6. Tyler Courtney All Star Nearpass Online
Non-winged drivers are bolting on wings - Tyler Courtney won the All Star championship in his first full season racing winged sprint cars in 2021. - DAVE NEARPASS PHOTO

To Wing It Or Not To Wing It

Last season, Thomas earned more money in USAC-sanctioned sprint car races than any other driver. Along the way he was the king of Indiana Sprint Week for the second time and notched his third Oval Nationals victory at California’s Perris Auto Speedway.

Thomas leads a family operation, so when an opportunity arose to join ranks with another owner, he jumped at it. Thomas was working on Donny Schatz’s sprint car during the Knoxville Nationals when he was introduced to Clayton Snow.

Once the season ended, Thomas and Snow sat down and put a deal together. Pooling their equipment was the first step in the process.

Frank Smith Photo Online“This makes it easier on both of us,” Kevin says, “We were both going to go racing anyway and we know it is more expensive to go winged racing. We’re not idiots. We understand that. But I’m five race cars ahead of where I was a month ago and it is hard to say no to those kinds of things.”

There is more to this change in direction than lightening his fiscal burden. After all, Thomas is quick to admit he generally prefers to do things on his own. Like many of his USAC peers, he has spent time in midgets, raced on the local scene and occasionally hopped in a Silver Crown car. He has grown a bit weary of that routine.

“There are a couple of different reasons why I made the move,” Thomas explained. “One, it is something new and it is a change of scenery for the most part. Two, I want to be able to race one type of car. I respect that in USAC you have to be versatile, but I want to try and perfect one trade. Winged racing is something I have wanted to do for a while and something I really like.”

Four-time USAC sprint car champion Brady Bacon, who has run plenty of winged races during his career, is staying put.

“We have built a team to run with USAC and it works,” he offered. “We are successful at it and our supporters like doing it.”

Bacon understands the drive to do something different, particularly for a guy like Chris Windom who has essentially raced with USAC since he was a teenager.

“I think all of the top drivers in USAC are capable of having success in winged racing,” Bacon said. “That isn’t the question. But the resources it takes to have consistent success is a big difference. That’s what held me back. I didn’t have the resources to do it properly. You could go broke pretty easy and this is what I do for a living, so I can’t afford to do that.”

As for the different style of racing, Courtney admits it took some time for him to get comfortable.

“It was just the speed,” he explained, “and how quickly everything happens. At most tracks you are two or three seconds faster than you are in a non-winged car.

8. Brady Bacon Usac T Haute 5 26 2021 Nearpass Photo OnlineAcclimating yourself to that situation was the hardest thing. After that it is still driving a race car and putting it where it needs to be put. At first, I struggled with catching up to the car, but I got on top of that and got back to doing the things I know how to do. About halfway through the season, we started hitting on all cylinders and I was able to drive the race car instead of having the race car driving me.”

Windom has done enough winged racing to have a feel for the adjustments he has to make.

“You go into a corner and it slams to the left and my whole career you go in and it slams to the right. It is completely opposite,” Windom said. “You also have to attack in a winged car. It is really an eye opener running Eldora when you see just how hard those guys run for a whole race.

“In non-winged racing, you, obviously, still run hard but you have time to go into a corner, breathe it a bit and give everyone a chance to get into their own lane. If you go into a corner in a winged car and lift, you’re getting freight trained on both sides.”

“You can’t qualify 15th in a wing car and think you are going to win,” Bacon noted. “They are different to drive, but a good racer is going to figure that out. The big difference is that anyone can hold it wide open and go straight at Eldora, but there are some cars that can go faster than others. It takes time to learn how to make your car go fast like that. It’s a lot of tiny little things, but they are the same things you do it a non-winged car.”

USAC Race Director Kirk Spridgeon is among those who dismisses the theory that the departure of these drivers could impact USAC’s overall product.

“Everyone who has left has their own set of circumstances and decided what is best for them. I think we have a pretty good platform right now,” said Spridgeon, who has a strong understanding of USAC history. “We are in a different period in USAC history. We are looking at unprecedented numbers. I think five of the top eight longest start streaks in USAC history are among guys who are active now. Several guys have been nonstop doing this full time for quite a few seasons.

“We transitioned from a time when nobody ran all the races or went for multiple championships to where we are now,” he noted. “I try to keep that in perspective. We still have a super loyal group who have been doing it for a long time. I remember when some people thought the World of Outlaws was doomed because they had 15 or 16 touring guys and two or three dropped off the tour. Well, they dropped off because it was really hard. So we have had some guys drop off, too.”

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