From World of Outlaws to Fast Track : Daytona 500: Kinser, a sprint car champion, is a rookie in stock car racing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In educational terms, Steve Kinser has a Ph.D in sprint car racing. He is arguably the greatest driver who ever wrestled one of the winged monsters around a dirt oval.

The World of Outlaws offers the cream of sprint car competition, and Kinser has won the championship 14 times in the last 17 years.

This year, at the urging of stock car owner-drag racer Kenny Bernstein, he switched from sprinters to stock cars. And returned to the bottom of the educational ladder.

"It's been like starting elementary school," Kinser said during a lull in practice for Sunday's Daytona 500, which will be his first start in a Winston Cup race. "I'm not even in high school yet."

A sprint car weighs 1,300 pounds, puts out 800 horsepower and is manhandled through the corners in dirt-spewing slides. A Winston Cup car weighs 3,400 pounds, produces 480 to 650 horsepower--and sliding through the corners is the last thing a driver wants.

"The cars are totally different animals," he said.

Things have not been going well here for the 39-year-old driver from Bloomington, Ind., although he is not entirely at fault.

He test-drove more than 2,000 laps in November and December with almost no engine failures. But Kinser has been frustrated at Daytona International Speedway by car problems that have limited his opportunity to practice on the high-banked tri-oval.

"Seat time is what I need here," he said. "It seems like every time I go out, something has gone wrong. First, it was an electrical problem, then the engine let go. And then finally, when I got on the track for practice, I hit the wall."

Kinser lost control of the Ford Thunderbird and slid into the concrete wall outside Turn 2 during last Wednesday's practice session. It caved in the nose enough that Kinser had to switch to a backup car for Thursday's 125-mile qualifying race.

Eight laps into it, Kinser's day was over. The engine had expired.

With a slow qualifying speed and a 32nd-place finish in his 125 heat, Kinser would not have made Sunday's race had it not been for Bernstein having a provisional spot at the rear of the field from last year's owner standings when Brett Bodine was his driver.

Kinser will start 42nd--last--in the 500.

"We expected to start slow with Steve, but not this way," Bernstein said before leaving for Phoenix, where he will drive his top-fuel dragster in this weekend's Arizona Nationals at Firebird Raceway. "Thank goodness for the owner's provisional. Steve needs to be on the track with a lot of cars so he can get the feel for drafting and running on the banking in a crowd.

"This is a long-term project and we had no illusions about setting Daytona on fire, but we didn't expect the trouble we've had with the car. Steve has tremendous talent and desire, and even though he's a rookie, he's got a lot of confidence. You don't win as many races as he has without being confident."

Kinser has won 384 main events in the World of Outlaws, among them a record 46 in 69 starts in 1987. He also won 10 Knoxville Nationals, the sprint car equivalent of the Daytona 500.

A victory in the International Race of Champions on the high banks of Talladega last April thrust him into the spotlight outside the sprint car scene. He had been the first short-track driver ever invited to the all-star series.

"Winning that IROC didn't have a lot to do with my move to stock cars, but being around all the Winston Cup people and watching how they worked had a lot to do with it," Kinser said. "Three of my IROCs were with stock car races, so when Bernstein called, I decided it was time to move on.

"I was quite happy racing sprint cars, I made a good living at it and could have kept on, but I would hate to look back in 10 years and wish I'd tried something else. One big factor was that I was coming to a first-class team. I'd never have tried it on my own.

"And I know I could always go back (to sprint cars), but I certainly hope I don't have to. Of course, I'm not sure how I'll feel, knowing the Outlaws are right up the road Saturday night."

The World of Outlaws opens its 18th season tonight at St. Augustine Speedway, about 50 miles north of here.

"If I have any thoughts about it, it's that Kenny Bernstein and this team deserve a better race driver than they've got right now," Kinser said.

Even though he is the rawest rookie on the premises, Kinser is getting a lot of help from other drivers.

"Buddy Baker (retired winner of the 1980 Daytona 500) has helped me more than anyone, but it seems like everybody wants to help," he said. "They respect me for what I accomplished in sprint cars. Now I've got to win that respect as a stock car driver.

"My biggest concern is that nearly all my miles in a stock car have been when I was the only car on the track. That, and having to hang in there for more than three hours."

Bernstein predicts that by the end of the season, once he has seen the tracks, Kinser will be running up front. Kinser isn't so sure.

"I'm just going to do the best I can," he said. "I have set no goals, but I did surprise myself when I won the IROC, so I suppose it could happen in Winston Cup too."

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