Icon. Champion. Winner. Motivator. Fierce competitor. Friend. Family man.
Being characterized by any one of those descriptions would make most people proud, but to be defined by all of them would certainly result in royalty status. That’s precisely the altitude from which Steve Kinser presides.
Kinser is a legend in motorsports. Tabbed “The King of the Outlaws,” 20-time World of Outlaws (WoO) champion Kinser has been described as the best driver ever on dirt ovals. His results back up those claims, with more than 800 career victories during his illustrious career. High praise for a man who started out as a Southern Indiana boy simply wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a racer. His dream became reality.
Today, 35 seasons after competing in the first-ever WoO race in 1978, Kinser, 58, still intimidates the competition he battles on dirt tracks across the country. The same man still thrills the hundreds of thousands of fans who come to see him perform magic.
The results of the 2012 WoO season proved “The King” still has plenty of magic up his sleeve. In his third season driving for Tony Stewart Racing (TSR), Bloomington, Ind., native Kinser won three races between mid-May and mid-June and held the point lead during the second half of May and for most of June and July behind the wheel of the No. 11 Bass Pro Shops/J.D. Byrider Chevy owned by three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and fellow Hoosier Tony Stewart. Kinser ended up finishing fifth in the championship standings in 2012 and will chase his 21st WoO title in 2013.
There is great pride for Kinser about being from Indiana. The third child of parents Bob and Cora Kinser grew up watching his father manhandle open-wheel cars around dirt tracks throughout his home state. His passion for racing matched that of his father.
Toughness always has been part of Kinser’s DNA, surfacing early in his competitive days. He grew up active in athletics and flourished in the sport of wrestling. His days at Bloomington High School included consecutive trips to the Indiana High School Wrestling State Championships. A second-place finish his junior year was followed by being crowned state champion of the 132-pound class as a senior.
Following high school glory, he traded his wrestling singlet for a helmet and driver’s uniform and began racing at the same venues where his dad learned the craft. Like his father, he also earned a living bricklaying. His days were filled with hard labor on job sites, and weekends were filled with slinging dirt and grit at the track.
The King’s ascent to greatness began when America was celebrating its bicentennial. Kinser spent the 1976 season competing primarily on weekends at Indiana dirt ovals. He won 17 times, beginning with his first triumph June 11, 1976, at his hometown track, Bloomington Speedway.
With a year of competition under his belt, Kinser took on a much more aggressive schedule beginning with Florida races in February 1977. He earned five victories, including two at Bloomington, but the experience he earned positioned him for the future.
Timing is everything, and Ted Johnson’s vision of creating a sprint car carnival that traveled coast-to-coast was a perfect opportunity for the talented Kinser. After accepting a ride in his distant cousin Karl’s potent machine, Steve Kinser gave up his days of laying bricks and traveled across the country racing in 1978, following Johnson’s band of Outlaws from venue to venue.
Kinser totaled 39 wins that season and quickly became a star in the sport. His 1978 WoO title began a championship run that included the first three World of Outlaws crowns. It was just the start. As he continued his dominance of the Outlaws, he joined some of the sport’s greats by adding his name to the list of winners of the biggest races. His Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals triumphs to start the 1980s fueled a budding rivalry with Sammy Swindell and Doug Wolfgang. “The Big Three” dominated the sport throughout the decade, with Kinser leading the way.
During the 1980s, Kinser’s status continued to evolve as evidenced by his record-setting 1987 campaign. That season, he won 56 short-track races, including 46 WoO A-Features and 24 of the last 26. From 1980 to 1988, he won seven WoO championships, six Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals, six Gold Cup Race of Champions victories and a pair of Kings Royal triumphs at Eldora Speedway.
After a season of competing with the United Sprint Association in 1989, “The King” returned to the Outlaws in 1990 and regained his stronghold on the sport. While his rivals battled both injury (Wolfgang) and other motorsports career paths (Swindell), Kinser stayed the course and continued his dominance in the early 1990s, winning four more WoO titles and three more Knoxville Nationals.
His success didn’t go unnoticed by his peers. An invitation to compete in 1994 International Race of Champions (IROC) series validated his place in the motorsports hierarchy. While he continued to set the pace in World of Outlaws action, he also showed his talent versus some of the sport’s elite drivers. In only his third start with the series, he won at Talladega Superspeedway. That victory not only authenticated his abilities, but it also served as a victory for all short-track racing competitors.
Later that season, he was once again crowned Knoxville Nationals champion, putting him well on his way to his 14th WoO title. During the Outlaws’ annual fall swing through California, the news many had expected finally broke: Kinser was headed to NASCAR’s top division after signing a three-year contract with King Racing.
He closed out the 1994 WoO campaign with another championship and took the well-wishes from his droves of fans into an offseason in which he was dedicated to become a full-time stock car driver. Countless hours of studying and testing were spent to try to get up to speed for a NASCAR career that would begin with the 1995 Daytona 500.
Unfortunately, as good as his timing was in 1978 with the Outlaws, the same couldn’t be said in 1995 for Kinser in NASCAR. Too many variables weren’t meshing, and his move to the Sprint Cup Series (then known as Winston Cup) wasn’t going in the direction he had hoped. After only seven races, concluding with the First Union 400 on April 9 at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway, he made the decision to return to sprint car racing.
Kinser moved quickly and built a team to rejoin the World of Outlaws thanks to his relationship with Quaker State. Thirty-three days after officially leaving NASCAR, Kinser and his team, led by Scott Gerkin, were back competing with the Outlaws at the Action Track in Terre Haute, Ind. His first WoO victory as an owner-driver came in his seventh race. Later that summer, he made it clear he was back on top by scoring the $100,000-to-win Historical Big One and, eight days later, racing from his 14th starting position to win his fifth consecutive Knoxville Nationals. In all, he won 18 WoO features during the 1995 season.
Kinser continued his winning ways with the Outlaws over the next two seasons, capturing 15 feature events and finishing fourth and third, respectively, in the championship standings. The highlight of 1997 didn’t come with the Outlaws for Kinser. It was during the month of May, when he realized his dream of qualifying for and then competing in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He qualified 20th for the 81st Indianapolis 500 and finished 14th.
In 1998, Kinser earned his first WoO championship as a team owner and 15th as a driver. He finished third in 1999 before winning another WoO title in 2000.
During the 2002 season, Kinser earned his 12th Knoxville Nationals title and started another WoO title run by winning 20 A-Features. That run included three more championships and numerous additions to the record books along the way, including his 500th career WoO A-Feature win in March 2004 at Houston Raceway Park. He competed in three consecutive IROC series from 2003 to 2005. His 2005 WoO championship was his 20th and capped a season that saw him pick up his 10th Eagle (Neb.) Nationals, sixth Kings Royal and 12th Gold Cup Race of Champions.
His most recent seasons would be considered successful by most drivers, but not for Kinser. Six wins with the National Sprint Tour in 2006 were followed by a 10-win WoO season in 2007, which included his triumph in the 40th anniversary Don Martin Memorial at Lernerville (Pa.) Speedway. In 2008, he finished third in the WoO championship standings, came home fifth in 2009 and followed with consecutive third-place finishes in 2010 and 2011 before placing fifth in 2012.
Back and neck pain that Kinser believes originated from an IROC crash in 2005 continued to bother the champion in recent seasons. After offseason surgery in December 2009, Kinser felt better than ever. Three consecutive championship-contending seasons with TSR since that surgery only continue to build the legacy of “The King of the Outlaws.”
Throughout his years behind the wheel and all of his accomplishments, family still brings Kinser the most joy. His wife, Dana, has been his life partner and has been by his side through it all. They have raised three children together. Whether it was at their Bloomington home or the countless miles they spent traveling together going from race to race, they have always been a close-knit unit.
The Kinser children all grew up experiencing the excitement of the racing lifestyle. Their daughter, Stevie, was always by Dad’s side from track to track. Stevie, an Indiana University graduate, has been an invaluable part of Steve Kinser Racing (SKR) through years and remains in the family business today. In 2011, Kinser welcomed his first granddaughter, Haylee, to the family and held his daughter’s first baby proudly in a couple of victory lane photos later that season.
Eldest son, Kraig, followed his father into sprint car racing and earned World of Outlaws Rookie of the Year honors in 2004. Kraig provided his father with one of his most cherished moments in racing by winning the Knoxville Nationals in 2005. Kraig joined his father to make up the only father-son duo to win the sport’s most prestigious event. In 2013, Kraig Kinser will compete in his eighth season on the Outlaw circuit.
The Kinsers’ youngest son, Kurt, also followed his father’s path to success. Kurt repeated his Dad’s high school wrestling glory by winning the Indiana state championship his senior season after finishing second as a junior – just like his father. Kurt recently completed his career as a scholarship wrestler for Indiana University.