One night I was watching an Outlaw
race on on TV, back when TNN was doing those races and they went around the pits and asked
some of the younger drivers where the World of Outlaws came from and what an Outlaw
was. To my surprise! Most of the guys didn't know! Then they went to Steve
Kinser and he gave a 10 second answer. So for all of you that either weren't around when
all of this got started or just don't know, here's a short history of sprint car racing
(as I see it).
Waaaay back at the turn of the last century, when Indy was first
created, the cars were open wheel, driver straddling the driveline and the fuel was in an
aerodynamically pointed tank at the rear. Today's cars are very similar if not the
same in those respects.
Out of that early Indy car evolved the sprint car, sized for the
half-mile tracks and the midget, sized for the quarter mile tracks. The race at Indy was
one of the many races that went on around the country then, on horse tracks at fairgrounds
and at speedways.
Big league sprint car racing was centered around the
Indy race with the AAA (yes, they became the guys you call for a tow today but got out of
racing in the '50s) and then USAC organizations through the '40s and on into the '70s.
Success in midgets and then sprints opened the door to an Indy ride for the country's top
While USAC ruled the premier sprint
series, there were lots of other organizations, promoters and tracks that ran sprints
around the country. USAC demanded total loyalty and didn't allow their drivers to race
outside of the organization. They also made it difficult to race with them.
You could get a temporary permit to run a USAC race but you had to apply months in advance
and the car had to pass their picky inspection (and look good too).
Any one who was not a card carrying USAC driver was considered an outlaw. That's where it
An outlaw was a derogatory term that the USAC establishment used to describe anyone that
wasn't one of them, but it came to mean more than that as the term was more broadly
applied. Sprint cars were pretty universal in design and races were held all over
the country. There were always a few free spirits that didn't want to be part
of the strict organization, that was USAC. They were some of the best racers in the
country and raced where they could make the most money and win races. Barnstorming from
track to track, state to state, fairs and local tracks, these guys would show up and show
the locals the fast way around. Promoters knew the names and would make deals
(appearance money) with the current hot shoes to show up at their race. It was good
for the promoter, the hot shoe and the fans. Not so good for the local racers.
There were a number of really good racers that were traveling the
country in the '70s when Ted Johnson came along and created The World of
Outlaws. Though I don't know the inside mechanics of how he put this together, from
the outside this is how it looked.
Ted contacted a number of the traveling racers and
told them that he was going to put on a series of high paying races under the World of
Outlaws name and asked them to come. Whether there was any deal money at first or
not, I don't know, but the best came to race for the very good purse. I can
only guess why Ted called it the World of Outlaws. I guess "World of" was
the marketing concept of the day where stores were called "World of Shoes" or
World of Books" or "World of Spaghetti". I
always looked at a place with a name like that, with a skeptical sneer.
But Ted's deal was legitimate and was wide open to all racers. Anyone could show up
at an Outlaw race and have an equal chance. Every race night was based on time
trials and inverted qualifying. You either made the show if you were fast or you
didn't. There was no temporary permit or organization to join (you could join
if you wanted to at $40 and you got a cheaper pit pass saving $5 or $10 each race)
and basically there were no rules other than common sense (like helmets and fire suits,
belts and roll cages). It was, and was billed as "Run What You Brung".
Sprint cars have always been self limiting, technically. Although they have always
been the fastest thing on dirt, the technology has always been saturated and there weren't
a lot of radical things that you could do to make them faster (except for adding a wing).
So the real outlaws became organized. It's funny how it turned out, that this
organization of racers were the guys that wouldn't belong to an organization, but that was
its strength. You could race with them a little or a lot but each night you had the
same shot. The incentives were there for Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, Doug Wolfgang
and the other dozen regulars that followed the schedule each night and that base, that was
the strength, that Ted used to book the shows.
There were still outlaws from the Outlaws that would run any big paying show anywhere but
the consistently strong group of cars that followed Ted impressed the fans from coast to
coast. In time it became the standard for speed, talent and purse.
Meanwhile, the '70s brought the rear engine car to Indy along with a new breed of sporty
car types that had no use for a sprint car. USAC's old guard still supported sprint
car racing but gone were the days of car owners with an Indy car and a sprint and a midget
in the stable.
For sprint car people, the door to Indy was closed and stayed that way for more than
a decade. Sprint car racing was the end game, watched by local fans that appreciated
the power and excitement of the sport, and raced by drivers that wanted that
excitement. The door never opened again until Jeff Gordon single handedly broke it
down by winning in sprints on TV and then going on to overwhelming Nascar success.
Others followed. Suddenly sprint car and midget drivers were sought out and
the career minded saw sprints and midgets as a pathway to the big leagues.
The influence of USAC on sprint racing had declined by the '80s as they no longer had Indy
car stars behind the wheel. Wings and big motors were the thing and USAC had
neither. The Outlaws had both and they legitimately had the best drivers, guys that
would take on all comers, 7 days a week, on any track, anywhere, any conditions and
consistently beat them all. The Outlaw deal gained credibility by performance.
In no small way it was Steve, Sammy and Doug that
undisputable standard of excellence that made the Outlaw deal work. One of them was
going to whip the locals or each other every night and it created a rivalry in the fans
mind that made them pay extra to see it. Yet it took Ted to provide the national platform,
and stability that brought it all together. It worked because it played on the wants
and needs of the racer, the fan and the promoter.
So as sprint car racing has progressed into a new
century, not much has changed. Some rules had to be put in place, motors have more
power, cars are lighter, tires have more bite and the trailers are bigger, but as the push
trucks send them off to race, it still draws both driver and fan to the unparalleled
excitement of these open wheeled machines.