Ford Focus we see as thriving and will build over the next couple of years from that addition of the .25 midgets."
Damian Gardner was the big...
Damian Gardner was the big winner in the Bubba Army Sprint Nationals taking feature wins on both nights. Here, Bryan Clauson and Brady Short finished Second and Third respectively on night No. 1.
While things are certainly going well at USAC, there are still challenges. "They're all covered up and they really need another body in there to deal with us," says USAC veteran Jerry Coons Jr. As USAC has grown its competition base by more than 120 percent in 12 months it hasn't added staff.
"I am looking for a leader in engineering who can look at things like Midget motors and can say where do we have to go in 2013?" explains Miller. "What are the more economical engine platforms that can increase car counts and bring the cost down to $12,000? I'm looking for somebody who would be an at-track leader and an in-house leader. So I've got my eyes open but again being a non-profit...great engineers in Detroit make $150,000-200,000 a year, and we're not at that level."
Beyond adding staff to deal with internal technical issues Miller sees his overall biggest challenge to be establishing a common vision for their competition base and fans to move forward together. "I think the sport is very fractured. I think there's a lot of frustration that's all borne out of money. This sport costs a lot of money and all business owners are struggling, our sport is built by small business owners. Track owners are struggling. It used to be you could hang out a sign saying, 'hey, we're having a USAC race' and fans would show up; now they have to promote. So putting the common mission together that people understand that we have to work together to make this thing thrive is extremely important."
That said, Miller is candid about where he sits, "I'm happy on the business side of USAC, I'm not happy on the competition side of USAC. We've grown our competition base and we've financially met our goals. But competitors are looking for a strong-willed individual to be the key guy on the tech side and we don't have that internally right now."
What Others Are Saying
Reknown radio host, racer,...
Reknown radio host, racer, and team owner Bubba the Love Sponge, is shown here with his son Tyler, who races in the .25 Midget Division of USAC.
"Obviously, the model that was there was not working. You can't fix something that took 5-7 years to run downhill in 2 years, I don't think." says Coons Jr. "I think some of the changes they're making could be positive like the new Driver's Championship and some of them are going to be controversial like the rev limiters (on the Midgets).
"Overall, I like the direction they're going. The biggest thing holding them back is a major title sponsor. I think if they had that, they'd be able to accelerate what they're doing.
"Look at NASCAR, it wouldn't be doing what it's doing without Sprint or Nationwide. Now, AmsOil has come on board with the Sprint Cars but I'm talking about a multimillion dollar sponsor for the whole sanction."
Like Coons, Tony Stewart Racing driver, Levi Jones has a positive attitude toward USAC's new direction. "I'm excited to be a part of USAC now. The direction they're going now is the direction we probably should have gone when I first got into USAC in 2001. But better late than never."
"Kevin Miller has been a shot of good medicine for USAC," says Bubba. "He's very innovative. For example, he's the one who thought of the new Midget program, meaning competition to QMA."
As a sanctioning organization, USAC is also looking beyond the traditional open wheel oval track racing that most people are familiar with. It already has a partnership with TORC where it acts as the sanction and TORC does all the marketing. It is once again partners with Pikes Peak Hill Climb for 2010 and Miller promises there'll be more.
"You'll see the diversity of USAC unfold in 2010. Our website will have a new interface to show the diverse motorsports platforms that we offer and we'll start promoting more of the United States Auto Club like we did in the past when we had IndyCars and Stock Cars in our portfolio."
It's a philosophy he learned at Mopar-look in your past and you'll find your future. "So here at USAC we looked into our past and we used to be an auto club that sanctioned races. Why can't we do that again today?