Forget the hamburger or hot dog, the slice of pizza or soft pretzel, winged sprint car racing is like a nice kale-based salad.
The sport is straight-up healthy and if there was a commissioner to oversee it, he or she would be beaming. While most things in the world took a hit thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, winged sprint car racing thrived.
Sure, a couple of the marquee events such as the Knoxville Nationals and Kings Royal were dormant last year, but those spectacles will return bigger than ever this year.
Racing promoters across the country are offering full schedules highlighted by well-paying races.
Throw in the boom of live streaming and it feels like almost any race imaginable is only a few clicks away on a computer or a cellphone.
It’s a professional racer’s dream and that is evident as arguably the two most popular winged sprint car series — the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series and the All Star Circuit of Champions — are boasting stellar fields of full-time competitors.
Winged sprint car racing has also been siphoning some of the non-winged stars in recent years. Tyler Courtney is making the leap with Clauson Marshall Racing and Hunter Schuerenberg will race full time within a winged sprint car series for the first time in his career thanks to the opportunity from Vermeer Motorsports. Both are planning All Star schedules.
“It was pretty simple for me,” Schuerenberg said. “There are a lot more car owners in winged racing that are willing to hire a driver on a local level, regional level and the higher level like the Outlaws and All Stars. There were more places to go. The non-winged (racing) is more centrally located with Indiana and California. When you have 10 or 15 guys lobbying for rides and only three or four teams willing to hire, it made it harder. Plus, there’s more of an opportunity to race across the country with the winged stuff and purses were higher. It all came down to there were more options.”
The opportunity to race more often and for more money are among the reasons Courtney elected to focus on winged sprint cars.
“I do this for a living, so you look at the purse structure and the amount of races,” he said. “It makes sense for me as a driver and Clauson Marshall Racing as a team. Winged racing gets a little more publicity. For us with our sponsor, NOS Energy Drink, it makes more sense for everybody all around.”
Schuerenberg made the leap to the winged side in 2018 after spending a couple of years with a mixed schedule between the two types of sprint cars.
“It was definitely not seamless for me,” the 31-year-old said. “I had other variables. It wasn’t like I just had to learn to drive the car. At the time I was calling my own shots with the setup and trying to make my motors perform like they were supposed to. It took me a lot longer than it should have.
“Winged sprint car (racing) is very tight as far as competition. Timing in, everybody is very close. It’s a lot of splitting hairs to get the time you need in qualifying. You have to be precise. I was in a really good non-winged car. If I could have jumped into a good winged car with a good wrench and good motors … it wouldn’t have been near as bad. Probably within a year’s time I could have made the transition and felt fine. The biggest hurdle is learning to run the car off the right front instead of the right rear.”
Schuerenberg learned some difficult lessons and made spot starts with different teams before landing with Vermeer Motorsports last year. The team focused on racing in the Midwest in 2020 before making the jump to the All Star tour.
“I had to prove myself as a winged sprint car driver all over again,” he said. “You’re not going to make double the money off the bat. When I left USAC I was making as good of money as I could have without a wing. I took a pay cut the first couple of years because I didn’t have the same opportunity. Certain situations I don’t know that you make any more money, but the opportunity to make more money is there. You might make the same money as you did, but then the opportunity to move up to the higher level in winged sprint car racing, yeah, you probably would make double the money. If you’re one of the top World of Outlaws guys, it’s more than that. The fan base is a little bigger, so your merchandise sales are better, too.”
The 26-year-old Courtney, who is a two-time USAC national champion, followed a similar journey, making select starts in winged sprint cars before racing a part-time schedule in 2020. He highlighted a 33-race schedule last year with one feature victory, four top-five finishes and 10 top-10 results.
“I expected it toward the end of the season, but we were pretty fast right out of the gate,” he said. “I think it surprised all of us. We got forced into All Stars racing and Outlaws racing right away. Our schedule before COVID-19 hit was to hit some MOWA shows and local shows in Ohio. We got forced into racing with the big dogs. It sped up our process to go winged sprint car racing full time.”
Now, the focus is on climbing the ladder.
“It’s 100 percent focused on winged,” Courtney said. “We’ll run a couple of midget races throughout the season, but nothing full time. It’s a goal of mine to try to become a World of Outlaws sprint car driver. I’ve done everything I wanted to do in USAC. The next logical goal for me personally and Clauson Marshall Racing was to go full time with the All Stars. I want to make sure I’m fully prepared when I jump into the World of Outlaws racing.
“Realistically, I think we could be racing with them in the next two years. We’re not going to rush anything. Our goal right now is to compete for an All Star championship.”
The goal is lofty, but with how quickly Courtney adapted during his dozen feature starts with the series last year, it provided confidence that the transition from non-winged to winged racing will be successful.
“It’s all relative really,” he said. “It’s a race car. It’s learning how to race. It’s a different pace, learning where to put my car. At the end of the day, it has four wheels and an engine and I’m driving it. It’s a matter of learning everything a little differently than what I’ve been doing the last few years. We have a lot to learn to be the best at it. I have a lot of work to do, but that’s why I do this.”
Schuerenberg says he’s had many conversations with non-winged drivers inquiring about making the switch to the winged side.
“I’ve had a lot of guys ask me what I thought the transition was like and whether they should do it,” he said. “I don’t want to tell those guys whether they should do it for sure because everybody’s situation is different. When you’re established you have sponsors that will to pay for you to race. That’s a hard job security for you to leave. There are a lot of non-winged guys I hear talk about making the transition and haven’t done it yet. It’s a very, very hard thing to do. I was at a point in my career to bite the bullet and try it.
“It was a big risk. At the time it was my only source of income. We made it work. We’re with a big team with a good schedule now. It was worth the uncertainly.”
Other non-winged sprint car drivers, including Thomas Meseraull, C.J. Leary, Chris Windom and Carson Short, are also dabbling with winged racing.
The recent growth within the winged sprint car ranks has made that leap easier to tackle.
“Even the pandemic almost helped bring the popularity of winged sprint car racing to the forefront of motorsports because there wasn’t anything else going on,” Courtney said. “It’s part of the reason we decided to go that direction.”