As the Knoxville Nationals prepares for the 50th running, it isn’t difficult to identify the driver who has been most successful at the classic August showdown.
Steve Kinser has enjoyed an amazing career at the Nationals, winning an unprecedented 12 titles (1980-1982; 1986-1988; 1991-1995; 2002). Kinser also has won as a car owner, as his son Kraig drove a Steve Kinser Racing machine to victory here in 2005. Although the Nationals features one of the most challenging qualifying formats in the sport, Kinser has not missed the Saturday night finale since 1978. His ongoing streak of 32-consecutive starts is nothing short of amazing.
Kinser is experiencing a strong 2010 season in his first year with Tony Stewart Racing. He is in the thick of what is shaping up to be a three-car battle for the World of Outlaws championship, and his recent win at Eldora’s Kings Royal proved he is still capable of winning big races.
Kinser, 56, remains an iconic figure in sprint-car racing. While the color scheme has changed from recent years, the No. 11 sprinter is a crowd favorite at each stop.
NSSN recently caught up with Kinser as he rolled along the endless highway, and he took an opportunity to reflect on the Knoxville Nationals.
NSSN: What’s your earliest memory of going to the Nationals?
KiNSER: I was in high school, and I went with my dad and Galen Fox. We camped out in a tent back by the railroad tracks. I don’t know the year, and I don’t remember who won. But I remember people having their cars kind of scattered around, and it being kind of a big party. It was a little different back then, the way it was laid out. It was kind of a different atmosphere.
NSSN: You’ve won the Nationals 12 times. Do you ever look at that number and feel any sense of amazement?
KINSER: I’d rather it be 13, to be honest with you. (laughing) I’ve had a couple won that I lost, but I’m sure I won a couple that I wouldn’t have won, too, so it all works out. It is sort of amazing to win it that many times, I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve won it without a wing and with a wing both, and with different car owners, and a lot of different ways. It’s been a place that’s always seemed like we ran good. We’ve struggled the past few years, but I’d sure like to win one more.
NSSN: When you look back across your career at the Nationals, what stands out as most memorable?
KINSER: To me, just the job they’ve done to make it such a big event. They’ve really worked hard to build the race up, build more seating, and put in all the time they have to make it such a special event. It’s just pretty impressive when you look at the place, and if you catch some good weather it’s a great weekend to be out there. Everybody enjoys being there and it’s a great atmosphere. And you’ve got to give everybody involved for 50 years credit for building it up. The entire community, really. To see how much it’s grown since the first time I was there, it’s unbelievable.
NSSN: What advice would you give a young racer running the Nationals for the first time?
KINSER: Not anything different than what we do: You want to be prepared as well as you can. Bring the car that you can get handling the best, and the motor you think will run the best. As a driver, you’ve got to do so many things to get yourself into position. There are so many things that can take you out of a winning position, in your qualifying and your heat on the preliminary night. You’ve got to qualify good, and run good in your heat.
NSSN: You’ve won the Nationals yourself, then watched Kraig win in one of your cars in 2005. Was that a different kind of feeling?
KINSER: I don’t know…pretty close to the same, really. Not much different, to be honest with you. I was pretty excited either way, whether he won it or I won it. It’s special to me that we’ve both won it, as father and son. I’m pretty sure there will be another father-son combination that wins it, but it’s nice to be the first.
NSSN: For the event to celebrate 50 years, what does that mean to the sport?
KINSER: Remember, I haven’t been there all 50 years. But it just shows you how big the race has been for such a long time. As great a job as they’ve done with this race, I’m sure it will be around for 100 years. The whole community, and the different people through the years, they’ve made all the difference. It’s kind of interesting that we’ve seen different fair board members, different people running the competition, different people in some of the positions, but they’ve all managed to make it bigger and better every year.
NSSN: You’re enjoying a very good season this year with Tony Stewart Racing. Does that give you some extra enthusiasm as we head into August and the Nationals?
KINSER: Yes, it does. Right now things have got to go just right to win. But when you get an opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. Right now the cars are so even, and the motors are so even, it’s pretty tough to win. You can still come a long way from the back, but when you do it that way you’ve burned your tires up. It’s going to be a little different this year because of more laps, although it’s not the same as running 50 laps straight. But I will tell you, two 25-lap races is a long time in a sprint-car race.
NSSN: Do you agree that the Nationals brings out the “A” game in everyone, and it’s something of a higher plane in terms of competition?
KINSER: Everybody comes there with their best stuff, you know what I mean? They get pumped up to where it’s the biggest night of the year. It’s by far the biggest purse, and if you make the field you make a good paycheck. It’s a tough race to make, a lot of cars show up and it’s all good equipment, from all over the country. That’s where everybody wants to be that weekend.
NSSN: With a big race comes extra pressure, extra scrutiny, extra incentive. Do you like racing in that kind of tense atmosphere?
KINSER: Oh, I love it. That’s what everybody wants to do. I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t want to race in that kind of atmosphere. That’s what it’s all about.