What the heck is that? Is that a sprint car . . . on a road course? What is going on here? That is exactly what we wondered when we saw this car on a recent trip to Carolina Motorsports Park, and we just had to find out.
If you feel this Lightning Crown car drew inspiration from the oval-track, open-wheel ranks, you’re on the right track. Owned by Roger Johnson and driven by Brian Tyler in the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) Super Unlimited class, the car started out racing on ovals.
The Royal Lineage
Its history dates back 16 years. In December 2003, the United States Auto Club (USAC) — an organization primarily known for its sanctioning of open-wheel, oval-track racing — introduced the “New Generation Silver Crown” race car. USAC executives hoped to build a car specifically for ovals larger than one mile. By doing so, it helped fill a void in the oval-track world. They envisioned the cars to run in a feeder-series where up-and-comers could get experience before stepping in with the big boys.
Speaking of the thought process behind the development of the series, Tyler says, “You’ve got to have a way to get these kids from quarter-mile and half-mile paved ovals to the mile and mile-and-a-half tracks. We’re going over 200 mph. They’re used to going 100 mph.”
The primary concern was the safety required for the higher speeds at bigger ovals. Riley Technologies, the noted sports car builder, developed the car. (Note: this car is actually chassis number 001.) The company’s namesake, Bob Riley, along with Tom Gideon (GM safety executive, and later NASCAR Director of Safety), and the late-Dr. John Melvin (also formerly of GM and NASCAR) helped incorporate several safety features into the new Silver Crown.
From Prince To Pauper
They designed crush structures to better absorb higher-speed impacts. The nose and side pods prevent wheel-to-wheel contact, which often launches cars into the air. The body eliminates lift, which the old Silver Crown cars struggled with at larger tracks. They built the car with a centerline balance — unlike a typical left-weighted oval-track car — to not necessarily run road courses but to reduce corner speeds.
A larger cockpit provides more room for modern-day safety equipment, such as full-containment seats, and gives more clearance for a driver in a crash. The fuel cell is moved toward the center of the car to keep it farther away from potential impacts.
The car debuted in 2006, running all the paved tracks on the USAC Silver Crown schedule. The courses it competed at reads like a who’s who of major racing facilities — Chicagoland, Darlington, Homestead, Kansas, Kentucky, Iowa, New Hampshire, Phoenix, and Richmond. Several IndyCar owners fielded cars, including A.J. Foyt, Ron Helemgarn, and Roger Penske.
Despite its promise, the concept angered existing Silver Crown owners who now had to splurge for new equipment. Fans didn’t warm up to the cars, either, as the design up-ended the traditional look of the Silver Crown car they loved.
While the 2007 season finale drew 24 cars, USAC decided to pull the plug on the new-generation car.
A Royal In Exile
Faced with a car destined for just collecting dust in his garage, Johnson sought a new life for it. Johnson’s history in oval-track racing goes back to the early-1990s, as a World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series car owner for the late-Greg Hodnett. However, Johnson also raced road courses with Porsches. Since the New-Generation Silver Crown car had a centerline balance, he felt it had a good foundation for turning left and right.
“The amazing thing about this car is that we were able to easily change this to a road race car,” said Johnson, 74, of the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area. “We found the car was very manageable [on road courses] the way it was, without making many changes to it.”
Longtime IndyCar Crew Chief Dennis LaCava of Hemelgarn Racing helped repurpose the car for road racing. Noted GM Designer Randy Wittine created a new body. They presented the rebranded Gold Crown car to USAC, but USAC chose not to sanction it. Johnson then put the idea on the backburner.
All The King’s Men
Johnson and his team worked on the design again from 2012 to 2015, then restarted the project in 2018. During this time, LaCava redesigned the car specifically for road racing.
One of the most noticeable changes is the powerplant. Gone is the conventional Chevrolet small-block engine with mechanical fuel injection, running on methanol. Now installed is a stock Chevrolet LS3, with a FAST EFI throttle-body system running on 93-octane pump gas, putting out roughly 450 horsepower.
“It has a really good base for horsepower, right out of the box,” Johnson said of the LS3 engine. “It has super torque and a flat curve. It’s about $7,500 when you include all the necessary oiling.
Other changes geared for road racing include a TTi GTO sequential four-speed transmission; Racepak G2X digital dash and data acquisition system; Winters quick-change, limited-slip differential; a smaller 22-gallon fuel cell (as opposed to the 75-gallon one run in Silver Crown cars); and Hoosier/American Racer tires, 10-inch up front, 14-inch in the rear.
“We have a sequential shifter in it that makes it easy for a guy to shift fast. We changed the rearend to be a limited-slip, which gives a more comfortable feel for the driver who’s never driven a car with a solid axle. The car was built to have everything you would find in an everyday road race car, including data acquisition, road racing brakes, and a fire-suppression system.”
Yet, the car maintains the simplicity found in oval-track cars, which makes it quite racer-friendly.
“Look at the current Corvette,” Johnson said. “Let’s say you’re having trouble with traction control — that engine is not going to work. You might not make [it through] the weekend, and you’re sitting at home working on the car again. It can be anything like that with all of the electronics of production cars. [The Lightning Crown] is simple.”
Aesthetics-wise, Johnson painted the car with a purpose.
“That car is painted to look like Parnelli Jones’s car in 1963 when the J.C. Agajanian car won the Indy 500,” said Johnson. “We tried to paint it so the side pods and big nose disappear, so it looks like the shape of the [cars from the] ’60s.”
Successor To The Crown
Johnson tabbed Tyler to race the vehicle this year. Tyler ranks third in all-time wins in Silver Crown competition and has two USAC Sprint Car championships. His experience in road racing is limited to a handful of times in go-karts as a teenager. Tyler ran the car twice in 2019, running in the NASA Super Unlimited class — once at Memphis International Raceway in Millington, Tennessee; the other at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, South Carolina. Both times Tyler won his class.
Tyler, 52, originally from Parma, Michigan, says the car feels just like the one he remembers racing in USAC Silver Crown competition.
“The feel of the car doesn’t feel any different from the car on the ovals,” Tyler said. “Except, now you’re going right and left.”
A Crowning Future
Next season, Johnson and Tyler seek to contend for the NASA Super Unlimited national championship. However, their main goal is to create a new class out of these retooled Silver Crown cars.
“I know we have a good deal here for people who want to go faster than a Thunder Roadster or don’t want to spend the money to get a Corvette for the same performance,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if it can compete with the Prototype cars [in the NASA Super Unlimited class], but it’s possible. If we could do that, we would be solid, because it’s far less money than [a Prototype] is.”
Good luck, guys. We’ll be watching!