I knew this World of Outlaws thing would stick. Sure, anyone can say that now, 41 years after “The Greatest Show On Dirt” lifted its curtain. But the sprint car climate of 1978 was very ready for a roving salesman from Wichita Falls, Texas named Ted Johnson. Critics later argued that his World of Outlaws was such a timely idea that no amount of bad business habits or rebel uprisings could derail overwhelming international appeal.
By 1978, very few sprint car drivers were achieving Indianapolis 500 affluence. To chase that fading dream required joining USAC, which delighted in extracting tolls from outlaws like Ron Shuman for the heinous act of sabotaging his own qualifying time at Salem to hop an early flight to Knoxville Nationals.
USAC may have been a stronger sprint car solution had Don Peabody lived. Don was car owner and president of California Racing Association of Ascot and perished in an airplane with seven more when the World of Outlaws was just three races old. When hired as USAC coordinator, Don declared that his new auto club had gotten stale and needed a wider variety of dirt. He capped the amount of USAC races at each track, angering Earl Baltes to basically boot USAC out of Eldora in favor of the World of Outlaws. Baltes booked three straight summer nights and an unprecedented 10k-to-win finale after giving Johnson’s new group an important early boost.
Veteran observers of the World of Outlaws know they were born in the Devil’s Bowl of Lanny Edwards when he cast its new net over his existing Spring Nationals. Among the 70 men in Mesquite, Texas on those three evenings was Jan Opperman, high priest of the Outlaw revolution. Sadly, he was a shell of himself after the ‘76 Hoosier Hundred nearly killed him, but even at 60 percent Jan remained better than most. When whole, no one was better. His 44 wins in 1972 became the standard that Doug Wolfgang eclipsed in ‘77. Bud Miller built an All Star series around Jan in ‘70-73. The mail order minister’s long hair and peace signs appeared in so many newspapers and magazines that even Parnelli Jones took note. A decade earlier, Jones was America’s finest sprint racer. Then he won the 1963 Indy 500 and quit murderous half-miles to race trucks across the Mexican desert and assemble an Indy Car cast of Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Joe Leonard. Joe broke a leg, and Jones hired Jan for the ‘74 Indy 500. Three weeks before his second Indy 500 in ‘76, Opperman drove a sprint car built by Don Maxwell, powered and maintained by John Singer and owned by Speedway Motors to a huge victory in the Tony Hulman USAC Classic live on ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports. Many point to this race at Terre Haute as pivotal in gaining mainstream recognition for the World of Outlaws.
Before roll cages allowed men to spend entire careers in sprint cars, Opperman had blown in from Haight-Ashbury to camp in Nebraska and ransack IMCA fairs with that same Speedway Motors. It was the 1970 Florida State Fair in Tampa where Jack Gunn encountered the counter culture sensation and immediately imported him to Williams Grove and Selinsgrove. Jan often teamed with Bobby Allen, then demanded an Allen chassis before signing to steer the Bogar 99 that he made famous.
Allen had Ted Johnson’s ear in 1977, as did fellow Hanover transplant Dub May and Ohio’s Rick Ferkel. They chased the richest races and felt such races should determine the “King of the Outlaws” — rather than a guy who padded numbers 20 miles from his porch. Ted had tried to gain traction as an agent negotiating driver appearance fees. He also brokered T-shirts when that market was in its infancy. When his wagon train got rolling, T-shirt sales became the backbone of Ted’s largely-cash business.
Before he took a troupe of elite performers coast-to-coast, Ted Johnson tried the more traditional route of leasing Boothill Speedway in Shreveport, LA in 1976-77 and Pennsylvania’s Lincoln Speedway in ‘77. Dad took brother and I to Ted’s show at Lincoln, where they went 30 laps with wings, took 30 minutes, inverted a dozen and ran 30 more. Johnson brought us Wolfgang, Sammy Swindell, Chuck Amati, Shane Carson, Jim Linder, Johnny Beaber and Robert Smith for the very first time. After locals (the “P.A Posse” was yet to be coined) Steve Smith and Kenny Weld triumphed, we met Jim’s kid brother Fred Linder, who said that unless a race was more than a thousand miles away, he leaped into the truck with no hesitation. He had me hooked. I had to be an Outlaw.
Dad was documenting Top Five finishers from modified stock car races; I did the same for sprints. Reading Fairgrounds being our twice-weekly stop, father expanded to Top Tens from that famous half-mile. Reading was replaced by a shopping mall just as the World of Outlaws began. To this day, I picture Sammy or Wolfgang wide-open into turn three, which 1978 technology did not allow. If personal computers had existed, I may have recorded entire features. Yet even on our manual typewriter, I hunted and pecked Top Tens from every World of Outlaws race, which had to be some premonition that someday someone would be grateful.
That initial World of Outlaws season was little more than a national point system with multiple races occasionally on the same date. Who better to make sense of it than Bob Eckert’s stat geek son? What else would you call a 15-year old dispatching letters to Ohio and California to learn the car numbers of Buck Boughan and Augie Fonseca? Could there be another label for someone with the temerity to tug on the sleeve of National Speed Sport News to inquire why World of Outlaws occupied less space than USAC? To his eternal credit, Chris Economaki did respond to explain how Speed Sport printed what it received, “and if Ted Johnson would pay someone, we’d have what you want.” Four years later, Ted took that advice by hiring Gary Guehler out of Economaki’s own office.
When the World of Outlaws began 41 years of the Gold Cup, we were 2,743 miles east at New York State Fairgrounds for the biggest event in our modified universe. Before the 1975 Syracuse 100, Bobby Allen’s winged sprint set an unofficial world record at NYS. On the day before the seventh annual modified classic came the first of 18 Syracuse Super Nationals, infamous as the day Randy Wolfe and Van May cheated death. To create closer rivalry with nearby Oswego supermods, Glenn Donnelly of DIRT denied wings, which achieved his objective when offset roadsters of hometown hero Bob Stelter and New England legend Bentley Warren clocked quickest and won the 32-mile leg. But many more were destroyed and DIRT never again scheduled sprint cars anywhere without wings.
During the second World of Outlaws season, the first as a true tour, we caught them at Penn National, modified haven in Grantville, PA. Built as a Reading replica below a horse track that still exists, Penn was where I first saw sprints (1973) and first saw Steve Kinser, who won immediately. The victory was not without controversy after Steve squeezed Lynn Paxton into the backstretch cement then restarted from the middle of the same stretch. Flagman Galen Kollar was a family friend who worked the corner at Reading and was dad’s editor at Keystone Auto News. Kollar was red with rage; Kinser could not have cared less. I loved this Outlaw indifference. I wanted some.
Friends will testify that I’ve never been too goal-oriented. To stay out of jail is goal enough. However, regarding my quest to hit the highways that connect the World of Outlaws, mission accomplished. I have seen World of Outlaws races in all 41 seasons. I have covered 735 World of Outlaws programs on 113 tracks in 34 states and publishing brash observations in whichever newspaper, magazine or website would tolerate (pay) me at that moment.
Of those 735 races, Steve Kinser won 185 times. There were weeks, months, entire seasons when Steve and cousin Karl Kinser were simply too much. Words fall short of adequately describing how they dominated. In recent years, Donny Schatz has enjoyed stretches when he wins so much early leaders hear footsteps. That’s how it was when those Hoosier hillbillies were treating the World of Outlaws like their own chew toy.
As a proud Pennsylvania native, I resisted believing Steve Kinser superior to Smokey Snellbaker or Paxton or Steve Smith or Kramer Williamson. And in 1980, that was probably true. But by 1981, we all recognized the once-in-a-lifetime greatness when Kinser won nine straight World of Outlaws races on eight eastern ovals. No streak has ever touched it (Schatz did six in 2014). When he qualified fastest on the Syracuse mile in almost total darkness, even the most jaded Beer Hill loyalist had to admit that Bob Kinser’s first born was not of this earth.
Further proof of Steve’s superiority came in 1983 when my first Eldora experience was his C-to-B-to-A climb to 20k. Both of us broke the bank in 1987 when 50 of his 55 wins were full Outlaw status, and I maxed out at 192 races. I saw 80 of 96 World of Outlaws shows; Kinser won 44 of them. I rode through New York with Craig Keel, and knew I could reboard. But when Rich Bubak revealed that he was divorced and ready to sew some oats, I rode that bachelor party for the rest of season. He seldom let me drive after I gashed the trailer at the Gold Cup. Sid and Marlys Bubak funded their son for one year. By the time he returned to Denver, I had made many friendships that endure to this day.
In that era, the only guys who could beat Steve consistently were Swindell and Wolfgang. In 1981, the holy trio accounted for 74 of 82 World of Outlaws wins as Sammy became only the second King of the Outlaws. Wolfgang won 53 times in 1985 (only eight were World of Outlaws events) and exceeded the win count of 1989 champion Bobby Davis: 26 to 21.
I have seen Sammy Swindell win 73 World of Outlaws races on dirt, asphalt and indoors for Federal Express, Nance Speed Equipment, Old Milwaukee, Kodiak, TMC Trucking, Hooters, Channellock, and Big Game Treestands. I saw Sam snare 65k in his Memphis hometown in 1990. I’ve seen him throw tantrums from coast to coast. Karl’s son Mark Kinser (61), Wolfgang (27), Dave Blaney (26), Davis (24) and Schatz (23) have topped most of my Outlaw evenings.
For decades when asked about the best racers I ever saw, my standard answer was, “Sammy, Steve and Doug in different orders in different years.” In the last decade, I’ve amended this to include Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, both too unbelievable for words. They crush the myth that NASCAR regulars cannot parachute in and win World of Outlaws races.
I have witnessed the joy and satisfaction of first-time World of Outlaws wins by Allen Klinger (1979), Jac Haudenschild (‘85), Don Kreitz Jr. (‘86), Dave Bradway Jr. (‘87), Chuck Miller (‘89), Darrell Hanestad (‘89), Joey Allen (‘92), Billy Pauch (‘94), Kelly Kinser (‘97), Brad Furr (2001), Terry McCarl (‘04), Chad Kemenah (‘05), Lucas Wolfe (‘12), Shane Golobic (‘13), Carson Macedo (‘14), Jonathan Allard (‘14) and Australia’s James McFadden in 2017.
I was at Selinsgrove in ‘79 when Jack Gunn teased Ted Johnson about how good it was going to be for Steve Kinser to see that “Welcome to Ohio” sign. The King pouted in his truck rather than get needled about getting waxed by Klinger the teenage coal miner.
I saw the first World of Outlaws races in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Mississippi and Kentucky. I’ve seen them at state fairgrounds in New York, Florida, Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma. I went to 23 Knoxville Nationals in a row. I’ve seen the World of Outlaws at three tracks in Houston, two sizes of Manzanita, and two different Lakesides. I’ve seen the World of Outlaws on gray Kansas pavement, black Iowa clay, brown Nevada dirt, red Carolina sand, and whatever Lebanon Valley is.
I’ve been to Batesville, Crossville, Grantville, Knoxville, Lernerville, Placerville and Watsonville. I’ve seen ‘em in Dodge City, Duke City, Farmer City, Rapid City, Royse City and Granite City. I caught ‘em in Charlotte County, Volusia County and Orange County; West Memphis, West Plains and West Virginia; I-30, I-55 and I-80. I’ve followed ‘em from Baylands to Baytown; Cedar Lake to Kentucky Lake; Cottage Grove to Williams Grove; Devils Bowl to Delta Bowl; Brownstown to Hagerstown; Santa Fe to Santa Maria. I’ve been everywhere, man. And it all started because some insightful child knew this World of Outlaws thing would go off like the Fourth of July.