IRA Interstate Racing Association
A Brave New World: Steve Sinclair
I don't care how long you have been involved with the sport, the constant churn and tumult that has defined this offseason is unlike anything we have witnessed in the sprint car racing world. It was as if there was a giant chessboard in front of us with key stakeholders watching every move made by others and responding accordingly. For weeks we have been saturated with news about High Limit Racing and the World of Outlaws. No one knows how this will all shake out, but Interstate Racing Association (IRA) President and Field Underwriter for K & K Insurance Steve Sinclair observes, "I don't think sprint car racing has a bigger stage, although I do worry about the costs. I hope there are enough fans to go around." It is here that Sinclair pauses and adds, "Somebody has to pay for it."
The racing game can be tough, and Sinclair knows something about survival. Steve first took the helm of the IRA under vastly different circumstances. "We were a club back in 1993 when I first became IRA President," he recalls, "We had monthly meetings, there would be elections, and then that became annual, then every two years and then it seemed nobody wanted to change anything." Then the IRS stepped in. "In those days our checks from Goodyear were pretty good," he says," and the IRS decided we were no longer not for profit even though we operated the exact same way we always did. At the end of the season whatever money was in the account went into the point fund. The next year we started with a clean sheet. They still made us incorporate. Kim Tennyson, who has been a long time scorer and once owned a team with us is my right hand. Now her son Cody is my head scorer. On paper we're in charge, but we operate just like we did back then. Whatever comes in goes out and we start fresh. Very little rolls over financially." It is true that Sinclair gets a small piece of the sanction fee, sells tires, and self-promotes five or six races, but the money really isn't the driving force behind what he does. "It's passion," he says, "I'm really a fan."
By any yardstick, the IRA is a remarkable success story, and after three decades in the trenches Sinclair is still bullish on his group. "We know who we are," he says, "We don't try to be something we aren't, and we stay within our means. We can lose money on a race, but we just can't lose money on a season."
Knowing who you are and acting accordingly is not as simple as it appears. With a series like the IRA people arrive with vastly different agendas. Is the IRA a place largely for weekend warriors to come out and have fun behind the wheel of a sprint car, or is it a launching pad for those considering racing as a career? "It can be both," Steve says, "It depends on how you are financed. Scotty Neitzel is a perfect example. He has been with us as long as I have been around, and he is at every race. They have a nice clean operation, and he is competitive. It is a little like Byron Reed in Ohio. You know what you can afford to do, and you know what is happening in your life. Can you take on an occasional National race? Yes. Still, he primarily looks at our schedule. Then there are drivers like Brenham Crouch (the 2023 champion) who looked at it as a stepping stone. He could get some experience running different racetracks. He could also run near the front instead of going on a National tour too soon and just worrying about getting out of the way. He was learning how to race. They are all incredibly happy, and he probably got to High Limit even quicker than they planned because he progressed so well."
Trying to understand the reality of the core participant impacts every decision Sinclair makes. One of the first considerations is the schedule. "This year we probably have them maxed out at thirty-three or thirty-four races," he says, "It is a tough deal because our core group comes from Wisconsin and Northern Illinois. Now we have more opportunities like the Maverick deal, and we have co-sanctioned with NOSA (Northern Outlaw Sprint Association) in North Dakota. So, our territory has gotten a little larger. I have to remember where our guys come from. I have four teams that follow us full time who come out of Central Illinois, so I try to do as many combinations as I can. I want to make it so if they are driving to Wisconsin they can race twice. That makes it worth it for them. I can't always do that and if I do it too much, we get too many dates. I am also cognizant of week days. We typically have eight to ten races where work is affected. It seems the driver can always get the day off, but the crew can't. Putting the schedule together is not easy."
Yet, here is the rub. With two major National wing series competing for dates and attention, will fans turn their backs on regional groups like the IRA? Steve faces two significant issues. The first is the perception that this is just minor league racing and not worthy of much attention. "I even think there are times when Bill Balog doesn't appreciate being a ten time IRA champion," he says, "He should embrace that. I have seen him turn more laps than anybody and he has talent. As long as he can keep a crew and do well financially and not get in trouble early, he can race with any series. So, when people say who did he beat, the fact is we have a lot of different guys come to race with us over the course of the season. For example, it is not unusual for Knoxville guys to come over and join us. Just look at the people who have won with the IRA like Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jason Meyers, Terry McCarl, and the list goes on. A lot of people ask for our schedule. They aren't going to be with us every race, but they might drop in. If they come and have fun they will come back. We treat people well and the teams like our format. There are a lot of great racers who can't do the National thing whether it is family or finances or both. Our competition has gotten even better the past few seasons."
The second issue is the most important of all. Money. The pecking order has been disturbed and everyone underneath now has to scramble. Sinclair proclaims that his bottom line has been as good as it has ever been the past few seasons and naturally hopes the trend holds. Yet, things are decidedly in flux and there are key players who undoubtedly feel vulnerable. Steve can see that dominos are already falling. "Ohio did it right away," he says, "they raised their weekly purses to four grand to win. Knoxville already had a great purse, and now they are adding to it. They are just trying to keep their guys as much as possible. I see the Outlaw and High Limit schedule and early in the season Knoxville is really affected. High Limit is in the Kansas City area and the Outlaws are in the St Louis area a bunch. Where is a Brian Brown or Austin McCarl going?" The IRA is not immune to these developments. "We raised our money too," Steve notes, "and that puts a little pressure on our promoters. Now I promote five or six races a year, and I don't get concessions. I'm just renting the joint and I think I will be okay so others should be too."
Still, he needs people to come out. Sinclair doesn't necessarily think a fan will choose to stay home rather than just buy a ticket specifically for his shows. What he is concerned about is that some will choose to watch High Limit, the Outlaws, and another series at the same time and never leave their couch. He can control a few variables, and to that end he can try to reach new markets and constituents. "In our case I think we can sustain it because we aren't in the same market every week," he says, "My footprint got a lot larger. We are going from Grand Forks, North Dakota to Haubstadt, Indiana. That is a pretty vast area to cover, and it is another reason an increase in purse was needed to help with the tow.
There is also a delicate balancing act. Sinclair doesn't want to encroach on other's territory and be perceived as disrespectful. This is why he always looks for partners. Because of his role with K & K insurance he has relationships with many track owners and series leaders. Maintaining lines of communication is key. A perfect example is racing in Indiana. "I never really tried to come down to that territory before," he says, "but now with Maverick there is an opportunity. I think we can help each other. We have experience being a wing series, and there are some great racetracks there. I look forward to having a chance to race at Bloomington, Lincoln Park, or Haubstadt, and we were at Terre Haute once a long time ago. The smaller tracks fit our model. Our guys are excited. This Indiana trip is big for us, and I am looking forward to it. It should be a good deal."
There may be challenges, but Steve Sinclair is as optimistic about what he can bring to the table. "The product is good," he says, "at least ten different guys can win each night and that is important. We have a lot of really good teams. Look at Jordan Goldesberry (2022 IRA champion), he is sponsored by Rockstar Energy drink and his rig and car look great. These teams come in and look professional. We have a chance to make some new fans."
The health of sprint car racing cannot be judged on the strength of the National series' alone. The backbone of auto racing can be found at the local and regional level and people like Steve Sinclair are doing their part to keep sprint car racing vibrant.
Article Credit: Pat Sullivan
Submitted By: Dakoda Tennyson