Joey Saldana, aka the Brownsburg Bullet, collects World of Outlaws sprint car victories — he has 94 — and helmets of other racing drivers. He has about 125 of those.
Until recently, though, he didn’t have a Steve Kinser helmet.
Steve Kinser is the King of the Outlaws. If you think it’s hard to pull a slide job on him coming out of turn 4, try talking him out of his helmet.
“Getting a Steve Kinser helmet is damn near impossible — well, you can, but you’re gonna pay for it,” said Saldana, who had been pestering Kinser for two years about that helmet, and pestering him for a lot more years than that on dusty bullrings.
Saldana said racing people were coming out to do a story on his helmet collection. But he still didn’t have a Kinser. That’s like a hunter not having a grizzly bear head sticking out of the wall over the fireplace.
So he pestered Kinser one last time. The King of the Outlaws said he was headed to Australia, but if Saldana met him at the Indianapolis airport, he’d give him a helmet.
“So I hauled ass (because this is how Outlaws drivers do things) to the airport, met him there, got the helmet. That’s how I got my Steve Kinser helmet.”
And now that the King of the Outlaws has announced he’ll be retiring at the end of the season, the Brownsburg Bullet sort of feels like the guy who bought that Honus Wagner baseball card.
Steve Kinser, the King of the Outlaws, retiring? How can that be?
Well, he’s 59 now. In June, he’ll be 60. That’s how that can be.
A.J. Foyt was 59 when he retired in 1994. It had been 13 years since he had last won a race. Steve Kinser last won a race on Feb. 16, in Florida. It was his 577th WoO victory.
That’s four more wins than Harmon Killebrew has home runs.
But whereas The Killer got to play in 162 ballgames every year (if he didn’t pull a hamstring), the King of the Outlaws drives in only half as many races. Plus, when Harmon Killebrew was trying to hit home runs, nobody was flinging 100-mph dirt clots at his head.
(Unless it was the All-Star Game, and Bob Gibson was pitching.)
I had hoped to get a few words with Kinser during Wednesday night’s Outlaws show at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway dirt track, because that’s usually all Kinser has for press people.
When I went back to his hauler, he came flying by me, hauling ass (because this is how Outlaws drivers do things) on a motor scooter. He was smoking a cigarette, because Steve Kinser is old school.
Later, he agreed to a chat. The counter on my tape recorder said we chatted for 2 minutes, 25 seconds. Like Joey Saldana finally acquiring one of his helmets, I felt privileged.
“You always give it thought,” the King of the Outlaws said about reconsidering this retirement thing after showing he’s still the Steve Kinser of old, instead of just old Steve Kinser, down in Florida.
“I don’t know. Let’s just get through this season, and if I decide to race next year, it’ll be a limited schedule.”
So he’s not totally quitting then, or at least that’s what it sounded like.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m 60 years old; you can’t do it forever. We’ll see what happens. Right now, I’m just worried about this year, trying to run good, see where we’re at at the end of the year.”
Between now and then, a lot of people will be fussing over this retirement thing, and they’ll be giving Kinser stuff to show appreciation. The speedway people on Wednesday presented Kinser with a framed photo of him driving his famous No. 11 winged sprint car when it was green, the colors of his former longtime sponsor Quaker State.
He hasn’t received a rocking chair yet, but you know it’s coming.
When I mentioned the fussing, Steve Kinser said he didn’t really care for it a whole lot.
When I asked how sprint car racing has changed since 1978, when he won his first race and the first of his 20 championships (something to shoot for, Jimmie Johnson), he said there have been changes in engine horsepower, and there have been other changes, too. But he said you don’t really notice them, until one day you are 59 coming up hard on 60.
And then you notice that where once there was a mustache under the helmet, now there are only wrinkle lines.
When I asked about his legacy, how he wanted to be remembered, he said, “Oh, I don’t know,” which is how he begins most sentences.
Getting Steve Kinser to talk about himself is more difficult than passing him on the racetrack.
“We ran good for a lot of years; I guess that’s all you can say.”
Well, you can say a lot more than that, and people have, and people will even after he’s retired, or at least semi-retired.
This is what Dan Motter, a rival car owner said: “If the car wasn’t right, he’d pick it up and carry it, like the Flintstones. He’d put his foot in it and carry it to the front.”
When the white flag came out Wednesday and the King of the Outlaws put his foot in it — when it looked for just a moment that he might pull of another one of those slide jobs and beat race winner Paul McMahon to the checkered flag — a fan below the press box jumped out of his seat, pumped his fist in the air and yelled, “Woo-hoo!”
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.