INDIANAPOLIS – Ryan Newman’s 1999 USAC Coors Light Silver Bullet Series title came after a season-long battle with Russ Gamester, who kept the pressure on until the final race.
“I knew it was going to be difficult to beat Russ,” admitted Newman. “He’d already been a USAC champion (1989 National Midget) and knew how to get there. This was something new for me and I knew we’d have a tough time. Just knowing I’m on the same page with A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Al Unser, though, is pretty significant.”
Newman opened the season with a fifth at Orlando and followed with a runner-up finish behind Brian Tyler at Phoenix.
“We decided to go for wins right off the bat,” Newman said. “We felt we needed to build up a cushion to build momentum. We knew we had a winning car and team because we should have won a couple of races in 1998.”
Newman took over the point lead with his initial series triumph in the Coca-Cola 100 at IRP. That win and his subsequent victory at Gateway Int’l Raceway helped his team gain the confidence needed to carry them through.
Then came a swing of dirt track races where most figured Gamester would have the edge.
“We had to fight to survive on the dirt,” Newman said. “There were times when we weren’t sure we should be out there, but there were actually races where we gained in the points, which surprised us.”
The Tony Bettenhausen 100 at Springfield in August was the first of two turning points for Newman and his team. He flipped during practice, had to bring out a backup car and had to run the qualifying race just to secure a feature starting spot.
“That was a tough time,” Newman admitted.
The final turning point came on the final night of the season at Irwindale Speedway in California.
“I really never felt comfortable until Irwindale,” Newman said. “Russ was always there, and we never really counted the championship as ours until the final night.”
Starting his career at the age of only four-and-a-half in quarter midgets, Newman quickly proved he’d be a contender, winning National Quarter Midget championships on the dirt at Lincoln, Ill. in 1986 and on the pavement at Pueblo, Colo. in 1988.
After 10 years in the small cars, he became crew chief for midget driver David Bridges, then drove a full-size midget in the All-American Midget Series in 1993.
Not only did he score his first feature wins that year, he also won the AAMS title and Rookie of the Year honors, as well as beat former champion Mike Streicher for the Michigan state title.
The following year, Newman competed in the Thunder in the Dome USAC invitational midget race at the RCA Dome in downtown Indianapolis as the youngest driver in the field at age 16. The next year, he finished third.
Newman campaigned the Fred Ede M&L Plumbing 1998 Drinan machine on the pavement, with additional sponsorship help from Welsch Heating & Cooling, and drove a Maxim – the first Maxim Silver Crown chassis ever built – on the dirt.
The dirt car, purchased from Dennis McQuinn of Springfield, Ill. was the same car Johnny Parsons put on the pole at Springfield in 1995.
Additional help during the season came from Gearheads Automobilia Diecast Collectibles, Simpson Race Products, Pennzoil, MPD Parts and Arizona Sports Shirts.
“I had a great team,” Newman said. “Steve and Richard Mueller were a big help, Steve acting as crew chief, as well as motor and chassis man, while Richard drove the truck and served as a tire specialist. Steve Marker also offered setup and mechanical assistance and Fred Ede Sr. and Jr. were the team managers.
“I also have to thank my mom Diane, dad Greg and sister Jamie for all they did,” he added.
Gamester remained in the title chase all season with top-10 finishes in the first 10 events, then encountered problems as the series wound down and was unable to continue the run of success in the final races.
Defending series champion Jason Leffler, like Newman, fought off an accident to claim a top-10 points finish, escaping from his flip into the first turn fence at the Indiana State Fairgrounds during practice in May with only a hand injury.
He returned to win the series’ two debut events – at Nazareth Speedway in July and the series’ penultimate race at Irwindale Speedway in October.
Jack Hewitt added to his total of Silver Crown victories with his 22nd career triumph in the Sumar Classic at the Terre Haute Action Track in September.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Sills remained atop the all-time series lap leaders list with victories in the Hulman-Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway and the Cal Expo State Fairgrounds in Sacramento.
Other series winners in 1999 included Mike Bliss at Walt Disney World Speedway; Brian Tyler in the Copper World Classic at Phoenix Int’l Raceway, Tracy Hines at Pikes Peak Int’l Raceway; Dave Steele at IRP; Dave Darland at Springfield; Tony Elliott in the Southern Illinoisan 100 at DuQuoin and Brad Noffsinger in the finale at Memphis Motorsports Park.
Kenny Irwin Jr., who nearly won the 1996 series title, returned from his NASCAR schedule for four appearances and scored three second-place finishes.
Drivers Dan Drinan and Kevin Bloomstran suffered burns in accidents at Orlando and Nazareth, respectively, but Drinan returned to racing and Bloomstran was on the road to recovery at season’s end.
Although rain played a part in the season’s drama, interrupting races at Orlando and IRP, the heat also took its toll, with temperatures near 100 degrees at both Nazareth and Gateway.
The Gateway event, though, produced some of the greatest racing ever witnessed in Silver Crown history, with a record 16 lead changes.
Paul White was named the 1999 Rookie of the Year, while finale winner Noffsinger was tabbed as the Most Improved Driver for the season.