Twenty Ways To Win A Championship (part 1): 1978
An Outlaw Champion?
Motor racing, perhaps more than any other sport, has developed a special liking for the points championship, and it's not really difficult to see why: unlike most other competitions, the outcome of a motor race will always depend on some form of chance, because there is just so much that can go wrong in a device of such complexity as an engine, to say nothing of the various hazards in chassis design to go with the on-the-edge action of a fast-paced multi-competitor sport. Even the very best in racing, be they constructors, mechanics or the drivers themselves, have a moment of weakness every once in a while, with sometimes catastrophic consequences for that particular event (and the cheque book!), so that the term "failure" cannot always be applied without a footnote, so to speak. To eliminate those footnotes, points championships offer an (almost) ideal way to "even up" performances over a period of time, usually (and conveniently) a year, so that it is possible to say that this or that driver/team/constructor was the most successful over the given period, without resorting to a potentially endless string of single race results that will always be open for interpretation. True, so is the points championship in itself, but it at least offers the chance for everybody to compete on equal terms, and make up for the mostly inevitable failure that happens every once in a while. Ignoring, for the time being at least, the various pitfalls and inadequacies that are almost invariably part and parcel of the concept of the points championship, this can only be seen as advantageous for everybody involved: the competitors, fans and press alike.
To some, the idea of an "Outlaw Champion" is an oxymoron, as the "true spirit" of the "outlaw cherry picker" is considered to be that of a wholly independent, somewhat restless loner, who doesn't follow one particular path or direction, but that is to ignore the actual motivation for that line of behaviour ... which is money! This is not to say that the typical Outlaw is an especially greedy or insatiable person, quite the contrary actually, as to simply survive in a sport that is so expensive is an art, as most who have tried will readily agree, but success in this game is not only rewarding in terms of satisfaction, it also opens the door for even more success through the monetary gratification which is usually invested in better equipment right away, thus becoming the quintessential raison d'être for the professional racer. It's a vicious cycle, all right, but it is the true nature of the sport which can't be ignored. Once committed to this "system", a competitor will chase purses in every which way, and promoters will try to bait them by offering those purses, in the hope of attracting crowds generating the same - this racing business runs on basically very simple rules, it's just the application of those rules that can get quite complicated!
The idea of a championship for Outlaws is almost as old as the Outlaw "movement" itself. In 1970, a group of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio businessmen and promoters headed by C. H. "Bud" Miller created the "All-Star Circuit of Champions" (ASCoC), an eleven-race series visiting most of the local tracks for special Wednesday night programmes with a $1,000-to-win purse, compared to the usual $500 or $600 a winner could hope to carry away from the better weekly tracks. The championship was not a very big success, and was not repeated until 1973, when Miller and his associates went "national" with the addition of the two most prestigious outlaw races at the time, the $3,800-to-win Knoxville Nationals in Iowa and the $4,000-to-win Western US Championships in Arizona. Again, despite at least some publicity in the specialised press, the series did not catch on, and went into hibernation once more. Two years later, the idea was revived by some local promoters without Miller's support, and thus named the "All-Star Super Sprints" (ASSS), with an all-Ohio series of seven races which grew into a 13-race series in Ohio and four neighbouring states the following year before going belly-up yet again.
It wasn't until 1979 that professional racing photographer Bert Emick led another group to run the "Midwest Outlaw Super Series" (MOSS), and after a very modest debut the championship grew into a well-run 21-race series in Ohio, Indiana and (Western) Pennsylvania the following year, so successful in fact that one of the promoters "stole" the name, which Emick had failed to secure rights for, leaving him to invite Bud Miller to join the board in a honorary role in order to use the ASCoC name henceforth. From there, the "new" ASCoC continued to grow and prosper, and over the years has become a solid "number two" sanctioning body in the States, not very much unlike the latter day IMCA, and with basically the same geographical limits, only moved to the East a few hundred miles. It is to be hoped that ASCoC will not face the same fate as the IMCA, but at the time of writing the series looks to be healthy and well run (if a little confused about its own history), now owned by Guy Webb of Illinois and sponsored by the University of Northwestern Ohio (!) The "fake" MOSS disappeared again after only one short year.
Unlike their Ohio counterparts, the Central Pennsy promoters did not band together for the better of the sport, instead waging war against each other, or so it seemed at least. Part of the "problem" was the sort of personalities involved, beginning with Jack Gunn (né John Whyte Gunnells), who came to prominence as the track announcer at the famous Williams Grove Speedway under its original owner, Roy Richwine, in the fifties. After Richwine's death in 1960, his son Bob continued the family business, and soon expanded it to also promote Selinsgrove Speedway, a few miles to the north. The energetic Gunn took over from the younger Richwine in 1968, and soon became the most influential promoter in the area, which was regarded by many as the most influential in the entire nation. In 1972, he inaugurated a mini-series of four $800-to-win races, two at each of his two tracks, calling it the "(Sel-Wil) Summer Nationals". This immediately prompted a "reply" by another Central Pennsy promoter, Hillen Vernon "Hilly" Rife of Lincoln Speedway near Hanover. Rife, who at one time or another bragged about having invented the Super Sprint, was even more flamboyant and colourful than Gunn, and had an on-and-off career as a promoter stretching back twenty years, even though he was barely older than his "opponent".
Rife's first idea was the five-race "US Super Spint Nationals" on four tracks in Central Pennsy and just over the stateline in Maryland. Then, in 1973, he startled everybody by bringing in the "National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing" (NASCAR) to sanction Sprint Car racing at Lincoln!! In a coup extraordinaire, Hilly himself stepped down as a promoter, delegating these duties to his son, Hillen Griffin "Sonny" Rife, and accepted a post as NASCAR Central Pennsylvania representantive, with a brief to establish a Sprint Car circuit under that name in the area! This, however, clashed with Gunn's plans, who had just brought USAC Sprint Cars back to the Grove after an absence of six years, and also met with little love from the other area promoters such as Lindy Vicari of Reading Fairgrounds, who also had strong USAC ties. In July, Gunn countered with the addition of Penn National Speedway, a relatively new facility built primarily for horse racing, to his portfolio, and was now staging weekly races Friday through Sunday. Within little more than a month, the NASCAR name quietly disappeared from the masthead of the Lincoln Speedway programmes, and young Steve Smith from Florida won his first of six consecutive (nine overall) Lincoln track championships, instead of becoming the only NASCAR Sprint Car Champion in history...
Jack Gunn, on the other hand, had a better idea, and started the "Keystone Auto Racing on Speedways" (KARS, more popularly known as Keystone Auto Racing Series) the following year. With his own three tracks covering a full weekend slate of racing, and a few visits to tracks in New Jersey and Maryland, Gunn was now able to provide a schedule of about five dozen races a year within a radius of fifty miles or less, and with a hefty points fund at the end of the year, plus appearance deals for champions and runners-up - that's the sort of deals that even Outlaws can't resist! Still, it was a very local affair, and even if Central Pennsylvania continued to attract stray drivers from as far away as California, the bulk of the Outlaws prefered to race weekly near home, and go for extended trips around the country for the real big ones, which were beginning to pay upwards of $5,000 for a win at the time. The KARS series died with its instigator in 1980, but indirectly it finally led to the introduction of the "overall" Central Pennsy title in 1985, held on and off ever since, depending on the availability of a title sponsor. It continues to be the playground for the "Posse", and serves as an "excuse" for many of them to avoid the hassle of being a "real", travelling Outlaw...
On the "left" coast, things started to move when former CRA and USAC Sprint Car owner, Don Peabody, was elected president of the veteran "California Racing Associtaion" (CRA), one of the pioneers of the Super-to-Sprint evolution, having evolved from the "California Roadster Assciation" in the mid fifties. Peabody at once set about strengthening the traditionally already strong ties of the So-Cal scene to the "Arizona Racing Association" (ARA), one of the first clubs in the country to "officially" change from Super Modifieds to Sprint Cars in late 1966, by introducing the six-race, "cross-sanctioned" Silver Cup competition in 1973. Eventually, similar competitions were staged with the "Northern Auto Racing Club" (NARC) of Northern California (humorously called the "Civil War Series"! ), starting in 1977, and with USAC in 1984, leading to more and more interaction between the existing clubs. Peabody himself was head-hunted by USAC in 1977, in an attempt to combat the mounting problems of the once so dominant organisation... oh, yes, where was USAC through all of this???
Far from becoming "The Sport of the Seventies", auto racing actually struggled throughout the decade and merely survived, the influx of sponsorship money via extended TV exposure notwithstanding - that was true for basically all sports in those days, hence "par for the course"! For motor sports, however, things changed drastically in those ten years, starting with changing attitudes of the public in general. Gone were the gung-ho days of accepting death and maiming injury as part and parcel of life itself, replaced by a new "directive" of Health and Safety for everyone, and whilst this was certainly an improvement in the human condition, it presented some specific problems for the sport we all love so much. The sharp contrast of the "routine fatalities" in racing going into the seventies, to the merely fatalistically acceptable exception of death at the end of the decade was the result of very hard work by all parties involved, and however praiseworthy those efforts must appear these days, back in the seventies it was purely a matter of survival for the sport! Linked to this new public conscience was the fledgling environmental movement, leading to anti-pollution legislations which hit the car manufacturers financially, prompting them to review their visions of the performance car market, and their direct involvement in the sport. And, as if all of this hadn't been difficult enough for racing, the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and subsequent "energy crisis" produced a very negative image of the sport, even if it wasn't really much of a factor in the whole shebang. Perception is everything, however, and few people are really interested in facts, so motor racing became the perfect patsy.
The popular view is that USAC dropped the ball big-time in the seventies, but trying to look at things from a perceived position inside of that organization, it's pretty difficult to see where they could have acted much differently. That's not to say that USAC was entirely a victim of circumstances, but luck (or the absence of same!) plays a big role in life, and sometimes things just don't work out right. When the books were closed on the 1977 season, USAC looked to be in a very reasonable position, given the ravages mentioned in the previous paragraph, and no-one really questioned its leadership in the sport, at least not outside of the Late Model stock car fraternity. Its Sprint Car division had actually just completed a record 44 events in '77, but this number tended to obscure a worrying trend in recent years: apart from one race in New York and two in California, all of those races were staged in a very small area around the Indianapolis HQ, with 25 dates in Indiana alone, and 15 in Western Ohio! Another worrying aspect was the continuing proliferation of pavement tracks on USAC's schedule, as the club was still committed to its new image, while the recent resurgence of Sprint Car racing due to the Outlaw phenomenon was almost entirely based on dirt track racing. Given the widening gulf between dirt and pavement car specs following the influx of Super Modified technology, that was sure to lead to ever rising costs for the competitors, and in fact, both champion Sheldon Kinser and runner-up Tom Bigelow had had two very different cars at their disposal during the season, a traditional one for the dirt and a bespoke pavement chassis!
Steps had already been initiated to address those problems: a four-event series of "Mini-Indy" Super Vee races had debuted in 1977 and proved satisfactory, so that the pavement races could be phased out of Sprint Car racing over the next three or four years, and the appointment of the able Don Peabody as USAC's new Sprint Supervisor and Chief Steward was widely regarded as a major coup, so that hopes were running high for a turn-around in 1978, only for the aforementioned series of dramatic events to nullify it all! What turned out to be the biggest power shift in the history of Sprint Car racing, started as a petty argument, and the tragic of it all is that it wasn't even USAC's idea in the first place: during the pre-season scheduling process, the promoters agreed amongst themselves per majority vote to limit the number of races at each track to four per year, and USAC, sensing opportunities for much needed variety in the schedule, merely rubber-stamped that decision. One man, who was adamantly opposed to the idea was charismatic Earl Baltes, a former musician and ballroom operator who had turned his hobby into a profession by building a race track in the backyard of one of his dance establishments near the tiny village of Rossburg in the somewhat aptly named Darke County in Western Ohio, a mere five miles from the Indiana stateline. Named after the "El Dora Ballroom", Eldora Speedway became one of the most popular tracks in the country, and was a mainstay of the USAC Sprint Car circuit throughout the sixties and seventies, holding no fewer than eight meetings in 1977 alone. In a fit, Baltes now refused the four dates allocated to his track, and cancelled all USAC programmes at Eldora, including the season opener on March 26!
What was USAC to do about that? Going against the wishes of a large majority to please one renegade was hardly an option, and besides, the new schedule was coming along real nicely, with the number of states visited during the tour almost doubling from the previous year. For the time being at least, it looked like a minor squabble that was hurting its instigator much more than anyone else, and it really came as no surprise when Baltes reneged on his own decision later that year, and held the final two dates that USAC had reserved for his track as if nothing had happened - today, Eldora Speedway is the one half-mile track in the country with the longest uninterrupted run of USAC meetings! Back in the spring of 1978, however, Baltes had manoeuvred himself into a corner and, having effectively robbed himself of his bread-and-butter business, he was now very appreciative when racing photographer Jerry Clum (a pal and future MOSS partner of Bert Emick's) introduced him to Ted Johnson, a bespectacled and moustached small-time promoter from Texas. After a few financial failures in the field of race promotion, Johnson had tried his hand at "sports management", acting as a sort of freelance agent for various drivers in trying to arrange appearance deals, and even resorted to peddling racing T-shirts in order to make ends meet, before hitting upon the bright idea to start an Outlaw racing championship circuit! Easier said than done, but through his contacts to the drivers and owners, Johnson had a pretty good understanding of what was necessary, and desirable, to get the idea off the ground.
For starters, Johnson decreed that any non-USAC event paying $2,000 or more to the winner should count for the championship, that amount being slightly over the USAC minimum which was about $1,800 at the time, incidentally. That was a very crucial idea, since there was no way any Outlaw championship could hope to attract national attention without the inclusion of at least the majority of the (roughly) twenty biggest meetings in the country, as the failed attempts mentioned at the beginning of this chapter bore testimony to. But, the big difficulty in this was that those events were pretty self-sufficient, with good to excellent crowds and car counts, so that there was minimal to no interest at all on the part of their promoters to join any circuit of races. Johnson circumnavigated that problem by basically ignoring it! He simply stated his intention to tabulate the points publically in the trade papers, and set out to convince the odd local promoter to raise the purse for one or the other special event to meet the $2,000 minimum in order to join his "World of Outlaws" (WoO) circuit - some plan! On March 16, the Devil's Bowl Speedway near the small Dallas/TX suburb of Mesquite, started its third annual Spring Nationals with a purse offering the "magic" $2,000 to the overall winner after three days of competition, thus becoming technically the first qualifying round for a championship that wasn't yet more than a dream in the mind of its instigator, and Ted Johnson was met with icy ignorance by promoter Lanny Edwards, the competitors and the public alike, even in his home state. Facing a gap of about three months until a few West Coast events would meet the one criterion, the WoO was badly in need of a shot in the arm - and Earl Baltes was exactly what the doctor ordered!
What the veteran promoter saw was an opportunity to recoup some of the losses that the USAC "embargo" had caused, and with his trademark flair and the guts to try something new and unproven, he scheduled not one, but three WoO races over the space of five weeks, getting into the spirit of things by personally posing as an outlaw on "Wanted" posters serving as race announcements, looking mean and carrying a six-gun to highlight the $2,000 "reward"! The races were a huge success, and after each one of them Johnson was able to announce a new points leader to the public, creating an awareness that soon spread from coast to coast. All of a sudden, promoters from all corners of the country were interested in meeting that man from Texas, Ted Johnson - the WoO was most definitely on its way! And USAC? The weekend between the first two of those Eldora WoO programmes, a chartered airplane carrying eight USAC officers back from an Indy Car race at Trenton/NJ, crashed during a thunderstorm almost within sight of its Indianapolis destination, killing all its occupants, including Don Peabody. Much has been written about how that plane crash paralyzed the club at a most inopportune time, relating to the forthcoming "split" and formation of "Championship Auto Racing Teams" (CART) later in 1978, but the impact of that accident on the world of Sprint Car racing was much more immediate, and hardly less severe. Whether Peabody could have done much to engineer a better future for USAC is perhaps a moot point, yet a tantalizing question just the same, as even his short USAC term led close observers to rave reviews of his capabilities. His former CRA colleagues obviously thought the world of him, and J. C. Agajanian, promoter of CRA's "home track" Ascot Park in Greater Los Angeles, lost no time in renaming the season-closing "Grand Prix" to "Don Peabody Classic", a name the most prestigious and richest CRA points race of each season carried until both the track and the club ceased to exist in the early nineties.
Due to the quirky nature of its genesis, the first season of the WoO was a somewhat disjointed affair, with some of the qualifying rounds taking place on the same day as others, but hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, and many of the leading drivers not really catching on with the series until halfway through the year, if at all. And so it was, that of the 41 points races, held at 36 meetings on 23 tracks in 12 states, the maximum number for any one driver to compete in was 35 in all practicality, and only two drivers even tried to achieve that, both eventually failing to make the main event on two occasions each, so that a certain parity was achieved in this respect. One of those drivers was 39-year-old Rick Ferkel of Western Ohio, very much the "elder statesman" of dirt track racing, and one of the "Original Outlaws", having been around since the mid-sixties and having won main events at more than 70 different venues, coast to coast. The fans liked to call him the "Ohio Traveler", and many felt that the concept of an Outlaw Champion had the name Ferkel written all over it, now that Jan Opperman was but a shadow of his former self after a debilitating crash in 1976, and Kenny Weld in semi-retirement and about to face a rather unpleasant future. It didn't hurt Ferkel's cause, either, that almost one third of the WoO points races were run off in his own "backyard", Western Ohio, and he staked his claim early on by breaking Eldora's track record on each of the three initial appearances at the track, although mechanical problems held him back so that he won only one of the main events, but at the very next race at yet another homestate joint, Limaland Motor Speedway, he became the first multiple winner in WoO history, taking the points lead and holding it until an engine failure in a preliminary heat caused him to miss his first main of the campaign in September, ironically at the same track where he had scored half of his eight wins so far: Eldora Speedway.
All summer long, whenever Ferkel looked over his shoulder, he saw the nose of the #11 sprinter glued to the rear bumper of his own #0 - that was the famous "Kinser Brothers Special", wrenched by the already legendary Karl Kinser. Following a modest start in South-Central Indiana in the late fifties, the Kinser Bros. team (which was always mostly Karl's) had gained a solid national reputation throughout the seventies with a number of different drivers, but especially with the burly Dick Gaines from the deep south of the Hoosier state, who was Karl's number one driver for nearly a decade until he was injured in an accident late in 1977. Seeking to replace the veteran of almost thirty years in competition, Karl Kinser turned to a young man, only 23 years of age, which caused many observers to raise an eyebrow or two - until then, the job at the controls of the Kinser Bros. sprinter had been given exclusively to seasoned veterans with more trophies at home than teeth in the mouth, and now this kid with hardly any resumé at all: only two years experience of racing Sprint Cars, a few local wins and running mid-field during a half-season of following the USAC trail. Surely, Karl was just doing a favour to the young man's father, one of his former drivers and a distant relative, until he could get hold of a real hot shoe!?!?
Whether it was some form of serendipity, or whether Karl had seen something in the youngster which had escaped most others, in any case the "kid" wasted no time in earning his new assignment, finishing second in the first Eldora meet, then sixth in the next, before winning the third one on May 21, and when Ted Johnson send out his latest points tabulation to the press that evening, the name on top of it read: Steve Kinser! As we have seen, Ferkel took care of that within a week, but the Kinsers had now licked blood, and with a doggedness that had always been characteristic for Karl, and was now becoming one of Steve's foremost traits as well, they began a relentless pursuit which kept them in touch, barely at times, but when the "Buckeye Traveler" hit a bad patch during late summer, Kinser was there to score three wins in succession in eight days to reverse the roles: now it was Ferkel, hunting down Kinser in the same merciless fashion, and it all came down to the very last race of the season, October 29. For that date, Ted Johnson had turned to his new friend, Earl Baltes once again, and the Eldora promoter was up to it by staging a Sprint Car extravaganza unheard of at the time, with a $10,000-to-win purse, 95 cars int the pits and 12,000 souls in the stands. Naturally, Baltes himself had dressed the part again, and additionally invited a group of belly dancers to play the court for the new "King of the Outlaws", about to be enthroned with a kitsch crown and lots of razzmatazz.
The points situation was pretty simple: Kinser was still ahead, but if Ferkel was to win the last race (as he had done in three out of six main events at Eldora so far, plus one points preliminary), Steve had to finish second or third to keep his lead and win the title - in general, Kinser could not afford to finish further than two positions behind his adversary, unless Ferkel failed to make it into the top three, which was deemed quite unlikely if not for major car trouble. Starting the main from the inside of rows two (Ferkel) and three (Kinser), both moved up in a hurry, and by lap 5 Steve was leading Rick by a close margin, with the rest of the field falling further and further behind - a tremendously fitting battle royale!! Eventually, though, fate intervened, when local star Jim Linder lost a wheel, and the wheel found #11, the Kinser Bros. car, damaging it beyond help - Steve Kinser was out of the race! Ferkel inherited the lead, and before anyone could work out where he had to finish "just in case" (fourth would have been enough), the engine of #0 let go in a cloud of smoke, sidelining the sentimental favourite - the championship was Kinser's, after all! Steve accepted the accolades and ceremonies good naturedly (not to be taken for granted!), and Rick was the perfect gentleman even in defeat, posing with Kinser and eventual race winner Shane Carson of Oklahoma after the event: a fitting end for a near perfect WoO debut season.
One final footnote remains to be added: on the Saturday before Memorial Day, the 30th annual "Little 500" Sprint Car race was held at Anderson Speedway in Indiana, not far from the big Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and paid more than $5,000 to the winner, yet it wasn't listed on the WoO itinerary, despite the fact that it was one of the ten richest "outlaw" races of the year! That was no accident: Ted Johnson had always been a dirt track fan, and simply didn't consider pavement races worthy of inclusion in his new series. Had the Little 500 counted for the Outlaw title, as per Johnson's original announcement, RIck Ferkel (who finished fifth at Anderson) would have defeated Steve Kinser (a non-starter) by a handy margin in the points race! As it was, this anomaly merely cemented the final rift between the two worlds, and from now on top-level Sprint Car racing would be firmly back in the grass roots camp - but Johnson was about to see to it that it would be no longer a sport of the have-nots!
Edited by Michael Ferner, 02 October 2013 - 20:04.