King Kinser's legend still growing

Twenty-time WoO champion Steve Kinser is as motivated as ever, even at age 54. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Steve Kinser is a National Sprint Car Hall of Famer, 12-time Knoxville Nationals winner and the unquestioned "King of the Outlaws."

But from his modest race shop in rural Indiana, he has a hard time recollecting some of the biggest moments of his career, including his first A-feature win. "It might have been Eldora; I'm not sure," said Kinser, a winner of 549 A-features after that (which was, for the record, at Eldora Speedway).

The 20-time World of Outlaws champion has a hard time thinking about himself as a living racing legend. It's more fun to chase title No. 21. "We'll try to win another one," Kinser said. "At least."

He could have spent a relaxing winter at home, but instead Kinser worked harder than ever on his cars and traveled to Australia for holiday racing against many of his WoO peers. He's as motivated as ever, even at age 54.
The King hasn't worn the crown since 2005, and in 2007 and 2008 he finished sixth and third in the points, respectively. Last year's win total of seven A-features was the third-fewest of his career.

"You don't want to go through the gate with 10 percent odds of winning the race -- you better come to the gate thinking you've got 90 percent odds to win the race," Kinser said. "That's the kind of team you've got to have. We've been there over the years, and for a lot of years. It just hasn't been for the last two years. I still think I can go out and get the job done."

Just as importantly, so does his competition -- including the driver who has been doing the best Kinser imitation recently.

"There's always guys that seem to get better with time, then you've got your Steve Kinser," said three-time defending champion Donny Schatz. "He's been around 30 years and you can never count him out of anything. He can do more things on instinct than most guys could ever spend 30 years training for."

The instinct, right now, is to build on the legend, not rest on it.

Family first

A Kinser winning under the lights on a Friday night -- imagine that. But it wasn't another dirt race for Steve on this cold January night. It was son Kurt's wrestling match at Indiana University.

Steve, himself an Indiana high school state champion wrestler, doesn't miss a match unless he's in a race car. So here he was at the top of the bleachers, watching nationally ranked Kurt score a major decision over Penn State. After the match, Kinser and wife, Dana, hopped in the car and drove all night to Mooresville, N.C., for their grandson's first birthday party.

"It's hard to be competitive and be in that phase in your life when you're being a guide," Dana Kinser said. "We missed a lot of things."

Now Kinser is enjoying more family time than ever, or as much as a guy can on a schedule that last year put him on the road for 287 nights. He's delighted that daughter Stevie has returned to work at the shop as an office manager. Brother Randy, a former racer, has turned wrenches in the shop for years. The oldest son, Kraig, races in the Outlaws for Tony Stewart Racing, returning to sprint cars full time last year after a couple years in the NASCAR Truck Series.

"We've always known we meant a lot to him. He's been going out of his way, putting in the late hours, driving everywhere," Kraig said. "I'm sure that will have a role in when he decides to retire."

The son has seen signs of his father's turning soft in some ways. When Kraig won the Knoxville Nationals in 2005 while driving for the family team, Steve took the car out of service for posterity. Then last year Kinser reacquired his first Outlaws championship car from 1978 at an auction. The old No. 11 needs some work to become a museum piece, and Kinser said he wants to restore it to be a centerpiece of a museum someday.

Someday perhaps meaning some decade.

"I'm not holding my breath for it anytime soon," Kraig said, laughing. "I'm seeing it more that he's getting attached to some of the stuff, but he's still in racing mode all the time."

The job of curator will have to be Stevie's for now. It's a handful, as she is compiling newspaper clippings and results from a lifetime of wins. The 550 A-feature wins are documented, and in adding heat races and the like she has pushed the number up to 691.

She's not done yet.

Home in sprints

When his first-grade teacher asked Steve what he wanted to do when he grew up, he gave the answer of countless Hoosier kids -- to drive race cars and win the Indianapolis 500.

It didn't work out exactly that way, but Kinser did eventually get to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, racing as a 42-year-old rookie in 1997 and finishing 14th.

"That was the biggest thrill to me, other than running sprint cars," Kinser said.

Kinser has dabbled in various series outside the Outlaws. He was a regular in the International Race of Champions, winning at Talladega in 1994 ahead of then-Winston Cup mainstays Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace.

In 1995 he made a brief attempt at full-time Cup racing, making five starts in a Kenny Bernstein-owned car. He never finished higher than 27th and returned to the Outlaws, shunning NASCAR and the France family, who, Dana recalled, were longing for the dirt-car fan base to discover stock cars through Kinser.

"Yeah, they wanted me. The problem was I was 40 years old when I went down there. That's a little bit too old to be trying to start doing that thing -- that's when most people are quitting a career, not starting one," Steve said. "I had to do stuff quick and it wasn't going to happen quick. Would have been better if we had been running pretty good, but I wasn't used to sitting there running around in the back of the pack."

In 1998, having satisfied his curiosity for other racing and returning to the Outlaws full time, Kinser won title No. 15, then added five more in the next seven seasons.

"He found his calling, and it's a great thing," Schatz said. "Our sport's going to fall a little bit when he goes, so I hope he doesn't decide to go anytime soon."

Kinser appears ready to please. If he hangs around through 2010, the King (ranked No. 25 in ESPN.com's top 25 drivers of all time) has a chance to get wins in five decades. Right now he can see through at least 2011.

"I think I can run good for three years, then we'll sort of see what happens from there," Kinser said. "There's a couple times I feel like I need to be in a little better shape. I think I'd definitely like to have 20, 30 pounds off me, but it isn't going to happen. In some of the nighttime races my vision's not near as sharp as what it used to be, but that's part of it. Not much I can do to fix that right now. No one can explain why age slows you down, but it does. You just can't get around it, I'll tell you that."

Or he's just being modest.

"He still does stuff on any given night that you can watch from the pits that just amazes you. It almost knocks you down," Kraig Kinser said. "Sometimes it's 'I don't know where that came from; he hasn't done that in 20 years.' He's definitely still got it."

Fame without fanfare

Dana catches an earful from her husband when she's restocking the merchandise trailer for a new season and suggests T-shirt designs with Steve's face -- the rugged, mustachioed look that hasn't changed much since the World of Outlaws began in 1978.

"He says, 'Put the car on it,'" Dana said. "He's uncomfortable with the glare."

That's not to say he's uncomfortable with the fans -- his autograph lines are always the longest, and more times than not his pen gets to every last person, even if it takes an hour after the series is packed up for a night. He gets that part.

The part about being the face of the Outlaws, the nickname, that's someone else's business.

"He's never been one that I've known to start bragging, 'Oh, I'm the King and I've done this,' and I think that's why he's well-respected in our sport," Schatz said. "He's not a boaster -- that's not the way he is."

Perhaps that's why he's slow to trumpet past successes to strangers, even slow in remembering. Ask Kinser where he won his first race and he says it was at his hometown Bloomington Speedway, then he changes his mind. Maybe it was up the road at Paragon.

You'll have to excuse him if his focus is on races yet to be won.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.