IRA Sprint Car Series celebrates 50th anniversary
By Nicholas Dettmann
Like a 50-year marriage, there are ups and downs. But if there is also a commitment by both parties, it’ll all work out.
For the Bumper to Bumper IRA Outlaw Sprint Car Series, that’s exactly what’s happened as the open-wheel series celebrates its 50th season this summer.
The series has gone through improvements in technology and competition, but also financial struggles with drivers, crews, sponsors, tracks and fans. It got through all of the challenges with one simple way: dedication. That’s a reason to celebrate and the series plans to do that as it reaches the golden season.
“The dedication of the drivers and their fans,” said Ray Underwood, who has worked with the series for the last seven years with the last three as the series’ full-time announcer when asked what he believes has been the key to the series’ success through the thick and thin.
“It’s a close-knit family,” he added.
Underwood offered the perfect example.
Last season, rising national star Rico Abreu made an impromptu appearance with the series July 10 at Dodge County Fairgrounds in the town of Beaver Dam. This season, Abreu is competing with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He is a two-time Chili Bowl and Pepsi Nationals winner, and the 2014 USAC Midget national champion.
But on that July evening, Abreu crashed and flipped over. He thought he was done. Underwood thought he was done.
Instead, in almost an instant, the series’ character showed.
“I saw five different team putting that 24 car back together,” Underwood said. “There is just a camaraderie with this traveling organization. You don’t find that with other people. We don’t have personal feuds and in-fighting with each other.”
Drivers from outside the region hear this through word of mouth, or these days, social media. They want to be a part of it. Abreu did as so have several others.
While primarily a Wisconsin traveling series with two dates out of 35 in Illinois, drivers from seven states have made an appearance through the first two races of 2016. In 2015, drivers came from 16 states to compete, plus a pair of drivers from Australia.
Today, the IRA series is the longest-running Sprint Car series in the country. The World of Outlaw Sprint Car Series, which often captures more of the national spotlight, started in 1978.
“When you find older folks that have been together for 50 years, it’s a perfect model of dedication,” Underwood said. “People that have come together and stayed together for that period of time, through thick and thin and all, it’s living proof of just how much heart and dedication you can have in one thing.”
Bill Balog, the series’ winningest driver, was among those who heard of the series through word of mouth and he wanted to get involved.
Balog was born and raised in Alaska and later moved to Washington. Then he moved to Wisconsin about 10 years ago to compete in the series after racing 360 Sprint Cars in the Pacific Northwest.
“At the time, the Outlaws were on TV and some of those guys I was reading about, Joe Roe and Mike Reinke, were on TV, racing and doing pretty well,” Balog said. “For me, it solidified that it was a legitimate organization.”
The IRA series was founded in 1967 and it started as Winged Super Modifieds, competing on dirt and asphalt. IRA was developed because most of the drivers were from the region surrounding the Wisconsin-Illinois border and raced at Wilmot and Waukegan.
By the mid-1970s, the cars transformed to Winged Sprint Cars similar to what they are like today and moved to a dirt only schedule. Wilmot was the primary home for the series, racing there every Saturday night no matter what.
Then in 1993, the series branched out. Steve Sinclair, the series’ president for 23 years and a crew member for a driver in the series before that, was one of the people who spearheaded that movement. He recognized two factors that said to him the idea could work.
“It’s easier to get a bigger purse if you’re willing to travel,” Sinclair said. “So that was kind of … try to get more money to these guys. They seemed like they wanted to do it at the time.”
Then gas prices skyrocketed. The schedule and distance had to be cut. The series has stuck with keeping the series in Wisconsin and Illinois.
“This is working perfect with what we’re doing,” Sinclair said. “Last year, we had 20 different winners from nine different states. So, the racers, instead of us traveling to them, they’re traveling to us.”
On April 24 at Beaver Dam, there were drivers from Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, North Dakota and Minnesota.
“I think they know they can come out and get treated fair,” Sinclair said. “We’re not World of Outlaw money by any means, but we’re heck of a lot more than a weekly show at the same track.”
What has also worked is a dedication by the series to reimburse drivers as best they can through the sanction fees. And those reimbursements aren’t usually much, gas money for example. But it’s something and every little bit helps for a driver and the team.
One of the first races away from Wilmot on a Saturday night was at Beaver Dam, the first year Beaver Dam reopened in 1993.
“I think there was demand,” Sinclair said. “The other tracks never thought they could get a Sprint Car race because everybody was locked into Wilmot.
“Once we started breaking out of Wilmot a little bit, it opened some doors.”
Sinclair is also savvy. He pays close attention to the buzz from drivers and tracks.
The drivers also bought in to what Sinclair was willing to try.
“When we came (to Beaver Dam) the very first night, Wilmot did race that night,” he said. “There were 34 cars [that] came [to Beaver Dam] and some stayed at Wilmot on that very first Saturday night. Once we got those 34 to buy into it, getting 20 to keep on traveling wasn’t a problem.”
Underwood has seen first-hand the dedication of the series’ promoter. That dedication has rubbed off on the drivers. They’ve come to admire and respect it.
“The dedication of a guy that can drive at 2:30 in the afternoon, steering wheel with a trailer on the back with his knee, while taking a message from one guy on this phone to give the number of this guy on the phone of his other ear, I’ve never seen that,” Underwood said. “It’s death-defying. It’s quite frightening to be in the vehicle with him when he does that.
“But he has sacrificed so much time away from his family.”
Since then, drivers from all over the United States have dabbled with the IRA series and it visited as many as seven states in one season. Some drivers went on to national acclaim, while others decided to slug it out on the short-tracks in Wisconsin, Illinois and the rest of the upper Midwest.
“It’s grass-roots, it’s blue-collar, but at the same time, it’s very, very racey and competitive enough to make the bigger dogs come down and play with us,” Underwood said.
Another reason for the series’ possible success was because the World of Outlaws is primarily a southern series. Yet, people can watch its races on television or online. The World of Outlaws, out of more than 90 races, will make only three appearances in Wisconsin in 2016.
The IRA series gives Sprint Car fans an opportunity to see a type of racing they love to watch on TV in person. And the series has been good enough over the years to make them a wanted attraction.
“They offer something a lot of race tracks don’t: A weekly 410 Sprint Car,” said Scotty Neitzel, the series champion in 2004 and 2005. “The cars are really fast.
“And I think it’s good we’re not anywhere too often. When we roll in, we’re still a special.”
Fifty is a special number, a magical number, a golden number. It’s not just a number.
“This is big,” Underwood said. “50 years is a golden anniversary. … This is something special. It’s really an iconic year.”
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(This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of Full Throttle magazine.)