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USAC Silver Crown

How NHRA’s Kasey Coler Revitalized Pavement Open Wheel Racing

IRP gave racers a venue but the teams and drivers responded in kind

Pavement open wheel racing owes much to Kasey Coler, the general manager at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, and the unlikely architect for the rebirth of an entire discipline in the Midwest.

The reimagined Hoosier Hundred, now a pavement race won by Bobby Santos III over Memorial Day weekend, was just the latest victory by Coler in his efforts to revitalize pavement Sprint Cars, Midgets and the USAC Silver Crown series. The track crowns a yearlong ‘AJ Foyt Championship’ that combines all the divisions into one championship.

The field size has nearly doubled for all three divisions during his time promoting the 0.686-mile oval just outside of Indianapolis and that is to say nothing of the return of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series last summer.

The crazy part of considering the recent success of the oval is that the track isn’t even one of his primary responsibilities. The general manager title is just part and parcel to his role of NHRA Vice President of Track Management and Operations. He only operates the short track by virtue of its existence alongside one of the crown jewel NHRA facilities where his office just happens to be located.

Coler says the short oval amounts to roughly 30 percent of his duties, albeit with a caveat.

“It’s still 30 percent of my time, but it’s started to take up more and more of my after-hours time,” Coler said. “It’s more of a passion than a job. The NASCAR part was obviously the big one, but they have such a good process, one that doesn’t deviate no matter what facility they take the trucks too, that was really beneficial. But it was still a tall task to do all the things we needed to do to make sure that event happened.

“A lot of credit goes to my wife because I bring a lot of the oval track stuff home and it’s something I really believe in.”

Before working at NHRA and at the speedway, Coler spent a decade at IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He spent two years in between with Professional Bull Riding. But ever since a childhood spent attending races at the big tracks near and within the Circle City, motorsports is a passion and the pavement open-wheel variety is one that he’s grown especially fond of.

It’s been a slow and steady progression over the last decade but Silver Crown is starting to become en vogue after a decade and a half of losing some of its luster. Kyle Larson kickstarted the resurgence on the dirt side in 2011 at the height of his ascent and directly contributed to the likes of Justin Grant, David Gravel and CJ Leary all giving it a go in one form or the other, purely from word or mouth enthusiasm for a dirt Champ Car.

But the pavement side took a little longer, and it wasn’t until Coler started increasing purses and adding marquee events, ultimately like the new Hoosier Hundred that the entire series began to blossom holistically. People credit Coler for putting up the purse but he credits the teams for sticking to their words.

And it’s not just about the Big Cars but also the Pavement Sprints and Midgets, too.

“It started with just discussion and dialogue with the teams, about what we wanted to do in the future,” Coler said. “We’ve seen Ryan Newman come in and run Silver Crown, Alex Bowman comes from Pavement Midgets and there has been a lot more conversation from NASCAR and IndyCar drivers about wanting to come over and try this too.

“We’ve been moving in the right direction for a while. Gregg McKarns, Chris Blair and Rick Dawson doing their parts. But we had teams who told us, ‘hey we have a car’ or ‘we will get a car’ if you run these races and they showed up.

“The Sprint Car piece was kind of baked into the track already because they also raced at Anderson. But with the Midgets, I would like to say I had some master plan but we didn’t. The racers brought it up but I old them we could only run it if they supported it. So we brought them back for the 2020 Night Before the 500 and they showed up just like they said. We can’t run a whole series like USAC used to have but I just wanted to run the ball forward a little bit.”

Coler points to the racers, his staff and commercial partners, but USAC historian and broadcaster Pat Sullivan won’t let his modesty stand.

“Kasey has done so much with the track to revitalize the oval, giving those cars a track to shine and now he’s got this race (in the Hoosier Hundred) and has made something that people really want to be a part of.”

Santos, who is a pavement ace known for his Sprint Car, Midget and Tour Type Modified exploits, says he never would have raced in the Hoosier Hundred if it wasn’t for Coler taking the legacy of that historic event and applying it to the paved short track.

That he is now a winner alongside the likes of AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Rodger Ward, Jack Hewitt and Bob Sweikert is something Santos says he tremendously values.

“It’s amazing what he’s done for pavement racing,” Santos said. “We wouldn’t have all these cars in this infield if it wasn’t for him. Silver Crown, Midgets and even Pavement Sprint Car racing wouldn’t be where it is right now if it wasn’t for Kasey.”

He says ‘even Pavement Sprint Cars’ because a lot of credit to that goes to the 500 Tour, Anderson and Dawson but again, it speaks to the infrastructure paved by Coler that the discipline has spread out around the Midwest to Wisconsin and Michigan too.

It’s even attracted ‘not a pavement guy’ Logan Seavey to the fold, not only running the full Silver Crown slate but also Midgets and his first Little 500 over the weekend.

“Obviously, at one point, pavement midgets were huge,” said the Chili Bowl winner. “But that was before my time and I never thought I’d see consistent pavement midget races. He brought them back and it’s obviously a big deal anytime you can bring something back that people cared about.

“There is obviously interest in it. That’s kind of this era we find ourselves in right now, bringing things back that we thought was gone. North Wilkesboro, pavement crown cars and the Midgets. Hopefully it continues.”

The Carb Night Classic was once again a good night for IRP, bringing fans of both USAC and the IndyCar ladder system together for the Big Cars, Midgets and the Pro Championship races.

The Hoosier Hundred specifically was an interesting case study, because that legacy is still attached to the Indianapolis Fairgrounds mile, but Coler was always honest about what he wanted it to be and stuck to that philosophy.

“I give a lot of credit to ‘Spridge’ (Kirk Spridgeon) and Kevin Miller (USAC president and CEO) for their willingness to try this because I recognized the history and tradition,” Coler said. “We didn’t go into this trying to pull a fast one and sell everyone on the same experience they had at the Fairgrounds.

“But we wanted to honor that tradition and pay homage to the history of Silver Crown at our facility at the same time and that’s pretty special.”

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Matt Weaver is the owner and founder of Short Track Scene. Weaver grew up in the sport, having raced himself before becoming a reporter in college at the University of South Alabama. He also has extensive experience covering NASCAR, IndyCar and Dirt Sprint Cars.

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