By T.J. Buffenbarger
For as long as I can remember one of the first trips I make to a race all season is for the World of Outlaws in April at the Eldora Speedway. Every spring I notice how much the series has progressed. The definition of an “Outlaw” over that time sure has changed. The World of Outlaws now seem to resemble “Uncle Ted’s Pennzoil Flying Circus” more than a group of renegade racers, the days of sleeping in the back of a pickup truck has now evolved to sleeping in luxury motor coaches that cost more than the average race fan’s house, and drivers walk around in clothing adorned in some fortune 500 companies logo instead of a racing tee-shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Everything is just on such a large scale now compared to ten years ago. Who could have ever imagined this?
I can first remember going to the Eldora spring event to see the Outlaws around 1985 or so. Sammy Swindell with Raymond Beetle’s car had one of the first gooseneck trailers with about three wings on top of it. I thought this was the big time, as nobody from up near my hometown had that many parts in a shop let alone in the trailer. It was also Kinser, Swindell, Wolfgang, and whoever else wanted to run fourth 90% of the time during an 80 race schedule.
My Dad tells me stories of the first Outlaw races he went to at Eldora when if a driver had four spare tires on his open trailer they were a big time racers! Then later on in the 80’s Sammy Swindell had one of the first gooseneck trailers. That was one of the coolest things I had ever laid eyes on at that time! Sammy’s trailer had two wings on top and another inside!!! Nobody running our local circuit even had that many parts in their shop. Later on they even developed the raised roof trailer so you could keep the wing on the car. Those are still my favorites next to the open trailer, a raised roof trailer with a wing and a spare chassis on top. Any race fan can figure out what kind of car that is coming into the race track.
Jac Haudenschild would be on his third car owner of the season, and by end of the weekend would probably end up driving again for the first owner than fired him. It was hardly worth buying a program because of journeyman like Haudenschild, Danny Smith, and others that would pop up all over the country in a different ride each weekend. There were times when you would think twice about buying a drivers tee-shirt because you wouldn’t know if they would be in the same car the following weekend. I still have to shake my head in disbelief when I realize Haudenschild has been in the same car for the better part of this decade.
It’s always fun to think about the days past at the Big E during the spring. One thing I notice is there is probably twice as many people in the stands watching the Outlaws as there were 12 years ago. All of these people couldn’t have been at Eldora for many of the things mentioned above, and I feel kind of sad they missed out on it. Do they have a sense of history of how and why this entire thing started? Do they even know there was lots of sprint car racing before the World of Outlaws? Do they even care about the history past 1978? The National Sprint Car Hall of Fame hopefully will be able to educate some of our newer fans on the past with the new theater on the second floor that is still under construction.
Now the Outlaws bring in nearly 18 full time cars this season. Johnny Gibson plays the roll of P.T. Barnam for Outlaws giving fans all the information on the local and traveling drivers, and making sure that “the Pennzoil World of Outlaws Featherlite Souvenir Trailer” will roll of your tongue just as easily as it does his. All that is missing is John wearing a top hat in this four ring circus. As the cars practice Gibson reads off the fastest times off the electronic scoring system. Drivers family and friends gather around the monitor in the pits as if they were all watching their favorite TV show to see who set quick time. A couple of years ago Outlaw officials looked at me strange when I had my laptop hooked up to the internet and was typing the action lap for lap at the track formally known as I-96 Speedway. Now we not only have electronic scoring, but Gibson is posting results on the web and can see me post how many times he says “Pennzoil” in one night (all in good humor of course).
Sprint car racing is finally hitting the big time. I don’t think it will be long until we see a household product on one of the wings traveling the Pennzoil World of Outlaws trail. Probably the greatest part is that some of the heroes that have stuck through the series thick and thin are starting to reap the benefits. It’s just to bad it didn’t happen earlier so drivers like Bobby Allen, Bobby Davis, Jr., and other heroes of the past could enjoy the success.
As I look back all just these few advances in our sport, I generally think things are going pretty well. There will always be critics of the quality of racing, and there always will be some no matter how good a races is. One of the neatest aspects of this is for the local race fan, one of the drivers you see pulling into a weekly show with four tires and an open trailer today could reach the Outlaws and make a living driving a sprint car. That is truly a viable option now without having to go off to some second rate NASCAR or Road Racing series to do so. The sprint car heroes of today can stay in sprint car racing and can make a decent living.
I finally quit thinking about these changes as the feature started Friday night. Travis Whitney shot into the lead, only to be overtaken with a great move by Steve Kinser during a mid race restart. Kinser ran off from the rest of the field and won the preliminary feature. After all the changes in trailers, sponsors, facilities, racing, and everything else the result was almost the same. Those new fans did get a taste of the history, and were more tasteful than the dedicated fans of past years as the cheers outnumbered the boos for the driver who’s name will be synonymous with sprint car racing as Richard Petty’s is with NASCAR. After that I went back to my motel in Sidney, parked next to a Featherlite Trailer instead of that open trailer with four tires, and realized things are not too bad after all.