INDIANAPOLIS – Twenty-year-old Jeff Gordon of Pittsboro, Ind., captured his second consecutive USAC driving championship in 1991, following up his 1990 National Midget crown by claiming the Silver Crown title.
It became apparent from the outset that Gordon was the man to beat.
He registered back-to-back triumphs in the Skoal Bandit Copper World Classic opener at Phoenix Int’l Raceway and the subsequent A.J. Foyt’s True Value Hulman Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
Driving the M & L Plumbing/Dillon Inn/Marker Trucking/Beast Special fielded by Fred Ede of Fresno, Calif., Gordon exhibited the same flair which brought him the 1990 midget championship as he dominated the openers, leading 88 of the 150 miles of racing.
“It really surprised me,” Gordon said of the early success in his Silver Crown career. “The Phoenix win was great, but to back it up with the Hulman Hundred win was unbelievable.”
Taking a 90-point lead over runner-up Wally Pankratz into the Pepsi-Cola 100 at Indianapolis Raceway Park in June, Gordon started third and was again leading by the 14th lap.
His engine started souring 40 laps into the race, though, and after 68 laps, Gordon was on the sidelines with a blown head gasket as Johnny Parsons drove to his first-ever Silver Crown victory.
Pankratz finished fifth and cut Jeff’s lead to just 23 points.
Commitments to the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series precluded Gordon from competing in A.J. Foyt’s Coors Light Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in August.
Not only did that keep him from a possible $10,000 bonus for winning both events at the Indy Mile, but it also put his point lead in jeopardy. Jack Hewitt drove his car at Indianapolis and won the pole, then led the first 18 miles before the engine expired.
“I didn’t think I had much of a chance to win the title by missing the Hoosier Hundred,” Gordon said in retrospect. “But my team gave me a great car all season long and that made the difference.”
Jeff Swindell scored his first Hoosier Hundred victory, but Russ Gamester and Jimmy Sills shot past Gordon in the standings with their third and second-place finishes.
A fourth in the Marlboro Tony Bettenhausen 100 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield in mid-August kept Gordon close to Sills in the points, but he admitted he could have finished higher in the 100-miler.
“We were still fighting engine problems at Springfield and it was running hot at the end of the race,” Gordon said.
Trailing Sills by 61 points into the 100-miler at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds on Labor Day, Gordon qualified fifth, but Sills claimed the pole and led the first 20 miles.
Sills’ bid to repeat as the series champion ended, however, on the 50th lap as his engine expired and Jeff’s eventual fourth-place finish behind winner Stevie Reeves was significant.
Although Gamester finished sixth, both he and Sills mathematically slipped from contention, leaving Gordon with a lock on the title going into the final race at Eldora Speedway.
“I have to thank (car owner) Fred (Ede) and his son and Ron Rasmussen for giving me a car that could win every race,” Gordon said. “Bob East also deserves a lot of credit for building a winning car in his first season of Silver Crown racing.”
With the title in hand, Jeff could easily have had a leisurely afternoon at the 4-Crown Nationals finale, but with a $10,000 winner’s check up for grabs, he wasn’t about to take it easy.
He won the pole for the 50-lapper and led the first 23 laps, building a sizable lead.
On his way to an apparent big payday, he tried to pass Sills in the high groove at Eldora but ended up in the third turn wall and coasted to the front stretch with a damaged front end. He then watched Jack Hewitt pick up the $10,000 victory.
“Winning the Silver Crown championship is really a tremendous accomplishment. I know I won it, but it probably won’t sink in until I get that ring at the National Awards Dinner in January,” Gordon said at the time.
At 20 years of age, Gordon became the youngest driver to win a Silver Crown title.
In 1991, he became the youngest at the time to wear a USAC national champion’s ring, and through his first four years of USAC racing, he amassed a fantastic record of driving achievements.
Winning 22 races and posting 11 second and 10 third-place finishes in 94 total feature starts through 1991, he left an indelible mark in the Silver Crown, National Sprint Car, National Midget and Western States Midget divisions.
His victory percentage after 1991 was an amazing 23.4%, with a top-three finishing percentage of 45.7%.
Other series highlights in 1991 included Larry Rice’s series-record 100th career start in the Eldora finale and the tremendous record crowd for the Hulman Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in May.
The Silver Crown Series did, however, suffer its first driver fatality in 21 years when Danny Milburn of Indianapolis, Ind., crashed on the seventh lap at the Phoenix season opener.
DuQuoin winner Stevie Reeves won the USAC Silver Crown division’s Rookie of the Year for 1991, while Russ Gamester earned the series’ Most Improved Driver Award.