INDIANAPOLIS – Let’s get one thing out of the way early. My crystal ball is as dependable as the next person’s. Thus, I have no idea how all the dominoes associated with High Limit Racing’s recent purchase of the All Star Circuit of Champions will fall.
It is so tempting and easy to say that we have lived through this before. Yet have we? To me, this feels a bit like the Goodyear and Firestone tire wars in IndyCar decades ago. In those days battlelines were drawn, a fair amount of money was thrown about and drivers were asked (or induced) to pick sides.
It was never clear to me if it was good or bad for the sport. If competition leads to innovations and the improvement of a given product that’s a positive. If it leads to a messy public feud, no one benefits. Fans don’t care about the reason for such squabbles. All they really want is to be entertained.
In more recent times, some have taken a run at USAC, the leading traditional sprint car series and others have tried to topple the World of Outlaws from its lofty perch. That storyline is hardly new. However, what we have here (at least at first blush) could be called “live-streaming wars.”
Exactly how this business model works has never been entirely clear to me. Oh, like everyone else with a keyboard I have ideas, but I’m not prepared to go out on that thin reed with a thimble full of knowledge.
Still, I have some thoughts.
When President Ronald Reagan was the victim of an assassination attempt in 1980, Secretary of State Al Haig famously rushed to the White House and announced, “I am in control here.” There is no need to go over that historic moment, suffice it to suggest that when there is a real or apparent power vacuum someone will fill it.
What follows is not a projection about which organization will survive the World of Outlaws vs. High Limit situation. For that matter, there really doesn’t have to be an “us vs. them” situation. There is an American and National League in baseball. During the heyday of the IMCA sprint car and stock car series two distinct groups – National Speedways Inc., under Al Sweeney and Auto Racing Inc., headed by Frank Winkley – divided the heartland.
Do I doubt there is enough money, interest and willing race tracks to sustain two top-level winged sprint car series? Yes. Would I be upset if I am wrong? Not at all. If these two groups can offer big purses and attract big crowds and viewership, sprint car racing will only get stronger. All told that should increase sponsorship dollars and create a pathway for more drivers to make a reasonable living in the sport. I’m all for that.
The issue is what falls out below. During the inaugural race of the Maverick Winged Sprint Car Series at Lincoln Park Speedway, Ayrton Gennetten said, “There is a need for series for mid-level teams.” In my mind, he was right on the money.
I have sung the praises of Bert and Brigitte Emick, who operated the All Star Circuit of Champions for more than two decades, in this column many times and will do so again here. I loved the All Stars for many reasons. This group seemed to understand where it fit in the racing universe. It didn’t apologize for that or look at others with envy. This series was not the World of Outlaws and never really tried to be.
That didn’t mean the All Stars lacked talented drivers and solid professional teams. Far from it.
Then, when Steve Kinser, Doug Wolfgang or Sammy Swindell dropped by to race, the Emicks welcomed them with open arms. Yes, there were occasional attempts to expand the footprint with tours as far away from their home base as the Dakotas, but somehow this group, which was run by Guy Webb for a time and most recently Tony Stewart, never lost its way.
Management gurus Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman in their classic book “In Search of Excellence” offered eight attributes of management excellence. One of the key points “stick to the knitting” underscores the notion that one should not stray far from what one does best.
Anyone who has followed this sport for any reasonable length of time can point to an example of a racing series that tried to be something it was not. If your core participants are blue-collar weekend warriors, one must schedule appropriately. If a series is comprised of local heroes, it may not pique the interest of a race organizer or fans two states over.
The All Stars filled a particularly important niche in the sport. The question becomes how will it be filled since High Limit Racing owners Brad Sweet and Kyle Larson purchased the All Stars with no plans for it to operate in 2024?
As many good fans know there are scores of regional winged sprint car clubs in the heart of All Stars country. Will one group rush to claim this turf and enlarge its overall presence?
It would certainly appear the process of jockeying for position has begun. Will a World of Outlaws and DIRTVision vs. High Limit and FloRacing contest ultimately translate into affiliation agreements with regional groups common with other professional sports? It doesn’t seem out of the question.
I am certain Sweet and Larson will soon come face to face with the myriad issues that arise when you go from a modest slate of midweek events to a 50-race national schedule. It is simply put an immense undertaking.
Sure, they have had experience doing this with their various race teams. That’s a plus. However, in those situations they have only had to focus on themselves. It is a new ball game now. The same goes for any group that wants to step up and become the next iteration of the All Stars. It’s generally easy to find people who want to help on the weekends at a local track or make short treks down the road.
When those road trips cross state boundaries and the days away from home start to grow longer, enthusiasm wanes in a hurry.
Many race teams feel ready to take on a national tour and quickly learn they weren’t quite as prepared as they thought. The same issues are in play here at a higher level.
One thing is for sure. It is going to be fascinating to watch all of this unfold during the weeks to come. Grab your popcorn and hold on.
This story appeared in the Nov 22, 2023 edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.