Consider this a follow-up to a column I wrote a few years back. I believe we’ve finally reached the point where sprint car racing has become a more unified community. At this point, the battle of winged vs. non-winged appears to be mostly over.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, in particular, drivers regularly switched back and forth between competing with and without wings. If you were Steve Kinser or Danny Smith, for example, you competed and won both with and without them, as even the Outlaws offered promoters both options. While some drivers may have been better either with or without the wing, there really wasn’t as much of a distinction where you would point to a racer and say, “He’s a non-winged racer” or “He’s a winged racer.” He was simply a sprint car racer. But, along the way, a division grew – there were suddenly winged and non-winged specialists.
And, the fans were divided, as well. Sure, many sprint car fans loved both, but there was a huge camp that became strictly winged fans, and another dedicated solely to “traditional” sprints. Let’s be honest, there are definitely still fans, racers, and car owners who are dedicated to just one discipline or the other. But today the division is not as common.
For a while there, many of the racers who ran without the wing didn’t even know most of the winged racers. There were two completely separate communities, without much crossover. Several years back, when Eldora adopted the World of Outlaws as the fourth division of the 4-Crown and scheduled a full WoO show and qualifying for the three USAC divisions to take place on the same Friday night of the event, the Outlaws pitted on one side of the infield while the USAC teams pitted on the other. There may as well have been a moat separating them, as most of the racers didn’t venture into the other series’ pit area.
Granted, switching between the two disciplines is quite a bit harder than it might seem. The non-winged cars don’t run much stagger and roll over on the right side, while the winged cars run much more stagger and wing down on the left rear. They are completely different animals to drive.
Even a racer like Tony Stewart, who mastered practically every type of race car – from USAC sprints, midgets, Silver Crown cars (on both dirt and pavement) to late models, NASCAR stock cars, road course racing, etc. – struggled to get the hang of a winged sprint car. He and then-Tony Stewart Racing driver Danny Lasoski would go out to a rented track so that Tony could turn laps in a winged sprint car. They both recounted that when Tony would pull back into the pits and tell the Dude what the car was doing and what he thought needed to be done to the car’s setup to improve it, Lasoski was repeatedly stating, “No, backwards. Backwards.” Setup and driving style is very different for a car that rolls to the left in the corner, as opposed to the right.
Stewart credits Donny Schatz with finally getting him to the point that he felt comfortable in a winged sprinter. Even with Smoke’s talent, it was a challenge.
So, again, it’s not simple switching back and forth. But, for a while there, almost every driver was a specialist – winged or non-winged. Drivers like Jesse Hockett – who would win in both 410 and 360 winged sprints, as well as in non-winged events – were a rarity.
Earl Baltes’ Mopar Million sprint car race in 2003 was unique. With a million dollar purse, quite a few winged racers came out for the non-winged event. Despite being a “winged guy,” Jac Haudenschild still took off the wing on a few occasions, like competing with Ron Shuman’s Non-Wing World Championship when the group came east to Indiana. Haud took the win in the Million, with Stevie Smith claiming the runner-up spot in the first non-winged race of his career, and non-winged racer Dickie Gaines claiming the third spot.
The event broke down some barriers, and the race results silenced many who for years had loudly yelled, “Take the barn doors off the top of those things and we’ll see if those winged guys can run with the real racers!” Apparently, they could.
The Chili Bowl was another huge force in uniting winged and non-winged racers – both at the track and at nightspots like Elephant Run. And, at the end of the day, the higher-paying purses offered by some of the winged series eventually convinced many non-winged racers to give the wings a try. Eventually, racers such as Bryan Clauson, Jason Leffler, Brady Bacon, Hunter Schuerenberg, Brad Sweet, and a host of others crossing over between winged and non-winged sprints were becoming more common.
I’m glad that the “specialist” era seems to be gone. At this point, a Tyler Courtney or Tanner Thorson running a schedule of both winged and non-winged sprint cars is no longer odd…it’s become more normal.
As I stated, there are still some hardcore fans, racers, and car owners who are passionate about one discipline or the other, and that’s their right. It’s fine to like what you like, and not pay money to see something you don’t enjoy as much. But, for example, the success of USAC’s Eastern Storm demonstrates that, today, even the formerly diehard winged fans of PA enjoy a good non-winged show every now and then.
The sprint car world is not as divided. And, I’m glad that I no longer have to have two completely separate sets of friends: my “winged friends” and my “non-winged friends.”