T.J.’s Takeaways on the High Limit Series Acquisition of the All Stars

Cars lined up in the pit area at Eldora Speedway. (T.J. Buffenbarger photo)
Cars lined up in the pit area at Eldora Speedway. (T.J. Buffenbarger photo)

By T.J. Buffenbarger

On a quiet fall day what promises to be the craziest silly season possibly in sprint car racing kicked off with the worst kept secret in sprint car racing. With the All Star Circuit of Champions now owned by Brad Sweet and Kyle Larson of the High Limit Sprint Car Series, here are my takeaways from the early stages of this situation.

• Let’s start with the sunny side of this situation. The High Limit Sprint Car Series in their first year managed to put on 11 high paying sprint car events that paid out over 1.1 million dollars last season. That alone is unprecedented for a startup series in the sport of sprint car racing.

The thing I enjoyed watching throughout the year with High Limit was how much better the program improved throughout the year. From my view point the series started to hit its stride at Kokomo and built a lot of momentum from that race forward.

I also admire the fact they are hiring good people to handle work with the series. From Brian Walker’s hire last year to now having Mike Hess lined up, who I feel is one of the, if not the best racing officials I’ve worked with in 27 years covering the sport. With things really starting to kick into high gear now for the series, I have a feeling the High Limit Series is not done acquiring talent to improve their product. Sweet, Larson, and company seem to identify their shortcomings and people and methods to quickly improve the product.

By all indications High Limit’s purchase of the All Star Circuit of Champions is about growing that footprint further. Whenever there has been a challenge to the World of Outlaws being the premier sprint car series in the country, it has created opportunity for some teams. When those competing series have races on the same night, there will be opportunities for some drivers to finish further up in the order at those big races and make some extra money. People see opportunity with the openings of someone leaving one series for another and take advantage of this.

I’m interested to see how close to whatever their vision and goal after acquiring the All Stars will be.

The other good aspect of this is hopefully seeing more sprint car content on Floracing. Other than some highlights, Flo is very much in the Late Model, NASCAR, and Kyle Larson business. While that won’t change with High Limit, having Flo with a larger stake in sprint car racing hopefully will bring more supplemental content, which was not as prevalent as the late model content on the channel. If we get more sprint car sidebars like Tyler Burnett’s incredible interview with Jack Hewitt this year, I’m all for it. Hopefully that happens because the eyeballs (and wallets) with the online pay-per-view is the catalyst for a lot of this change.

From a media standpoint these things are always good for us in the short term. All of you want to read about it, and covering races on either side always shows an uptick with people wanting to see what is going on.

• For what I’m not impressed by is the All Star Circuit of Champions becoming a sacrificial lamb for the ambition of the High Limit Series. The All Stars have served a very important role in the sprint car ecosystem for almost my entire 45 years on the planet. I’ve felt the All Star product was best on track of all the winged sprint car series. The talent level front to back produced the perfect level of competition to have entertaining sprint car racing night in and night out.

Through two sprint car splits, a direct competitor in the Gumout Series, and a host of other adversity the series forged ahead filling a role of being the second biggest touring sprint car series in the country. Drivers and teams raced for a living not having to travel coast to coast, and it developed multiple Hall of Fame driving careers along the way. This time if High Limit is not successful it will be the All Stars being the sacrificial lamb for someone else’s ambition.

By all indications the High Limit has a much more ambitious plan in mind, which creates a giant void in the winged sprint car community. Any series, or multiple series, that would take the place of this would have no brand equity and will take years to gain close to the brand recognition the All Stars have, if they do at all.

I’ve felt the All Star product was best on track of all the winged sprint car series. The talent level front to back produced the perfect level of competition to have entertaining sprint car racing night in and night out. I feel this change has the potential to lose some of that.

There will be some clear winners and losers when it comes to racetracks. For many facilities those All Star events are difference makers in their season. They also provide increased competition that local teams look forward to that is much more accessible than taking on the Outlaws. If the High Limit/AllStars truly try a national type of schedule, some event and tracks will suffer from it.

I’ve been to a lot of series races that were promised to be something akin to the All Stars, and each time the crowd was nowhere near what the All Stars would draw at the same facility. The tracks with High Limit races should be okay, but anyone else left behind is going to be scrambling to find a profitable replacement. I do not envy any of the promoters where the All Stars are a major part of their season at this point for the uncertainty that lies ahead.

I also am concerned for teams that felt the All Stars were accessible competition for them. Now they could find themselves potentially competing with a second version of the World of Outlaws, and after some conversations I’ve had over the past several weeks I feel some smaller teams will stay away because of this.

I hope in three years I can admit to being wrong about this. Let’s hope that’s the direction this takes. There will be plenty of people to carry water for the World of Outlaws and High Limit next year to tell you how great things are. As a good steward of the sport, I plan on calling it like I see it and will save the buckets for the yardwork that never seems to get done while I’m chasing races.

• Kudos Tony Stewart for stepping in and taking over the All Stars eight years ago. While this was not how I envisioned his tenure owning the series ending, Stewart stepping in when it seemed we were going to have unrest in this part of the sprint car world, cleaned up an extraordinary mess (might be book worthy someday), and managed to grow the series during his tenure.

As I’ve found out myself in the past decade, life changes as we get older and our priorities shift, and I cannot blame Stewart for wanting to lighten the load on his racing empire of something that wasn’t overly profitable and time consuming. The past several years the All Stars were the most fun series to cover, but the officials were a pleasure to work with.

It wasn’t by design, but I ended up doing a long stint of several weekends with the All Stars at the end of this year. It ended up being the most fun I had covering races all season. From Tri-City, Port Royal, and Eldora there were entertaining races and great storylines every night.

That week along with several other incredible races and experiences wouldn’t have been possible if Stewart had not stepped in to right the ship. For that, I say thank you.

• Bonus take! I’m not sure if we end up with one series, two national series, or how this goes in a year or two. With the pay per view money and viewers adding much deeper cash reservoirs that we’ve seen in past situations like this, hopefully we wend up at a point where people in the series are happy enough with the direction that we don’t keep splintering things off.

I know it’s wishful thinking because if someone feels they can build a better mouse trap in race, and in this case the mouse trap being a series or set of rules for sprint car racing (see 360’s, 305’s, etc), they are likely to create it.

I would prefer to see a series that keeps people relatively happy, so we don’t have to go through these situations every 15-16 years or so. Sprint Car racing could grow more if the natives didn’t get restless and the series did more evaluations on how to avoid these situations.

The World Racing Group is far from perfect. There are plenty of prickly moments that I can see the teams point of frustration with on a regular basis. Right now, the High Limit series is in the honeymoon phase. It will be interesting to follow the policies and changes in both series as the off season progresses in reaction to each other and some of the other tracks and series around the sport.