His purchase of two series may have stopped a war, but it hurt some feelings
OCALA, Florida – Apparently not everyone in the sprint car world is happy with NASCAR racer and team owner Tony Stewart, who recently bought the All Star Circuit of Champions and the Renegade Sprints, two Ohio-based sanctioning bodies. Stewart, owner of Eldora Speedway, the most important dirt track in Ohio, folded the Renegades into the All Stars.
You'd think having a wealthy sprint car racer and dedicated patron of the dirt buying the series is a good thing, right?
Chad Kemenah, who has 27 All Star wins and is the series’ four-time champion, pauses before he answers the question.
“I guess we’ll see, won’t we?”
Kemenah (in photo above, inside Steve Kinser's number 11) was solidly in the upstart Renegades camp, becoming sort of a de facto driver spokesman for the fledgling series. It was created, rather quickly, midway through last season, and ran some races from August to October. The 2015 season was going to be the showdown, with the All Stars and the Renegades scheduling a lot of races in the east and the Midwest in competition with each other, often on the same night.
Plenty of teams would have to choose between the two series if they wanted to compete for points. Said Kemenah at the time: “I’m not sure there’s room for both series to survive.”
What was the issue?
So what was the problem with the All Stars, which has been sanctioning sprint car races for 45 years? In an interview with a sprint car publication last summer, Kemenah cited the usual complaints: Losing touch with the fan base, promoters and team owners; dull, slow-paced shows; an inability to attract young fans. There were also reports of the All Stars dragging its feet in paying points money.
Certainly, while not as well-known as the World of Outlaws sprint car series, the All Stars have had a good run. It was founded in 1970 by Bud Miller, who passed control of the series to Bert Emick in 1980. He ran it until 2002. Guy Webb then purchased the series from Emick in the summer of 2002 and was the series president until he sold it to Stewart last month. The cars, 410 cubic-inch winged dirt sprint cars, are essentially identical to the WoO cars.
In a pointed slap in the face lost on no one, the Renegades had Emick, the 22-year owner of the All-Stars, serve as the Renegades grand marshal for the $15,000-to-win season finale at Atomic Speedway in Chillicothe, Ohio on October 25. The Renegades “have some good ideas,” Emick said at the time. “I noticed (that racing has) gotten a lot more expensive and the purses haven’t gone up that much. One day somebody is going to have to do something for the car owners to get the costs under control. I said this back when I was running the All Stars and it didn’t seem to happen.”
An even more in-your-face challenge by Renegades President Shane Helms and his partner Rob Hunter: The All Stars traditionally hosts a summer week-long series of races at different tracks in Ohio. The Renegades scheduled its own week-long series in Ohio, the same week, and different tracks – which surely would have meant disaster for each of the series.
A dozen drivers
In December, the Renegades released a list of a dozen drivers that they said would be racing with the series in 2015 that included Kemenah and Greg Wilson, Tim Shaffer, Dean Jacobs and Danny Smith. A month earlier, they even hired Frankie Kerr, a former sprint car racer and most recently NASCAR Sprint Cup crew chief for driver Marcos Ambrose, to be the race director.
It was about that time that Danny Smith, a veteran racer who has eight World of Outlaws victories over the last 40 years, began to get worried. He called his old friend, Tony Stewart, for advice, suggesting that he might back the Renegades.
No question: A war was brewing between the All Stars and the Renegades, a war that Stewart realized he could end with his very fat checkbook.
And he did. Stewart first bought the Renegades, then he went after the All Stars. The Renegades quickly dissolved; the website and Facebook page disappeared, and presumably somewhere there are boxes full of gray teeshirts – “Renegade Sprints – The Revolution Is Here!” – that are now either rags or collectors’ items, depending on your perspective.
So now the All Stars 2015 season appears solid, with dates at both Stewart’s Eldora and at Atomic Speedway (formerly K-C Speedway), the home track for the Renegades.
What will Stewart do with his new series? Take on the World of Outlaws?
Not likely, said Danny Smith. “The Outlaws pay twice the purse money, but it takes twice as much to run the series. I think if everybody had the money to run with the World of Outlaws, we all would. The All Stars is sort of a working-man’s series, and probably always will be. It fits a lot of our budgets.” After all, the All Stars concentrates on an east-of-the-Rocky Mountains schedule, while the World of Outlaws runs a lot of shows in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Canada.
As far as Stewart buying the series: “It’s probably the best thing that could happen under the circumstances. The Renegade thing was going to work, but there would have been a feud all year long. Tony is a class act. This is pretty much a win-win for everybody.” Well, maybe: Some people in the pits were anxious to see what the Renegades could have done, given a full season. Some are reserving judgment to see if the issues they had with the All Stars that led to the formation of the Renegades are addressed.
Plus, not everyone is as sure as Danny Smith that Stewart will be happy running a second-tier series. Should the World of Outlaws be worried?
“I think they should be,” said Todd “Bubba the Love Sponge” Clem, a former sprint and late model racer who is currently an owner of Bubba Raceway Park, a dirt oval in Ocala, Florida where the All Stars – billed on the sign outside the track as “Tony Stewart’s All Stars” – began their season this past weekend with a Friday, Saturday and Sunday show.
Clem, a nationally syndicated radio talk show host who shared time on Howard Stern’s Sirius satellite station, has a 12-year-old son, Tyler, who made Saturday’s A feature, making him the youngest driver in history to do so with the All Stars. Clem, like Tony Stewart, is from Indiana, and is a longtime friend of the NASCAR driver -- Stewart even sponsors Tyler Clem.
Bubba Clem notes that Stewart owns the sprint car teams for legendary driver Steve Kinser, and for current and six-time World of Outlaws champion Donny Schatz. It seems unlikely that Schatz would transfer full-time to the All Stars – his trailer was at Bubba Raceway Park, but he wasn’t racing, and won’t until the Outlaws start their season at the Outlaws-owned Volusia Speedway Park on February 13.
But Kinser, who has 20 WoO championships, announced his retirement from the full WoO circuit, and the 60-year-old driver, who remains far and away the biggest name in the sport, could well do some All Star races. As he did this weekend – he finished a close third Saturday night to winner Kerry Madsen of Australia, and second-place Dale Blaney, the current All Star champ and the brother of NASCAR’s Dave Blaney. Dale Blaney said Saturday night that he had pledged to a full All Stars season for 2015, regardless of who owned it.
If Stewart could get Kinser at some races, possibly with Shatz showing up as schedule permits, and maybe get the also-retired Sammy Swindell to return for a few big shows, it would certainly raise the All Stars’ profile. As if it hasn’t already happened by Stewart’s mere ownership.
Stewart buying the All Stars “will help rejuvenate sprint car racing,” said Bubba Clem. “It’s going to give a second-tier series some sex appeal. The World of Outlaws do a great job, but now promoters have a second alternative, which is always good for racers and track owners and fans. And obviously, the new owner of the All Stars knows a little something about racing.
This is, he says, “competition the World of Outlaw have never had. And that could be good for everybody.”
The All Stars move to Volusia Speedway Park, located an hour west of Daytona Beach, on Wednesday. If the World of Outlaws are worried about the All Stars, they aren’t showing it yet – Volusia Speedway Park is owned by the same company that owns the World of Outlaws.