TASKER: MIDGET RACING’S IDENTITY CRISIS
By Zach Tasker
For over 80 years, midget racing has been a cornerstone in the vast landscape of motor racing. The nimble, high horsepower, four-cylinder open wheel cars have thrilled fans from coast to coast and even across the globe on short pavement and dirt ovals. Midget racing has launched the career of many great NASCAR talents such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Khane and Kyle Larson as well as IndyCar race winner Ed Carpenter and team owner Sarah Fisher.
However, it appears as the 2015 racing season is starting that midget racing is at a crossroads. National midget engines brand new can run as much as up to $50,000. Prize money for winning a feature race doesn’t even come close to half of that amount. Car counts are dropping at many national midget events. Huge once prestigious races such as the Hut 100 and the Night before the 500 are dropping by the wayside.
There is a growing segment inside of the world of midget racing that says costs need to be contained, and drastic changes must be done. Many series are popping up offering midget racing at an affordable level compared to the national midgets. The Illini Racing Series has been around since the early 1990’s, and its ethos has always been about containing costs for the racer, so the winner isn’t the one who outspent the competition. The Illinois Midget Racing Association (IMRA) and the USAC HPD midget series are run in a similar vein. These series aim to control costs by having the engine in the car production based, meaning they are stock engines compared to the national midget purebred racing power plants. This dramatically reduces engine costs from anywhere up to $50,000 to as low as $10,000 or less. The cars on some tracks will run less than two seconds slower than the national midget engines. There have been many monikers attached to this emerging breed of open wheel racing , sportsman midgets, restricted midgets, D2 midgets, and Ecotec midgets (as the Chevrolet Ecotec engine is one of the most popular for production-based motors in midget racing).
Earlier this offseason, the Badger Midget Auto Racing Association (BMARA) made a huge change that has made ripples in the short track world. They announced that after 79 years of operation they would be switching from a national midget engine platform to a stock based platform this season in an attempt to save money for competitors and in turn boost the dwindling car count.
One car owner who wouldn’t have been able to compete in the BMARA series if it weren’t for these new rules is 2014 Illinois Midget Racing Association car owner champion Matt Schuck. Schucks’s driver is his younger brother Aaron. “I’ve grown up around midget racing my whole life, and something just has to change. The everyday Joe, is not the guy who can do it week in and week out anymore. You just can’t afford to do it. I’m very excited that Badger made the decision, and there are clubs like the Illini Racing Series and the IMRA that are going to a stock block, more economical form of racing. Obviously I wouldn’t have been able to run 30 times last year and over 30 times this year if we didn’t have that option. You look at my car compared to another car and 9 out of 10 people can’t tell you the difference besides the engine. It allows me to concentrate more on the stuff like chassis work, the setup, the way the car looks. It just makes it a lot easier to afford to go racing week in and week out and not have to worry about remortgaging your house to build an engine or rebuild an engine. I can buy a new engine for some of the cost of these other guys rebuilds. It just the way I prefer to go racing, and I love it.”
Even though there are some fans who begrudgingly don’t want to see the national midgets go away because of their lightning quick speed and huge horsepower that will go away slightly with the new engine regulations, Schuck feels that the two segments of midget racing will soon become one. “ I don’t think in the next couple of years it will happen but I think USAC is taking a very close look at it with how much time and money they are trying to develop the Honda engine. They obviously see a problem, they dropped their pavement program, they are just running dirt and they are not running as aggressive a schedule as they have. I think USAC is starting to open up their eyes, and I think one of the last groups to change anything will be Powri. I think Powri with what they are doing are very successful but you kind of see when they go to some of the bigger tracks that are kind of away from central Illinois their car counts aren’t as big as their usually are. I say in 5 years what we are doing now is going to be the way to go.”
The car owner with a shop in Joliet, Illinois also stressed that the production based midget engines don’t want to grenade themselves under stress like the national midget engines do “Longevity is the key. Last year, we had a successful season, we won seven races and a championship. The engine had 76 races on it. We decided to get a new one. The old one didn’t blow up and isn’t dead, I sold the old engine and it will be competing in the IMRA this year. We had it checked out fine, and it should run for at least another year. It helps when you don’t have to worry about that rebuild cost or if something does happen and it does blow up your are not stuck and not racing the rest of the year. You can go to the junkyard get another engine core and go back racing the next weekend if not the next day. It’s great to see, its cool to see what everyone else is doing to achieve the same goal. The biggest thing is; we are not here to make a living off of this. This is definitely not a lucrative business, but anybody that is putting these together to help grow, promote or sustain midget racing is doing a great job regardless.”
It’s not only car owners that are stressing something needs to change quickly for midget racing, top drivers are echoing those same sentiments. Kyle Hamilton, multiple time USAC National Midget feature winner and the winner of the 2014 edition of the prestigious Darcy Pavement Summer Nationals at Grundy County Speedway wants to see this important faction of the sport of motor racing succeed again. “Its pretty obvious that midget racing is struggling right now. Car counts are low across the country in any series on any surface. If I had a solution to solve the problem, Id be a rich man but I believe wholesale changes need to be made to get the ball rolling. I just had a conversation with my sprint car owner Bob East about this exact topic, and we discussed the benefits of going to a production line motor. Right now, there are only a few guys who can work on midget motors, and the parts are extremely expensive to get. Moving to production line motors would significantly open up the range of people who would work on the engines. Almost any trained mechanic could tune on it. Also, parts would be easy to get directly from a dealer or the manufacturer.”
Multiple attempts to get a response from USAC for this story were met with no reply. The debate continues to rage on in the open wheel racing community, will all midget racing series have production-based motors within five years? Or will there continue to be a split in the sport, only time will tell.