Sills Rode Hot Seat To ’94 Silver Crown Title

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Sills Rode Hot Seat
Jimmy Sills, the 1994 USAC Silver Crown Series champion. (John Mahoney photo)

INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmy Sills was literally on the hot seat in 1994 and rode it to his second career True Value USAC Silver Crown Series championship.

“I burned my backside at DuQuoin on Labor Day and it still hasn’t healed completely,” Sills said at the time. “The heat from the exhaust got into the cockpit and gave me some good blisters.”

Sills locked up the title by finishing fifth in the finale at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield, Calif., but admits it was a roller-coaster season.

“When I passed Chuck (Gurney), it felt pretty good,” Sills added. “I knew then we didn’t luck into it. There were motor problems at the first race, then other races where we qualified badly and spent the whole race coming from behind. Plus, the midget crash at Belleville threw us a curve.”

Sills suffered a concussion and injuries to his shoulder and ribs in a violent crash during the Belleville (Kans.) Midget Nationals in August.

He made a rapid recovery but didn’t really think about the Silver Crown point race until his victory in the Hoosier Hundred on September 3.

“The Indiana State Fairgrounds was awfully good to us,” he said. “Those two wins gave us a big lift and put us in the thick of the point race. We always had to worry about (Randy) Tolsma and Gurney, though. They were up front virtually every race.”

After his win at Sacramento, Sills decided to just “go racing” at Mesa Marin.

“I’ve lost sleep in the past worrying about points,” Sills commented. “I decided to just have fun at Mesa Marin and let the points sort themselves out. The car wasn’t good before the race, but it was perfect in the 100-lapper.”

Sills started racing in Sacramento in 1973 in supermodifieds. His first Silver Crown appearance came in 1989, when he subbed for the injured Steve Butler at the Indiana State Fairgrounds after Butler’s crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that May.

Sills won the pole and finished third at DuQuoin later in 1989 and was named the Rookie of the Year at season’s end. The next year, he won the title, and he’s never finished worse than fourth in the standings since.

Sills’ championship marked the return to Silver Crown racing for Gary Stanton, who celebrated his 50th birthday the night Sills won at Sacramento.

Stanton hadn’t fielded a Silver Crown car since Doug Wolfgang drove for him in 1982, but he decided to call Sills during the winter and put the team together.

“We had mostly a rookie crew,” Sills said.  “I want to thank Paul Blacketer, Dave Kepperling, John Brunson and John Weland for their help.”

Stanton also offered thanks to Champion Spark Plugs, Hoosier Tires, Weld Wheels and Carrera Shocks for their support.

Sills, sometimes referred to as “Buckwheat” on occasion, doesn’t really care for the nickname, he admitted.

“I hate that name,” Sills exclaimed.

Somehow, the nickname “champion” seemed more appropriate anyway.

Sills’ second Silver Crown title, after winning it for the first time in 1990, came with the aid of three wins in nine starts to beat runner-up Chuck Gurney by 82 points.

He put his Stanton Racing machine in victory lane in both 100-mile races at the Indiana State Fairgrounds to capture a $10,000 bonus from the special Tony George Point Fund for those two events, then notched his third consecutive victory in the Miller Genuine Draft 100 at the Cal Expo State Fairgrounds in Sacramento, Calif. to close in on the crown.

A fifth-place finish in the final race at California’s Mesa Marin Raceway locked up the championship.

The season began inconspicuously for Sills, who missed the Skoal Bandit Racing Copper World Classic opener at Arizona’s Phoenix International Raceway with engine problems.

But rallying back, Sills led all but the opening lap of the Hulman Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in May and closed in on the point leader with a fifth at Indianapolis Raceway Park in August.

Defending series champion Mike Bliss was unable to repeat his 1993 success, although he did beat fast qualifier P.J. Jones to win the Mello Yello 100 at IRP.

Jones, in his only series appearance of the year, set a new track record during qualifying.

Gurney became a factor in the title hunt, becoming the new leader with his sixth career victory in the Tony Bettenhausen 100 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in August.

Jack Hewitt, returning to the series after his recovery from 1993 injuries, finished a strong second. Rain forced a delayed start after Johnny Parsons drew the pole starting spot.

Sills’ victory in A.J. Foyt’s Coors Light Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in September was worth $26,000, but Randy Tolsma’s outstanding second-place finish (after leading Sills late in the race) put him in title contention.

Gurney’s victory at the DuQuoin (Ill.) State Fairgrounds in September was complimented by the sterling performances of four other drivers in the race.

Tony Stewart came from 26th to finish third, Sills came from 22nd to sixth and Gary Bettenhausen, in his first series start since 1990, came from 25th to finish seventh.

Tolsma’s fourth-place finish vaulted him into the point lead.

Hewitt recorded a popular victory in the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway in late-September, while Sills’ third-place finish gave him a series lead which he would not relinquish.

Tolsma’s retirement from the Sacramento race in October left only Sills and Gurney to determine the champion at Mesa Marin one week later, which was a new addition to the 1994 schedule and drew a capacity crowd.

Bookending the 1994 season with his first two career Silver Crown victories was rookie-of-the-year Kenny Irwin Jr.

Meanwhile, a year after being named Silver Crown Rookie of the Year, Randy Tolsma earned series’ Most Improved Driver honors.

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