INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmy Sills went from Valvoline USAC Silver Crown Series Rookie of the Year in 1989 to series champion in 1990, in a meteoric rise at the dawn of the new decade.
The 37-year-old racing veteran from Placerville, Calif. finished 11th in the 1989 title chase, but served notice of his intentions in 1990 in the Golden State 100 at his home state track – the Cal Expo State Fairgrounds in Sacramento, Calif. – on June 3.
Driving the Pioneer Concrete Special, Sills won the championship by the narrowest margin to that point in the 20-year history of the Silver Crown Series, edging upstart Eric Gordon by just 11 points.
“I knew after Sacramento that I had a good chance to win the crown,” Sills said. “I drove for Tex Countryman in the Phoenix opener, but a blown engine put him on the sidelines, so I talked to Bob Consani about driving for him. Fortunately, we were able to put a deal together and got the job done.
Just two years prior in 1988, Sills – a veteran of the west coast open-wheel wars – had never seen a Silver Crown race.
But, his fondness for racing on the big one-mile ovals led him to pursue the championship.
“These are neat cars to drive because you can feel the sensation of speed going down the long straightaways, yet the cars are stable enough that you feel comfortable driving them.”
One of only five drivers who started all nine series races – alongside Chuck Gurney, Gordon, George Snider and Wally Pankratz – Sills added a runner-up in the Pepsi-Cola 100 at Indianapolis Raceway Park and a third in the DuQuoin, Ill. 100-miler to his Sacramento victory and won the pole at both Sacramento and Milwaukee.
“The entire Consani team did a magnificent job of preparing the car, and my thanks go to mechanics Mike Consani, Ron Bertone, Ardee Dexter, Jim Van Lare and Ronnie Day,” added Sills.
Testimony to the unpredictable nature of the series’ competition and to Sills’ ability to win the title was the fact that all nine races produced a different winner.
In a 1990 survey conducted by Auto Racing Analysis, the Silver Crown series was listed as the only major racing series in the world presenting five or more events which had a different winner every time.
Sills, Ken Schrader, Jack Hewitt, Snider, Gary Hieber, Gurney, Jeff Swindell, Gordon and Steve Butler all visited victory lane during the year, with five of the winners scoring their first career Silver Crown wins.
Schrader kicked off the season with a 50-mile triumph in the Skoal Bandit Copper World Classic at Phoenix Int’l Raceway, but second-finishing Bob Frey was the early series point leader.
Hewitt’s victory in the Hulman Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds came after Eric Gordon had led the first 45 miles before oil pump trouble surfaced.
Hewitt’s win was his 13th in the series, an all-time record at the time.
Sills’ victory at Sacramento was marred by the serious injuries suffered by Gary Bettenhausen in an accident on the opening lap. Bettenhausen recovered by season’s end and was a welcome sight as a Hoosier Hundred spectator.
Snider, after starting 16th, caught Gordon 11 laps from the end to win the Pepsi-Cola 100 at Indianapolis Raceway Park, beating Schrader and Gordon to the checkered flag.
USAC Silver Crown’s Most Improved Driver for 1990, Hieber stunned many with his surprise victory in the Hoosier Hundred in Indianapolis.
The crowd favorite, however, was Andy Hillenburg, who led the first 96 laps before a shredding right rear tire forced him out. Sills’ second-place finish bolstered his title hopes.
Gurney scored his fourth victory in the Tony Bettenhausen 100 at Springfield’s Illinois State Fairgrounds mile, leading all 100 laps after starting on the pole.
Swindell benefited from Johnny Parsons’ misfortune at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds and came away as the winner of the Labor Day 100-miler. Parsons led until only eight laps remained in his bid for a first series victory, but lost a driveline and wound up 16th.
Gordon, the 1990 Silver Crown Rookie of the Year, was running second to Dave Blaney three miles from the finish at the Milwaukee Mile, but Blaney ran out of fuel and Gordon grabbed the winner’s trophy. Wisconsin favorite Stan Fox took a well-deserved second.
Butler’s first Silver Crown triumph after 49 tries came in the 4-Crown Nationals finale at Eldora Speedway, as he outdueled Hewitt for the win.
A fourth-place finish could have given Gordon the series title, but it was not to be as he wound up seventh.