For the brass of the United States Auto Club there was much to be proud of as the 2021 season concluded. Across the three national series, 93 races were contested from February through November. Compelling championship fights helped maintain interest and winners ranged from youthful stars such as Emerson Axsom and Buddy Kofoid, to grizzled veteran Brian Tyler.
Before the mid-December banquet even came around, two high-profile competitors, Chris Windom and Kevin Thomas Jr., announced their intention to race winged sprint cars in 2022. As this story was going to press, Tanner Thorson also announced his intentions to race winged sprint cars full time this season.
Windom is a member of USAC’s elite Triple Crown club, while Thomas was the leading money winner in the sprint car ranks in 2021. These men have been a consistent presence on the USAC tour for years and their decision came in the wake of Tyler Courtney having won the All Star Circuit of Champions title after giving up non-winged sprint car racing for the winged variety.
For many, this news signaled that USAC’s non-winged sprint car division may be in some sort of decline, while others viewed the decisions of Courtney, Windom and Thomas as merely acting in their own self-interest by following the money.
Like most things in life, it really isn’t as simple as that. In terms of available prize money and exposure no one within the walls of the USAC office would deny that the World of Outlaws holds the upper hand. Yet, the aforementioned drivers were, at least for now, headed for the All Star Circuit of Champions.
The truth is that the All Stars and USAC offer very comparable purses and a review of the leading money winners within these groups in 2021 finds Courtney at the top, with Thomas, Justin Grant and Brady Bacon close behind.
USAC is also a different animal. Upper echelon drivers in USAC often buttress their income by finding work in the midget and Silver Crown ranks. That alone allowed Grant to start every USAC-sanctioned national event and pick up bonus money at the end of the year.
A deep dive into the basic motivations that led Courtney, Thomas and Windom to make the switch, revealed some key differences but, interestingly, a near universal proclamation that money alone was not the motivating factor.
When Courtney decided to devote nearly all his time to winged sprint car racing, he was arguably the face of USAC. With an outgoing personality and swashbuckling style that netted him USAC sprint and midget championships, Courtney was a fan- favorite and well-respected by his peers and officials.
Many were anxious to see how he would fare when he slapped a wing on the top of his car. The results did not go unnoticed.
Few imagined that Courtney would become the All Star champion and a Kings Royal winner. Suffice it to say, his success raised many eyebrows.
When he looks back on his decision-making process Courtney is characteristically candid.
“It was a personal goal of mine since I was little,” he said. “I grew up in Indiana so going the USAC route made the most sense. I could buy my own car and race three nights a week and then work myself into USAC. That’s your bread and butter here. But I just love racing.
“I’m not as accomplished as Chris (Windom) because he also won a Silver Crown title, but we did win a midget and sprint car championship and a lot of races. I just felt like it was time to take a leap and try to do the rest of the things I wanted to do in my career. I thought those things were going to happen with a wing and, luckily, my team and sponsors stood beside me and allowed me to go do that. I have been fortunate to this point that I didn’t make them look like fools.”
Courtney isn’t immune to social media chatter and he has also talked with his peers who moving into winged racing. He thinks some people are missing the point.
“Between the All Stars and USAC, it isn’t terribly different. I think people get lost in that money situation. I never once said I was going winged sprint car racing for the money,” Courtney said. “I have always stood behind the idea that it was a time in my career where I wanted to expand and see if I could make this happen.
“You do get a chance to run these big races and if you do well in those events you can make some darn good money, but money has never driven me in racing. That has always been a bonus. I just wanted to be the best I could be. I felt that I had proven myself in the USAC world and I wanted to prove to the rest of the world that I could do more than drive one class of race car.”
Courtney was initially surprised at Windom’s move but later reasoned that the veteran racer had accomplished all he set out to do with USAC. Like Courtney, Windom still expects to race without a wing from time to time.
“Honestly I’m just ready to do something different. It isn’t all about money,” Windom said. “I’ve raced with USAC a long time and I have mainly won everything I wanted to win. I want to try something different, and now I have an opportunity to do it.”
Still, Windom, 31, acknowledged that Courtney’s success, including his Kings Royal victory at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, got his attention.
“Kevin Thomas and I were running midgets in the Midwest,” he said. “And we looked at each other and said damn, ‘We’re in Nebraska running for $4,000 and he just won $175,000.”
Windom also acknowledged that a long-term goal is to race with the World of Outlaws.