When Shane Hollingsworth totaled the beautiful No. 20 USAC Silver Crown car on the Belleville Highbanks in Kansas last summer, it appeared to be the end of an era.
Hollingsworth decided that it was the right time for him to retire from driving a Silver Crown car. The same event led car owner Gene Nolen to decide that he was done with Silver Crown racing.
For nearly a quarter-century, Nolen’s yellow behemoth rolled out of the trailer wherever the USAC Silver Crown cars were racing. Through the years, Nolen had provided a ride to the best drivers that he could find, including Johnny Parsons Jr., Tony Elliott, Jim Keeker and Tony Stewart.
In its glory days, the USAC Silver Crown series provided one of the hardest shows to enter. Often, more than half of the cars that attempted to qualify would be loaded back into their trailers before the green flag fell to start the feature event. Back then the cars traditionally ran on the dirt miles located on fairgrounds. The cars evolved from the AAA championship series cars that ran the Indianapolis 500 prior to the invasion of the roadster.
The series consisted of a few, highly competitive races. Consequently, car owners were attracted to it because it left plenty of time for other racing.
During much of Nolen’s time as a Silver Crown car owner, Columbus Container was his primary sponsor. Company owner Bob Haddad and his family would often attend the team’s races.
When he withdrew from Silver Crown competition, Nolen said, “I still have my Little 500 car, and Shane will be back in that. I also have a dirt sprinter, and I’ll probably run that some with the best driver that I can find to drive it. The Silver Crown car just got too expensive. I had good sponsors, and they helped a lot. But I was still financing way too much out of my pocket.”
From racing his dirt sprinter, Nolen seems to have upped the ante. In addition to running three cars in the Little 500, Nolen will be running 8 to 10 dirt sprint shows with Jerry Coons Jr. in the cockpit. He has a new Spike four-bar chassis with a Shaver motor.
Nolen’s longtime friend, Bill Tranter of Franklin, will continue to do Nolen’s engine work, and Kevin Noblitt of Columbus will continue to help with the team. The team will operate out of Nolen’s shop in New Whiteland.
In addition, Hunter Schuerenberg of Sikeston, Mo., will be racing under the Nolen Racing banner. Nolen is providing Schuerenberg with a shop and trailer a dually to pull it.
Schuerenberg began racing his family’s sprinter in 2006 at the age of 16. He notched his first USAC National Sprint Car series victory driving for Jeff Walker.
In 2011, Schuerenberg teamed up with Hank Byram’s Rock Steady Racing out of North Vernon. In the 18 races that they ran together in 2013, they had seven top fives and 14 top 10s.
During the second half of the season, the team’s performance took a drastic turn for the worse. While they were running solidly in the battle for the USAC National Sprint Car championship, their change of fortunes hit them hard. Schuerenberg and Byram decided to go their own ways.
Schuerenberg said, “The end of last year is the most frustrated I have ever been in racing, period. It’s a scary feeling to be at the point of seriously considering getting out. I’d had a string of bad luck, bad accidents, and just a really unfortunate couple months in racing.
After assessing his circumstances, he decided to put together a program for 2014. Concerning this decision, Schuerenberg said, “I was at a low point there, but I wanted to try to put something together of my own; and a guy named Mark Downey knew what I was going through and got the ball rolling with a little financial help. He is a fan; and it meant a lot to me that he would want to contribute to me staying around. That was pretty much the start of the snowball that has been building since then.”
Schuerenberg added, “There’s so many good people in this sport. Guys like Roger Tapy, who gave me my first ride, and Ron Gorby, who has helped me for quite a few years now, and Gene Frankowiak, my engine guy for the last few years and someone who has become a great friend. There’s been people like that who don’t have a fortune but have worked hard for what they have; and that is the kind of attitude that’s become infectious and has rubbed off on me.”
Concerning his new operation, Schuerenberg said, “It’s been a big deal for me to get somebody like Gene Nolen involved, someone that’s been in the sport for so long and knows so much about it. He’s a great guy who just loves to race.”
While Byram will no longer chase USAC points, he isn’t quitting cold turkey. He will continue to field a sprint car in 25 to 30 races with Daron Clayton. Byram has owned a sprint car for years, and he loves the competition. However, the cost of the travel in running the entire USAC sprint car circuit has become too high for many car owners.
Nolen, Byram and racers like them have been the backbone of auto racing for years. Few of them have any reasonable expectation of making money from the sport. In fact most of them spend huge sums of money in keeping their cars on the racetrack.
In days gone by, many of these car owners would move up to the champ car circuit with drivers who had built a following running sprint cars and midgets on tracks across the country.
Although that seldom happens anymore, these guys still provide race fans with great racing every weekend.
Hopefully, they will continue their support of the sport.
One car owner laughingly said, “I probably should have taken up cocaine. It would probably be cheaper.”
Tim McKinney writes a weekly racing column for The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5632.