SECOND TO NONE: Donny Schatz Captures His First Knoxville Nationals Championship Knoxville, IA -- Aug. 12, 2006 -- He had been so close but just couldn't make the jump one step up the podium. Four times in the most prestigious sprint car race...
SECOND TO NONE: Donny Schatz Captures His First Knoxville Nationals Championship
Knoxville, IA -- Aug. 12, 2006 -- He had been so close but just couldn't make the jump one step up the podium.
Four times in the most prestigious sprint car race in the world, Donny Schatz saw the checkered flag wave from the runner-up position. Four times he had to check his emotions as he looked up the podium and saw somebody else celebrating. On Saturday night at the 46th Annual Super Clean Knoxville Nationals, Schatz made sure this time around the A-main would be a four-gone conclusion.
He finally let those bottled up emotions loose with a double fist pump in Knoxville Raceway's Victory Lane after winning the 30-lap main event aired live on television. Schatz, the World of Outlaws Sprint Series championship points leader from Fargo, N.D., started on the pole and raced back and forth with fellow Outlaws competitor Joey Saldana. The two swapped grooves high and low before Schatz slid in front on Lap 13 and drove away, leaving no doubt on a final 10-lap sprint to the finish whose name should be written on the $140,000 winner's check.
Saldana battled Jason Johnson to finish second in the Mopar-powered Dodge/Curb Records JEI that featured the country band Bomshel during the Knoxville Nationals. Johnson, who won the second qualifying-night feature was third followed by Danny Lasoski's Roth Motorsports Eagle and Jason Meyers' Elite Landscaping Maxim.
"It hasn't really hit me," said Schatz, who leads the World of Outlaws with 11 victories this season. "I'm as excited as I've ever been in my life. This is one of the defining moments of my life. It honestly has not hit me yet. When you put the helmet on it's time block everything else out and I feel like I still have to take the helmet off and let the emotions go. I'm normally an emotional person and I tried to block out all the emotions this weekend. This is it. It doesn't get any bigger than this. It doesn't get any better.
Still restraining his emotions, Schatz revealed that he had been aiming to win a race for the past few weeks just to dedicate it to the World of Outlaws founder.
"Ted Johnson has undergone cancer treatment recently," Schatz said. "I've been trying to win a race to dedicate to him. He's the man who made the World of Outlaws what it is today. He's been big in my heart the past 10 years. I've probably been closer to him the two years since he's been gone [from owning the series] than I was before he was gone, but I want him to know we're thinking about him, we're praying for him and we're wishing him luck because he's beat it for 30 years and he's pretty sure he's going to beat it again. I want to dedicate this win to him."
After leading 18 laps on Saturday night in the ParkerStore J&J, Schatz has now led 49 laps in his career during the A-main event at the Knoxville Nationals. He also finished second on Wednesday night during the first qualifying A-main and led the Knoxville Nationals points going into the scrambles on Friday, where he also finished second to earn a few more points to put himself on the pole for the main event on Saturday.
Still, when a crash on the front stretch with 10 laps to go brought out a red flag, Schatz was confident in knowing he had the car to beat.
"It gave me the opportunity to say you've got it, don't screw it up," he said.
Schatz credits crew chief Ricky Warner for his remarkable run over the past year. Since joining the team during the 2005 Knoxville Nationals, Schatz has posted 16 main event victories, but none bigger than Saturday night's win. Warner, a good friend of driver Steve King who lost his life from injuries suffered in a crash during the qualifying feature on Wednesday night, turns the wrenches on the car so Schatz can pay attention to track conditions knowing he'll have a machine that can win just about every night.
"We both have the same desires and that's to win," Schatz said. "That's all he wants to do. Ricky was very close with Steve King and I think it was very hard for Ricky to focus on what the job was at hand, but there is nobody in this sport that's still going today that has Ricky's focus and dedication and drive. He has the capabilities to see things that I can't possibly feel. He knows how to get the motors running optimum. He's made this program the best that it can be. I can't thank the crew enough. They work so hard to do this for me. I think a lot of days, the things I ask of them they'd rather quit and go fishing to get away from me, but we all have that desire to be the best we possibly can be and he drives us toward that."
Afterward, Donny's biggest fan stood to the side, taking in everything and hiding his emotions just as well. His dad, Danny, is a former racer and it was clear he couldn't have been more proud as Donny stood at the top of the podium in front of the massive crowd.
"I feel good that he's accomplished what he has worked very hard to do," Danny Schatz said. "For me, it's great to have the win. I enjoy every win just as much.
"I guess I realize he won and I'm doing better than I thought I would. I felt like after we started going through lapped traffic, there was nobody going to beat us unless we had a flat tire or run over somebody, and Don was pretty careful when he came up to them. I don't think he knew how far ahead he was, but he was a half a lap at the first yellow and a half a lap at the end of the race."
Saldana, who is second in the World of Outlaws championship standings, was trying to become just the second father-and-son to be crowned champions of the Knoxville Nationals. His dad, Joe, won the 1970 running of sprint car racing's biggest event, but he doesn't offer advice to Joey or the Kasey Kahne Racing team.
"He doesn't say anything," said Saldana, of Brownsburg, Ind., who won the $50,000 Kings Royal last month at Eldora Speedway. "He just wants me to have fun and hopefully run good. He just stays back and wants me to do good."
Johnson, who has dominated this season in a 360-sprint car, picked up his first 410 victory on Thursday and charged to the first podium finish of his career at Knoxville.
"To see three young guys up here, I think it's really great," said Johnson, of Eunice, La. "Maybe the sport is coming around with a different future and picking up more and more fans. Schatz has a ton of fans. It's going through a new era where times are changing."
Johnson also was very good friends with King. His crew donned King's team's Ethanol-sponsored crew uniforms on Saturday night.
"To think this on Wednesday night and be in the hospital at 7 in the morning with Steve, I never thought I'd be on the podium with a chance to express my condolences to the King family," Johnson said. "We talked to them today and they asked if we could wear their Ethanol uniforms and I said, 'Sure, we'd do it.' Steve and I were really good friends. We talked every Thursday and Sunday. I know he also was really good friends with Donny Schatz's crew chief Ricky Warner. It's really hard to lose a great friend and focus. I always seemed to choke up in the past few years here but it seemed like this just put me in a different mindset. I'm just feeling sorry for the King family and missing Steve."
World of Outlaws Sprint Series drivers Craig Dollansky, Daryn Pittman and Terry McCarl posted A-main finishes with Dollansky driving the Karavan Trailers/Team Race Chic Maxim to seventh, Pittman driving the Titan Garages & Carports Maxim to 10th and McCarl bringing the Big Game Treestands Eagle to the checkered flag in 19th.
Next up for the World of Outlaws Sprints Series is a return to Black Hills Speedway on Thursday in Rapid City, S.D., before what will no doubt be a massive victory celebration on Saturday at Nodak Speedway in Minot, N.D., where Schatz grew up before moving to Fargo.
"That's where it all started for me," Schatz said. "My dad used to bring me down here to the Nationals, and we would watch the World of Outlaws races in Fargo. I got to race a lot around home. That's where the family business was and that's what made it possible for me to get in one of these racecars. I have a lot of respect and gratitude for where I come from and it's an absolute pleasure for me to go back there next week with the World of Outlaws and put on a show for the hometown fans and bring the best this sport has to offer."