Series drivers ready for Knoxville Nationals

World of Outlaws Sprint Series Geared Up for 45th Annual Knoxville Nationals Knoxville, IA -- Aug. 9, 2005 -- There is no bigger event in the world of sprint car racing than the Knoxville Nationals. It is, as Danny Lasoski points out, the ...

World of Outlaws Sprint Series Geared Up for 45th Annual Knoxville Nationals

Knoxville, IA -- Aug. 9, 2005 -- There is no bigger event in the world of sprint car racing than the Knoxville Nationals. It is, as Danny Lasoski points out, the granddaddy of them all.

Lasoski should know. Among his record 86 victories at historic Knoxville Raceway, he counts four championships in the Nationals, including victories in three of the past four years. To sprint car racers, especially those in the World of Outlaws Sprint Series, the Knoxville Nationals is the pinnacle event of every season.

The purse is extraordinary. While most events offer the winner anywhere from $10,000 to $12,000, the Nationals this season will reward the victor with a check for $140,000 from a purse that exceeds $800,000. It is a race that can line the pockets of a team that was struggling, but this race isn't about the money. Well, not entirely about the money, anyway.

No, this race is about prestige. It is about saying you're a Knoxville Nationals champion in front of a crowd that approaches 30,000 fans a night. It is about leaving your mark on history.

"It's a tough race," said Steve Kinser, who won the first of his unbelievable 12 Nationals titles in 1980. "It's tough to get yourself into position to win a race through all the preliminary nights and everything else. Everything has to go well the whole week to make things work on Saturday night. You have to get qualified well, then you have to transfer through your heat. You can't make a whole lot of mistakes or it will take you right out of the race. There are a lot of ways to lose that race and very few ways to win it."

For many of the 129 racers pre-registered for the event, just reaching the A-main Saturday night is an achievement. With qualifying beginning on Wednesday, nearly every time a car is on the track it's earning points toward reaching the ultimate prize. By the time Saturday night rolls around, only four drivers who haven't already qualified for the main event will have a chance to race their way in, and then have to come from the rear of the field.

"The first thing is to get out and get qualified well to get your points headed in the right direction," said Kinser, a winner earlier this season at Knoxville who leads the Outlaws with 16 A-feature victories. "Then in the heats it gets so tough. You don't worry too much about points, you just worry about getting transferred into the main and holding your position so you don't have to come through the B to get to it. You just hope you don't blow a motor or fall out of a race because if you do, starting in the back of a 30-lap race, you're not going to have much of a chance."

Everybody in the pits seems to have a Knoxville story. Drivers like Iowa native Terry McCarl, a six-time Knoxville Raceway weekly champion who is currently 10th in the World of Outlaws drivers' standings, has been going to the event since he was a kid, sneaking around with his brother into the various barns on track's Marion County Fairgrounds property, watching from the lofts as car owners gathered below.

"The Nationals is about the aura of the place," said McCarl, who led the first 15 laps last season. "It's not necessarily the big money that is involved. You think about that afterward when you get home and you look at how much money you made. At the time, there are so many people there, the feeling in the air. There are 30,000 people there for the same reason you are. You have a friend everywhere you turn. There's so much camaraderie because everybody's there for sprint car racing. It doesn't compare to any other event. Nothing against any other racetrack in the world, but it's the whole package. It's not just the facility, it's the event and the people and the amount of money and the prestige of winning it. I just love the feeling in the air. I like to be at the Nationals. I like to stay there. I'm still a race fan. It's the mecca for sprint car racing."

Every driver has some memory of the event, whether it was good or bad. For many, there was no better Knoxville Nationals than in 1990 when Bobby Allen raced to Victory Lane.

"The first Knoxville Nationals I ever went to, I went to watch and it was the year Bobby Allen won," said Paul McMahan, who last year was having a successful qualifying run when misfortune struck in the form of a crash that left him with a broken tailbone and crushed right heel. "You go there and people expect Steve Kinser or Danny Lasoski to win and to have Scruffy win that night was pretty cool. I remember just sitting in Turn 4, watching the race. Scruffy didn't have the cleanest racecar, he didn't have the prettiest racecar, but on that night he was the fastest. It was pretty cool to see a guy like that who had been going at it for so long and never won that race to finally do it. It was one of those heartbreaking nights for Mark Kinser because I think he would have won his first Knoxville Nationals that year, but he had some problems and Scruffy went on to win. It was pretty cool. Sammy [Swindell] was second, but it was just neat to see Bobby Allen win."

Brooke Tatnell, the newest member of the Mean 15 who has been on a tear since coming over from Australia, also remembers Allen's victory in 1990, but he remembers it for Swindell finishing second more than Allen's win.

"As far as I'm concerned, Sammy is the most complete all around racer there ever was," said Tatnell, a two-time A-feature winner this season. "I mean Steve Kinser is probably the most naturally gifted racecar driver we'll ever see in our time. Then you look at Sammy and he's naturally gifted, but probably has more race-crafted engineering, I think sometimes that's held Sammy back over the years. It's the Nationals and here's Sammy, he's won but also lost it so many times. Here's Bobby Allen, nobody expected him to win and he's won it. That's the cool thing about it. You can be super-fast all year long but it doesn't mean anything until you lead the Nationals."

For Daryn Pittman, watching Steve Kinser get the best of Stevie Smith after a rain delay taught him early on how difficult an event the Nationals is to win.

"It was a great race," said Pittman, who won earlier this year at 81 Speedway in Wichita. "There was a rain delay, it had a red flag and the rain cleared up and Stevie pretty much had him covered. They had a really good race the whole time. I think everybody sat there watching, Stevie was obviously the major underdog and at that time everybody was hoping somebody would win besides Steve. I think everybody in the world was there cheering for [Stevie] and hated to see the red flag. I remember Stevie's interview afterwards. I've always been a big fan of his ever since then. He was a great loser that day and it was good to watch and see how he took it, to see how hard Steve had to work to get by him. That was one I'll always remember and made it clear how hard it is to win the Nationals."

More than anything, though, the Knoxville Nationals is about the gathering of sprint car fans from across the world to the half-mile oval a little southeast of Des Moines. The race long ago became an event, and the event has always been a celebration.

"There are just a lot of people there," said Donny Schatz, a four-time A-feature winner this season. "There are a lot of things happening, a lot of events, a lot of racing. It's a pretty exciting week for everybody, but when it's over I'm glad it's over and we wait another year to do it again. It's a pretty prominent event and we're excited to be a part of it. Hopefully we can be competitive at it again."

They come from across the world with a purpose. The event is sanctioned by the World of Outlaws, but nearly every sprint car series will be represented.

"You're there to win the Knoxville Nationals," said Jason Meyers, a four-time winner with the Outlaws who is second in points. "You're not there to win a $140,000, you're there to win the Knoxville Nationals. The $140,000 is just a bonus. You look at the list of the people who have won that race and it's definitely a list you want to be on before your career is over."

Tim Shaffer, already a winner during the Month of Money by taking the checkered flag in the Don Martin Memorial Silver Cup in July at Lernerville Speedway, has the added pressure of trying to win the Nationals for his central Iowa-based sponsor, Casey's General Stores.

"Mainly at Knoxville, you remember the atmosphere," said Shaffer, a three-time winner this season. "The whole deal is pretty awesome. All the people there. The grandstands fill up on both sides of the straightaways. Anybody who hasn't been there needs to go. It's a great race and you'll see good racing. You'll see a bottom line, a top line. Everybody races extremely hard, not that they don't any other time, but you really see it there. There's racing from the back to the front, it doesn't matter.

"You don't even think about the money, to be honest. It was like winning the Silver Cup at Lernerville, I don't think the money issue was for a few weeks later. It's just winning those races. To win the Knoxville Nationals would be an incredible deal for us, with the Casey's General Stores being a local car. [Car owner] Lonny [Parsons] said if we won that, we might not make it to Billings. It'd be a great deal and we're going to give it our best. I think we've got a chance at it, I really do."

A chance is really all these racers ask for. A shot at immortality. An opportunity to create a memory.

"I think probably one of my bigger memories is the first year we put our race team together and we won from about the 12th spot," Kinser said. "We've had a lot of good memories, but probably the things you remember the most are the worst times you were there. The last one we won was pretty happy, too. We've won a non-wing Nationals and with a wing. There are just a lot of good memories. I remember going there before I started racing as a kid with my dad, watching the Knoxville Nationals. Those are real good memories for me, too. I've had a lot of good times there."

Brian Paulus will never forget the 2004 race, and the decisions the team had to make with a dinged racecar.

"On our qualifying night we crashed and bent up the car really bad," said Paulus, a two-time A-feature winner this season. "We bent up to the point that in our eyes and to most people who looked at it thought it was junk. We bolted it back together just enough to turn a lap in the B-main to get some points and we actually ran the whole B-main, qualified and started last in the feature and ran up to 13th with it. The next day we spent half the day debating on whether we should run a destroyed a racecar with pieces barely bolted onto it or running a racecar that was perfectly straight and everything on it was good. It was a pretty funny memory the next day, trying to figure out which car to run.

"To go there and race the Nationals, obviously you want to come home with the $140,000, but that's just the bonus to it. Like Daytona, to leave there and say I'm a Knoxville Nationals champion, people will remember that for years. You can win a championship with the Outlaws or at a local track and people will remember, but I think the Nationals will stand out more in people's minds."

Shane Stewart won't soon forget the past two years at Knoxville, where he finished seventh each time.

"We've been really competitive," said Stewart, whose Rudeen Racing team is unveiling a new car that highlights sponsor Snap-on Tools. "Looking back at those two races, if I would have had the right brakes we could have won the race. It's just a crazy week. Everybody gets antsy about it, gets revved up for it. They've got their newest and latest car, they've got their best motor in. I try not to look at it like it's a different race, but it's hard not to.

"The money is just a bonus. I'd love to wake up and look at that trophy sitting in my house or wherever. It's just an exciting week and it's fun to be a part of it. It makes it even more when you know going in that you have a chance of making the A-main and maybe even a chance at winning the race. It's just a special week and I'm proud to be a part of it and have a good crew and a good car owner behind me."

Today's racers often got their first taste of sprint car racing at Knoxville as kids.

"It's just a neat atmosphere," said Craig Dollansky, who has two A-feature victories this season. "Going there as a kid, I was just in awe. Going in there and being at the Knoxville Nationals, four days of racing, all the teams, cars and drivers that were there from everywhere. It's just a real neat atmosphere and it still is. It's getting bigger and bigger all the time.

"As a kid, I'd go down there with my dad and watch the races, saying, 'Man, I can't wait to race here some day.'"

Brandon Wimmer can understand. Wimmer, a Mean 15 racer who graduated high school in June, won't soon forget his first trip to the Nationals, either. It helped solidify in his mind what direction he wanted to take his life.

"The first year I ever went I was 10 years old," said Wimmer, a rookie-of-the-year candidate who has a couple of top-10s this season. "I got snuck into the pits, and it was one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life. Just to go down there and see everybody right there in front of you, see everything they do. That year, there were about 80 cars each night trying to make that race. It was pretty unbelievable. It's unbelievable how many fans show up for that week. There's nothing else like it. There's so much excitement in the air. You just try to go there and stay calm and act like it's another race, but at the same time it's one of the biggest races of the year and it's kind of hard to do that."

They all try to treat it as if it were just another race, but considering many teams spend the entire season working toward this one event, even shelving cars early in the season because they believe they might run well when the Nationals roll around, Knoxville hardly is just another event.

"If you start worrying about how big a race it actually is, you're not going to do very good," said Joey Saldana, who broke the Knoxville single-lap record in April and is trying to join his father, 1970 winner Joe Saldana, as a Nationals champion. "I was lucky enough to finish third a few years ago and it's pretty neat to accomplish that. It makes you want to do better than third. It's the biggest race we have and everybody wants to win it. That's the objective. It would be pretty neat if I could do it because there aren't too many fathers and sons who have done it."

The event also is unique because the road warrior Outlaws compete in one place for at least four nights, with many teams arriving early to get adjusted. Often times the series is in-and-out of a town after only two or three nights at most.

"The whole atmosphere of the four days being in one place for that long, just being able to race and watch a couple of nights, too, at the same time is exciting," said Jason Sides, a two-time pole-winner this season who won the Kings Royal in 2004. "When it's all over, you've got all the pressure off of you for the Nationals. It's not a whole lot of pressure, but it's the biggest race of the year. Once it's over, it's downhill for the rest of the year and you can fun.

"Being in the show is one thing, then being in the top-10 or top-five, to win it, that's totally something else."

A Knoxville Nationals victory is something very few drivers have experienced. Since Allen's 1990 victory, only Steve Kinser, Mark Kinser, Dave Blaney and Danny Lasoski have wound up in the winner's circle.

"It's the greatest speedway in the world, period," said Lasoski, the 2001 Outlaws champion who drives for Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart. "It's the only place you can go that has the atmosphere of the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 built into one. People save their vacations, work all year long and come stay there for a week. That is the granddaddy of them all. We have been fortunate enough to win four of them. Just coming to Knoxville is like going home and we love every bit of it.

"When you win one for the first time, then you'll understand. But until you win one, you can talk about it but I still remember every lap of the first one we won. There's nothing greater than the first one, but that just gives you the desire and the fire to win more and more. We're going back to see if we can win five of them."

Others are still searching for their first Knoxville Nationals victory. Jac Haudenschild, who has 40 World of Outlaws A-feature wins in his career, including one Saturday night at Eldora Speedway, has been very fast since taking over the No. 83 Beef Packers car in July.

"My biggest memory there is the one year we ran for Pennzoil and we won everything but the Nationals, we ended up running second in the Nationals," Haudenschild said. "That was my most memorable year at Knoxville. We're hoping to match it again."

But the past doesn't matter in this event. Kraig Kinser knows his first Knoxville victory, coming in June when the second night of a two-night event was canceled by rain, won't help him at all once the green flag drops.

"That four-day show can get kind of grueling," said Kraig Kinser, a five-time A-feature winner in 2005. "A lot of people get down to business when it gets to Knoxville. There are so many big moments in racing that come from the Knoxville Nationals that it's hard to pick one that stands out in your mind. Definitely some people have had some very good wins and some have had tremendous heartbreak. You need a lot of luck to get in the show just to have a shot to win the race.

"It's a whole different ballgame when you get there for the Nationals. You have to have the best attitude you can. What you did before doesn't mean anything when you get to Knoxville. Those guys are going to be running you hard, they won't care whether you've won a race there or never been there before. They'll be just as hard on you. People will be running for points, some people will be scrounging for every position they can get because one more position is just that many more points and gives them that much more boost to get in the show. It's all out as hard as you can go for as many spots as you can get."

Jason Solwold earned enough last season to be named the Knoxville Nationals Rookie of the Year, an award this time around that will result in a test session with an Indy Racing League Menards Infiniti Pro Series team.

"That was my first time at the Knoxville Nationals," said Solwold, a Kevin Gobrecht Rookie of the Year Award candidate. "I've watched it on TV, but to go in there and we ran halfway decent, finishing toward the back of the B-main. I was hoping to make the A-main, which was pretty far-fetched. Hopefully this year we can get into the show and go from there. I'm pretty happy with what happened last year. The Knoxville Nationals rookie-of-the-year deal is a pretty prestigious deal.

"To finish where we did, after I got away and was able to think about it for a little while, I had to be happy with what we accomplished."

The event this year kicks off on Wednesday. Here is the schedule courtesy of Knoxville Raceway:

-woo-

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About this article
Series World of Outlaws
Drivers Tony Stewart , Tim Shaffer , Mark Kinser , Danny Lasoski , Donny Schatz , Steve Kinser , Craig Dollansky , Brian Paulus , Brooke Tatnell , Daryn Pittman , Jason Meyers , Jason Sides , Joey Saldana , Kraig Kinser , Paul McMahan , Shane Stewart , Dave Blaney , Jac Haudenschild