Steve Kinser, Open Wheel, Class of 2017
By Dick Berggren
Steve Kinser is called “King of the Outlaws” and the title fits. When the World of Outlaws sprint car series was formed in 1978, Steve signed on, became its first champion, and then spent nearly the next 40 years on the road, winning more races and championships than any other sprint car driver in history.
The “Outlaw” title is a throwback to days long ago when the top sprint car series in the country was sanctioned by the AAA. Everyone who raced elsewhere was considered an outlaw since AAA required their drivers to race only the events they sanctioned. During Kinser’s years with it, the Outlaw series he dominated was (and still is) America’s top sprint car tour.
The cars Kinser drove are among the most difficult to handle of any. With no minimum weight, they are purpose-built of steel tubing and fiberglass, are driven wide open all the way around most oval tracks, including through the turns while sliding sideways in a four-wheel drift. At full tilt and speeds of well over 120 mph, they bounce through ruts and holes, sometimes being photographed completely off the ground.
Their powerful engines are mechanically fuel injected, burn straight alcohol, and turn ridiculously high RPM. To save weight, there’s no starter or transmission. The cars are push-started in high gear. The engine location is high in the chassis to transfer weight to the right rear tire, which improves grip. As a result of their high center of mass and sideways operation, sprint cars are exceptionally susceptible to violent rollover crashes. Many who would be the next Steve Kinser have been forced out of the sport following such accidents. Sprint cars are evil, profoundly dangerous. Kinser mastered them better than anyone else ever has.
It takes a tough guy to drive sprint cars. The majority of the Outlaw schedule consists of one- and two-night stands at tracks located hundreds of miles apart. Kinser has worn out dozens of tow vehicles during his career. Early in that career, Kinser drove sprinters for his cousin Karl as they went to races all over America with the entire crew packed into a four-door pickup with the race car on an open trailer behind them.
Kinser’s record is simply mindboggling. He won 577 World of Outlaw feature events and 20 series championships, both records. The two biggest races of the year in the US are the Kings Royal, which he won seven times, and the Knoxville Nationals which he won 12 times, both of which are records. In World of Outlaw racing alone, he has won at 142 different tracks, another record.
He was invited to participate in the 1994 IROC series and won on Talladega’s fearsome high asphalt banks against the best stock car drivers in the country. Many years, Kinser raced more than 100 nights.
He no longer drives but continues to be a presence in sprint car racing, working with his son Kraig on the Outlaw circuit.
In my book, Steve Kinser is the best sprint car driver who ever lived.
Former racer Dick Berggren is a longtime motorsports announcer and writer, featured on broadcast coverage of NASCAR’s three main series and the World of Outlaws. He also hosted NASCAR Performance on SPEED Channel. Berggren was National Motorsport Press Association 1999 Writer of the Year and inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2002.