USAC COORS LIGHT SILVER BULLET SERIES: PURE POWER, PURE EXCITEMENT LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Jan. 19, 1999 -- Four years before Jason Leffler was born, George Snider won the first United States Auto Club Silver Crown championship in...
USAC COORS LIGHT SILVER BULLET SERIES: PURE POWER, PURE EXCITEMENT
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Jan. 19, 1999 -- Four years before Jason Leffler was born, George Snider won the first United States Auto Club Silver Crown championship in 1971. Leffler, who turned 23 last Sept. 1, captured the 28th edition of the series in 1998. Leffler, from Long Beach, Calif., drove in all 13 races. Joining him three times on the starting grid was the venerable Snider, who turned 58 on Dec. 8 but showed he still can put the pedal to the metal by finishing second once and in the top 12 in his other two appearances. Now called the USAC Coors Light Silver Bullet Series, the Silver Crown cars kick off their 15-race 1999 season on Saturday, Jan. 23, as the companion event to the Sunday, Jan. 24 Pep Boys Indy Racing League season opener, the Trans World Diversified Services Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway. The Silver Bullet Series provides fans an opportunity to cheer for young and upcoming drivers as well-seasoned veterans. Two of the champions in the 1990s, for instance, were Jeff Gordon, who since has won three of the last four NASCAR Winston Cup titles, and 1996-97 Indy Racing League champion Tony Stewart. Johnny Capels today is USAC president. Just before Leffler was born, Capels ended a 20-year driving career and joined the Vel's Parnelli Jones team as the crew chief on Al Unser Sr.'s Silver Crown car that won the championship in 1973. Mario Andretti took the title the next year also for the same team. Then in 1977 Capels built a Silver Crown car and hired young, aggressive Pancho Carter as his driver for the '78 season. Carter, son of 15-year Indy 500 veteran Duane Carter, immediately won the championship and placed third and second the next two seasons. The 1999 season will see third-generation driver Dane Carter, Pancho's son, bidding for Rookie of the Year honors in the series. Pancho has worked out a lease arrangement with former driver Gary Irwin to put Dane in his two cars. The Silver Bullet Series now is the primary one conducted by USAC. Capels has put life into it during his tenure as the organization's CEO. "I've tried to be the architect of this division," Capels says. "I've tried to get it from five races to 15. The owners are running on pavement and dirt for pretty big purses." The Silver Bullet car is 1,500 pounds of pure horsepower. The open-wheel, upright machine is pushed around the half-mile and mile tracks at speeds up to 150 mph by 355 cubic inch injected V8 engines. Driving a USAC Silver Bullet Series car gives a young newcomer a sense of speed racing in a pack. The wheel-to-wheel competition lasts for 100 miles on the longer circuits and provides the opportunity to learn the strategy and endurance needed to advance to the Indy Racing League level. Mike Devin, USAC vice president as well technical director and director of competition, points out that there were 109 registered cars last season, and he expects about a 5 percent increase this season. Seventy-seven drivers scored points during the 1998 season. There are four major car builders -- Bob East (his car is called the "Beast"), Dan Drinan and Competition Welding are three, all located on Gasoline Alley on Indianapolis" west side. The fourth is Godfrey Motorsports of Brownsburg, Ind., which builds a car named the "Stealth." A fifth builder located in Findlay, Ohio, is Mike Streicher, whose car is dubbed a "Hawk." A new car without an engine costs anywhere from $18,000 to $28,000. But Devin notes that an owner can trim the price by buying only the frame and radius rods and then transferring the rear end, fuel tank, steering, hubs and brakes off an older car. It used to be some cars would be around for a decade or more, but that was when the series was run entirely on dirt. "Not so much anymore," Devin said. "They become too uncompetitive, especially on the pavement." The engines primarily come from three builders -- Gaerte Engines, Inc., in Rochester, Ind., Snyder Enterprises in Danville, Ind., and Shaver Engines in Torrance, Calif. There are some independents, such as Donnie Ray Evert of Pittsboro, Ind., who also build engines. The Silver Crown cars raced for the first time at Walt Disney World Speedway last January. Jason Leffler carries some bittersweet memories of that race, because he had it won as the white flag waved and wound up 12th. His Petro Stopping Centers Beast ran out of fuel as he headed into the final lap. Brian Tyler passed him for the lead on Lap 48 of the 50-lap race and went on to win his first Silver Crown event. Ten other drivers also passed Leffler as he nursed his fuel-starved car around to the checkered flag. Tyler, 31, of Parma, Mich., earned a first place payoff of $12,500 from a $70,250 total purse. An example of the age variance among the driver was that the next three finishers -- John Heydenreich, Chet Fillip and Jack Hewitt -- all were in their 40s. Indianapolis' Kenny Irwin Jr. was fast qualifier with a speed of 130.771 mph and a lap of 27.529 seconds. Irwin Jr. went on to drive the full NASCAR Winston Cup season as a rookie in the Robert Yates No. 28 Ford. He is entered to race at the Walt Disney World Speedway again this week. Leffler was frustrated but undeterred by his first-race woes. He got his revenge in the season finale at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., in mid-October. Tyler carried a 516-502 lead into the last race and needed only to place in front of Leffler to earn the championship. Brakes, not fuel, did in Tyler as he slipped back to 16th trying to avoid slipping off the track. Leffler, meanwhile, drove a solid race to place fourth and gain enough points to snatch the title away from his rival by a 553-537 count. "We really didn't anticipate winning the championship at all," said Leffler, who also beat out Jay Drake by 11 points to capture the USAC National Midget title when the final race at Las Vegas was rained out. "We planned to run the first couple of races, but then we were quick right off the bat. We really felt we should have won the race at Disney, but it showed us we had the speed. We just needed to find victory lane." That didn't happen until July 29 when he saw the checkered flag on the 5/8ths-mile oval at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Consistency and bonus points were the keys to his championship. He added a second, three fourths, two fifths and a pair of six-to-10 finishes, and picked up 15 points for two winning two poles and leading the most laps three times. Tyler didn't score a single bonus point. A second-place finish and three points for leading the most laps propelled Leffler into the lead for the first time in the rain-shortened race at the Indiana State Fairgrounds mile track on May 22. A 16th at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, on Sept. 26 handed the lead back to Tyler. But Leffler rebounded with an eighth at Sacramento, Calif., and the fourth in the finale to take the first of his two championships. Car builder Bob East and his wife, Janice, took on the burden of being Leffler's car owner after Jim Goetz, the licensed owner of the car, decided to retire. Before 1998, Leffler had driven in only four Silver Crown races. Despite winning the title and earning his Pep Boys Indy Racing League license with Treadway Racing, Leffler recognized that he needs improvement to repeat, particularly on dirt. "The problems there weren't really the team's problems," he said. "Also, when we did have (mechanical) problems with the car, it seemed like they all came on the dirt." Leffler pushed his father, Charles, to buy him a quarter-midget when he was 12. As he advanced up the racing ladder in California, he realized that he had to move to the Midwest to race against tougher competition. He came to Indiana in 1997 and immediately won the national midget championship. In his two years running in USAC he has attracted a lot of attention, passed his Indy Racing League test and done considerable tire testing for Treadway. His goal now is to latch onto a full-season Indy Racing League ride. He is scheduled to make his debut in the league at the season-opening TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 on Jan. 24 at Orlando, Fla., in a second Treadway car. It's a one-race deal for now. Leffler also will open the defense of his USAC Silver Crown title in the newly renamed USAC Coors Light Silver Bullet Series opener Jan. 23 at Orlando. "We're pretty confident going into Disney," Leffler said. "I've run 350 miles on the track testing the Treadway car, and that has given me a lot of confidence. If we can have any racing luck at all, we'll be up front." Veteran Hewitt also will compete in the Silver Bullet event. He has driven in 130 of these races, three more than Snyder. He has won 21 times and finished in the top five on 54 occasions while leading 1,183 laps. Another veteran campaigner who'll be there is Jimmy Sills, a 45-year-old from Placerville, Calif. He won the Silver Crown title in 1990, 1994 and 1996 and trails another experienced racer, Chuck Gurney, by 17 in totals laps led (1,328-1,211). Ryan Newman, from South Bend, Ind., is a rising star who at age 21 already has driven in 35 Silver Crown races and has had six finishes in the top four -- but not his first victory. He placed third in the final 1998 standings, only 27 points behind Leffler. Dave Darland, from Kokomo, Ind., has driven in 52 Silver Crown races during the 1990s and won five races and the 1997 championship. He finished fourth in the 1998 standings just in front of Arizonan J.J. Yeley, another youngster (just 22 on Oct. 5) with high promise. He and 1996-97 Indy Racing League champion Tony Stewart won two races apiece in 1998, while nine other drivers won once. No series could ask for a better spread of competition among its racers. Schedule: The Coors Light Silver Bullet Series race taking place during the TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 weekend starts at 2:30 p.m. (EDT) Jan. 23. The feature is 50 laps. Qualifying starts at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 22. The 20-lap last-chance race starts at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 23. Coors Light Silver Bullet Series practice sessions will start at 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Jan. 22, and 9 a.m. Jan. 23. Tickets: Tickets for the TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 are available by calling (800) 822-INDY.