When it comes time to select a Driver of the Year, the choice will come down to Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR stock car champion, and Bobby Rahal, the Indy car champion. It's nearly always that way, but perhaps it's time to look at another field--sprint cars.
Steve Kinser, a powerfully built 32-year-old former wrestler from Bloomington, Ind., has amassed a record in the World of Outlaws this year--and over the past 10 years--that defies comparison.
Earnhardt has won 11 of 26 races, Rahal 3 of 14 in Indy cars and 3 of 5 in International Motor Sports Assn. sports car events. Neither is close to Kinser.
Kinser has won 44 of 67 races, a remarkable .656 average. More noteworthy is that he has won 22 of the last 24. In 10 years with the Outlaws, Kinser has won 212 races, including the U.S. Nationals at Knoxville, Iowa--the Indianapolis 500 of sprint car racing--the last five years in a row. He's won $1,785,000 in purse money.
He is known as King of the Outlaws.
So it's only sprint cars, you say, a funny bunch of roughnecks calling themselves Outlaws.
Once it was that way, back in 1978 when a promoter named Ted Johnson gathered together a group of drivers disenchanted with the United States Auto Club circuit, scheduled a few races for a $2,000 minimum purse and called his series the World of Outlaws.
In the 21st annual Pacific Coast Nationals, starting tonight at Ascot Park, the purse will be $93,000 for three nights of winged racing and a Sunday night for non-winged California Racing Assn. cars. The Outlaws' season payoff this year is $3.3 million.
The Outlaws are the most truly national series in racing, competing in 22 states from New York, Pennsylvania and the Carolinas, across the Midwest to California and Arizona. Attendance for the season, when it ends next week in Phoenix, is expected to top 1 million.
Kinser, who has clinched his eighth championship, and his fifth in succession, is the catalyst.
He is the man the fans come to see, and he is the man to beat.
"I came along at the right time, and because I did, there are a lot of good, young drivers in the Outlaws today," Kinser said. "When I started in racing, no one wanted to give a young guy a chance. The purses weren't enough to allow an owner to have a hired gun. Most of the guys ran their own equipment, and most of them were older guys who could afford it.
"Now the purses are up where an owner can have his hired gun. That's really what I am, a hired gun to drive what's provided me. Seeing me making so much money has attracted a lot of young drivers and if they're good, there are owners out there waiting for them."
Kinser readily admits that he has a secret weapon: Karl Kinser, his car owner and chief mechanic.
"Karl's not really related to me," he said. "Oh, maybe he's a distant, distant cousin, but that man out-works, out-thinks and out-performs anybody in racing. He deserves 85% of the credit when I win a race. I know that.
"My equipment is better than anybody's, so I have a little edge every time I go out on the track. People think we grew up together, but the truth is I didn't know who Karl was until I started driving for him in 1978. I sure don't want to leave him now, though."
There are so many Kinsers in southern Indiana that you need a score card to keep them straight. Some nights, on bull ring tracks in such hamlets as Putnamville, Brownstown, Warsaw, Liberty and Haubstadt, as many as three or four Kinsers may be in the same race.
Bobby Kinser, 56, who is Steve's father, is still a racer. He holds the track record at Kokomo for sprint cars, drove on the USAC circuit for years and still wins his share of races.
Mark Kinser, 24, is Karl's son and runs the World of Outlaws circuit as Steve's teammate. In 1985 he became the second-youngest winner of a World of Outlaws feature race and this year is sixth in driver points.
Kelly Kinser, 28, is Steve's cousin and races sprint cars on the All-Star circuit around Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Randy Kinser, 27, is Bobby's son and Steve's younger brother. He drives occasionally with the Outlaws and has toured Australia with his brother.
Sheldon Kinser, 44, is another distant cousin. He was the best known until Steve came along. Sheldon won the USAC sprint car championship three times and drove six times in the Indianapolis 500. His best finish was a sixth in 1981, his last year at Indy, but now his career is over. Sheldon has cancer of the throat and is not expected to live the year.
"It seems that Kinser's a popular name around Bloomington," Steve said. "The fact that so many of us are racers makes us seem like one big family."
There is something of a familial atmosphere around the Kinser household. Steve's wife, Dana, is not a racer but her father, Owen Snyder, raced midgets under an assumed name because his boss did not approve of racing. Her stepfather, Jim McQueen, is a USAC sprint car mechanic, and her brother, Owen Jr., is chief mechanic for Rick Galles' Indy car team of Geoff Brabham and Jeff McPherson.