MINOT, ND (November 14) - Expectations are sometimes hard to live up to. Donny Schatz came into this year's Pennzoil World of Outlaws series ready to make the step up from competitor to championship contender. He finished the 1999 season by ...
MINOT, ND (November 14) - Expectations are sometimes hard to live up to. Donny Schatz came into this year's Pennzoil World of Outlaws series ready to make the step up from competitor to championship contender. He finished the 1999 season by winning the final two Outlaws races and then dominated in Australia in December and January. With all of that momentum, many felt the Parker Stores #15 sprinter would be a regular in victory lane during the 2000 season.
"I really don't know what happened to start the season," said Schatz, the 1997 WoO Rookie-of-the-Year. "Things just weren't right and we couldn't get things the way we wanted to. Some people said that I was a little burned out, but I don't believe that. How you get out of the box to start the season really sets the tone for the rest of the year."
After a rough start where he could mange only two top ten finishes in the first six weeks of the season, Schatz finished a solid second to Steve Kinser on April 15 at Tri-City Speedway. The team was hoping that it was the kind of night that would turn their season around.
"We really felt like that was going to be our night," said Schatz. "The car was really fast, but we couldn't catch Steve. "You always wait for a turnaround point and wait for the ball to drop. I thought the ball had dropped and things were going to change after that, but they really didn't."
The mediocre season continued through April and May with a fourth place finish at the new Dirt Track at Lowe's Motor Speedway and a runner-up finish at Lebanon Valley Speedway in New York, highlighting the 19-race stretch. It was early June when Crew Chief Dave Yingst decided to leave the team. Both Yingst and Schatz felt the time was right for a change, so the 22 year-old driver from Minot, ND along with Crewman Shane Anderson continued on the Outlaw trail.
"When things aren't going good, you always feel like you can do something to turn them around," explained Schatz. "I've always tried to have a positive attitude about racing. Shane and I took our truck and trailer to Mark Kinser's shop and we got reorganized. We changed some things around, and it seemed like it helped, because we started racing pretty well. More importantly, we had some fun doing it, which really kept us from getting burned out."
The changes seemed to help immediately as Schatz enjoyed a solid weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway finishing second on the opening night and the following night he was leading the "A" Feature when a mechanical failure ended his evening. Two more top ten finishes in the next two weeks kept their spirits up and another runner-up finish in the Iowa Ethanol Classic at Knoxville Raceway gave both Schatz and Anderson confidence.
"We had a good run at Knoxville," recalled Schatz. "Johnny Herrera was leading the race and I was able to pass him after the midway point of the race. We had a caution flag late in the race, and Stevie Smith got by me on the bottom. I tried to get back past him and we raced back to the flag, but we finished second. We were disappointed to finish second, but we knew that we were good enough to win that race and should have won it. The wins are what you need. It's always hard to win the first one of the year, and I always feel like if I could win the first race of the year that I could win them all."
While Schatz continued searching for his first victory of the season, he returned to "home turf" when the Outlaws visited Red River Valley Speedway in Fargo, ND. A runner-up finish in the second preliminary night put the team in a good position for Saturday's finale. Before the race on Saturday, Schatz enjoyed a hospitality event with his sponsors Parker Store, Featherlite, Blue Beacon and Schatz Crossroads. Almost 500 people came to the gathering providing Schatz with more incentive to claim that first win. When the racing began, things were going well, but a crash with Steve Kinser in the Channellock Dash hurt his chances. He finished ninth and left his home state with more confidence.
"We were pretty pumped up to finish second in front of the hometown crowd,'" said Schatz. "I really wanted to win, but I guess this was our year to finish second. Our goal is to be a team to contend with every race and during that weekend in Fargo, it was nice to be a contender."
Over the next month, the team continued to have some good nights and some bad nights. A sixth-place finish in Sedalia, MO, followed a disappointing night at Knoxville where Schatz got upside down twice. Things were about to change as Schatz and his father decided it was time to bring in more help. Highly acclaimed Crew Chief Kenny Woodruff agreed to join the team at the Amoco Knoxville Nationals and his impact was felt immediately. "The first race out with Kenny and I was really a big deal," said Schatz, who finished second in opening night of the Nationals. "A lot of people doubted what Kenny could do. I was really excited to have him working with our team. He just told me to do what I do and he'd do his job and that we could win this thing. We were in a position to win 'the' race in sprint car racing, but I made some mistakes and we finished second. After getting past the disappointment of not winning, I was so confident leaving Knoxville that if we kept doing this well that the championship might not have been out of the question."
A second place finish in the biggest of the year can do wonders for a team's confidence. After spending most of the season struggling, the Parker Stores #15 was again one of the cars to beat. In the next 13 races, Schatz had only one finish outside the top ten and scored four more top five finishes. It seemed as though it was only a matter of time before they broke through and found victory lane. Where they broke through was probably more of a surprise, as Schatz won the prestigious Williams Grove National Open.
"When we pushed off for the National Open, I didn't honestly think that we'd be a factor in that race," explained Schatz. "I've never ran well there and always seemed to have problems communicating what the car was doing on the track. We were running around seventh or eighth for the first 15 laps and then we had a red flag. It was the best that I had ever felt there and during the stop, I asked Kenny if I was on the right part of the track. He said no; everyone that is going good is on the top.
"On the restart, I passed three cars on the bottom and then moved to the top and the car was perfect. I was able to pass Fred Rahmer for the lead in traffic, and I knew Mark Kinser was probably going to be the one to beat. We had another caution flag, and on the restart, Keith Kauffman put a slide job on me going into the first turn, but I was able to get back by him. Mark and Keith started fighting for second, which really helped me. When they crashed, I knew it was a three-lap dash to the checkered flag, and it felt really good to win that race. We worked hard all season and to finally win a race, let alone one of the biggest races, was really a good feeling."
The winning streak continued at Lowe's Motor Speedway five nights later as they debuted a new J&J Chassis and dominated the evening winning his heat race, dash and 30-lap feature.
"The ironic part is that I really didn't feel like we were that good, but I beat Steve (Kinser) at the start and was able to work my way through traffic and win the race," said Schatz. "The following night we lost a cylinder in the dash and raced the feature on seven cylinders and still were good enough to finish third. That weekend was what we were looking for. Where you show up and are a contender both nights."
The team finished the season testing new combinations for the 2001 season. Schatz finished the 2000 campaign in 11th place in the WoO standings and had two victories, 12 top five finishes and 26 top ten finishes. At the WoO Banquet, he was awarded the Viviran Perseverance Award, an honor the he was surprised to receive but one he appreciated greatly.
"I was pretty shocked to win the award, but it fit," said Schatz. "There were a couple points in the season where I really doubted myself and wondered if I should be doing something else. I guess that's what the award is all about toughing it out when the chips are down. I don't know if we toughed it out as good as we could have, but we didn't quit and finished the season with a positive feeling."