Eldora Speedway has been a stronghold of USAC racing for 55 of the series’ 61 years, but in 1981, the half-mile high-banked oval crafted by Earl Baltes in western Ohio became the host of a new tradition that gave life to what instantly became one of USAC’s most prestigious events, the “4-Crown Nationals.”
Thirty-five years have now passed since that fall October day at Eldora in 1981. Playing to an audience that included a new, fledgling start-up cable television network named ESPN, the channel provided coverage that day with Bob Jenkins and Larry Nuber on the microphone.
That day, a young Steve Kinser provided the theatrics by winning a pair of features in a masterful display of driving. Playing the fill-in role for the injured Rich Vogler in a pair of Johnny Vance-owned Aristocrat Products cars, the 27-year-old Kinser first raced to victory in the USAC Sprint Car feature, then followed that up with a spectacular performance in the USAC Silver Crown feature.
Starting in the 18th spot in a car originally qualified by Joe Saldana, Kinser carved his way through the field from his position in the next to last row, taking the lead on lap 31 from eventual second-place finisher Larry Rice to score the 50-lap victory.
Ken Schrader won the very first feature held that day, a 20-lap USAC Midget race, while Joe Wallace grabbed the 40-lap USAC Stock Car event.
But the story of the “4-Crown Nationals” didn’t simply start with the racing; it started with an idea. An idea that seemed obvious at first, but had never been put into place.
It was an idea, a brainchild of USAC Officer and Board of Director member Johnny Vance, who envisioned an event that would bring each of USAC’s four national divisions together on one weekend for a single event.
In 1980, Vance brought the idea to Eldora owner Earl Baltes’ attention, who liked the idea, but was hesitant to become involved initially.
“I went up to Earl and suggested it and he thought it was pretty good idea, so we decided to give it a shot and see how it would go,” Vance recalled.
Vance refused to let the idea fade away into a memory; he put his words into action and, thus, leased the track for a weekend in mid-October 1981 for the event’s debut.
With just a single month remaining before the event, there was still one big issue to be resolved. This big blockbuster event was still without a name!
“About a month before the inaugural race, Johnny (Vance) and I were riding down to Paragon Speedway for a USAC Sprint Car race,” USAC Director of Communications Dick Jordan said. “Johnny hadn’t come up with a name for the event yet and wanted to discuss some possibilities. We were kicking ideas around a little bit I came up with ‘4-crown.’ I envisioned four guys standing on the victory lane stage with crowns on their heads. He liked it and that’s what we decided to do.”
Not only was the first “4-Crown” a rousing success, Vance’s Sprint and Silver Crown cars were victorious as well. But it was the support from fans and teams that gave credence to continuing the event the next year in 1982.
“It went really well the first year,” Vance said. “So we did it again the next year and each year thereafter, it just got a little bigger and better.”
Vance would stay involved as the promoter of the event through 1982 before Baltes and Eldora Speedway assumed full control. It’s a legacy that continues to this day, 35 years later.
“The ‘4-Crown’ is a signature event for racefans in the Midwest,” Jordan explained. “The significance of winning one of the crowns, let alone all four as Jack Hewitt did, gives drivers an ultimate career target, one which will solidify their legacy with race fans for all time.”
The “4-Crown” has provided the stage for some of the greatest accomplishments in auto racing history, including Hewitt’s 1998 sweep as well as Kyle Larson’s trifecta in 2011 when he won all three of USAC’s national races that day.
Down through the years, the “4-Crown” has had a variety of series occupy the fourth and final crown beginning with the defunct USAC Stock Car division from 1981-1983, USAC-sanctioned late models from 1985-1995 and then the UMP Modifieds from 1996-2007.
The “4-Crown” became all open wheel with the World of Outlaws joining in 2008 and now the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions join the fray for this Saturday night’s 35th running.
Sixty-two different feature winners and a plethora of memorable moments later, the “4-Crown Nationals” have become a staple of the auto racing calendar over these past three and a half decades. The next edition promises to bring new memories with the continuation of a tradition that has long since become a fan favorite, which all started with a simple idea – an idea to bring four top-line classes of racecars to a world-class dirt track for a single weekend – something that racefans can be assured of witnessing this Saturday night.
Spectator gates for Saturday’s “4-Crown Nationals” open at noon, while hot laps are set to begin at 4:30pm with qualifications and racing to immediately follow.