By Bill Klingbeil
INDIANAPOLIS (June 8, 2011) – In the world of Sprint car racing, Knoxville Raceway is reminiscent of famed venues like Yankee Stadium, Boston Garden and Lambeau Field. It’s more than just a racetrack. There’s history, tradition and some times intimidation. The half-mile dirt oval located in central Iowa annually hosts the sport’s premiere event, the Knoxville Nationals, each August. And for every driver in the sport, every lap around that track means something. This weekend, the World of Outlaws (WoO) Sprint Car Series will contest the Mediacom Shootout, a two-night program that is the only stop at the track prior to this year’s Nationals.
The most historic sports facilities in the world have a lot in common. They’ve hosted some of the biggest events in sports and they’ve also provided a stage for some of the all-time greats. Knoxville is no different and Tony Stewart Racing’s (TSR) WoO tandem of Steve Kinser and Donny Schatz has put up numerous memorable performances at the track.
Drivers will say that the past is something they’ll worry about when they are done racing. It’s the two nights of racing this weekend that is on the forefront of their minds. Kinser, driver of the TSR No. 11 Bass Pro Shops/J.D. Byrider/ Chevrolet Maxim, is coming off his fifth WoO A-Feature win of the season and is in the midst of chasing his 21st WoO championship. Despite a slow start to 2011, Schatz has climbed into contention, as well, thanks in part to a number of consistent finishes in the TSR No. 15 STP/Armor All/Chevrolet J&J.
Returning to Knoxville is a welcome site for both. The last time they raced one another around the famous black gumbo track, each was plagued by motor problems. In last year’s 50th anniversary Knoxville Nationals, the TSR teammates raced identical gold chrome racecars and each was poised to claim the biggest prize in Sprint car racing. Kinser’s shot at a record 13th Nationals victory went up in smoke just past the halfway point of the 50-lap marathon, while Schatz led the race with only three laps remaining but lost horsepower in the final half-mile and followed Tim Shaffer to the finish line.
Kinser first turned laps at the Marion County Fairgrounds on Aug. 6, 1977, just four days before his TSR teammate, Schatz, was born. He finished eighth that night and came back two nights later to finish fifth in the 17th annual Knoxville Nationals A-Main. One year later, he scored his first career triumph at the track during his qualifying night of the 1978 Nationals. It was in April of 1980 when he won consecutive WoO triumphs and, later that season, he captured his first of 12 Knoxville Nationals championships.
Knoxville has been a personal stomping ground for the “King of the Outlaws” throughout his illustrious career. He’s won 52 times in WoO competition and ranks third all-time at the track with 58 total wins. In 1987, he won five times and, in 1992, he was a seven-time winner. In 2002, he won the Outlaws’ first visit to the track and then dominated the Nationals by winning both his qualifying feature and the Nationals finale.
The staggering numbers Kinser has posted at Knoxville likely won’t be matched, but the one driver who has put up Kinseresque results at the track recently has been Schatz. The Fargo, N.D., native first visited the track as a youngster and watched his hero Doug Wolfgang battle Kinser for a number of championships. Schatz made his debut at the track in June 1995 and began regularly competing on the famed half-mile when he joined the Outlaws’ circuit in 1997. The following season, he started to turn the corner at Knoxville, providing a hint of what was to come during the 38th annual Knoxville Nationals weekend in 1998. He earned his first runner-up finish at the track behind Kinser in his preliminary feature and then, two nights later, passed Kinser late in the race to finish fourth in the Nationals A-Main.
Second was a familiar position for Schatz during the first nine years of his WoO career. It happened on 12 different occasions, including four times during the Nationals A-Main (2000, 2002, 2003 and 2005). Sandwiched between all of those second-place finishes was his first career Knoxville feature victory, which came on Aug. 9, 2001, 23 years to the day after Kinser won his first race at Knoxville. Finally, in August 2006, he got over the hump and captured his first Knoxville Nationals A-Main triumph. He won four consecutive Nationals before finishing second last year. He has also won five additional WoO A-Features since August 2006. The four-time WoO champion has finished inside the top-five 18 times in his last 24 starts and, three of the last four years, he’s won the Outlaws first A-Feature at Knoxville.
With 20 races competed in the 2011 WoO campaign, the championship standings continue to be tight. Kinser’s victory at Lakeside allowed him to close within 27 points of leader Joey Saldana. Schatz, who is tied with Saldana for most top-fives with 11, ranks second and trails by only 13 markers.
Winning this weekend is the goal for both. Kinser would like to stop his winless streak at the track, which has spread to five seasons, while Schatz would like nothing more than to earn his 107th career A-Feature and tie Wolfgang for fourth on the all-time WoO win list. Wolfgang won seven career WoO A-Features and has five Nationals triumphs at the track.
Both nights at Knoxville, the pit gates will open at 4 p.m. CDT with the grandstands opening at 6 p.m. Hot laps are scheduled to begin at 6:45 p.m. For more details, contact the track at (641) 842-5431, or visit the official Web site of Knoxville Raceway at www.knoxvilleraceway.com.
Race fans unable to attend this weekend’s races can catch all of the action on DIRTVision.com. Fans can listen live as Johnny Gibson, “Voice of the Outlaws,” calls the action as he does at all WoO Sprint Series events on the DIRTVision.com cybercast, as well as on the DIRT Radio Network. Go to www.DIRTVision.com for more information on all the site features, including updated results from each night of racing, as well as a chat room to interact with other race fans.
Steve Kinser, Driver of the No. 11 TSR/Bass Pro Shops/J.D. Byrider/Chevrolet Maxim:
You’ve always been referred to as one of the toughest guys to ever drive a Sprint car. Last week, you broke some bones in a race on Monday and came back to win on Saturday. How tough was that to accomplish?
“It certainly wasn’t easy. When I got home Tuesday morning from Michigan, I was in a lot of pain and wasn’t quite sure if I was going to be able to race. Fortunately, surgery helped with the pain and started the healing process. I just took it easy most of the week. I knew by Thursday that I was going to race and that I just needed to rest up. The temperatures were going to be hot and I’d need every bit of strength I could have. The Bass Pro Shops guys (Scott Gerkin, Gary DuBois and Mikey Kuemper) put together a new car and we were really good both nights. Friday night, we lost a tire while running second, and Saturday we were able to win. When I get in the car, I block out everything but what’s going on in front of me. I’m still a little sore, but racing Sprint cars is what I do and, as long I can do it, that’s what I’ll keep on doing.”
Last week’s victory at Lakeside was your fifth of the season. Four of the five have come on high-speed, half-miles. Heading to Knoxville this weekend has to be something you are looking forward to?
“I always enjoy Knoxville. It’s a great place to race. It’s big. It’s fast. You can move around a little bit and not scrub off a lot of speed. Everybody gets up in the seat a little bit more there. As a competitor, that’s something you look forward to. The way our program is, the bigger tracks have been better for us. We qualified well in Florida and we ended up winning some races. We timed in well last weekend and that helped us, too. You have to be fast right away if you are going to have a chance to win there. We need more wins right now.”
Donny Schatz, Driver of the No. 15 TSR/STP/Armor All/Chevrolet J&J:
Consistency is the reason for your recent climb in the championship standings. Last weekend, you had a flat tire and broken top wing, yet you still gained ground. Are weekends like that the ones that make the difference at the end of the year between finishing first and not winning the title?
“It can be, but they can also be looked at like missed opportunities. I don’t think I was going to win at Belleville (Kan.) on Friday, but I had worked my way up to fifth. And it seemed like I was gaining on the two cars in front of me every lap. That’s another top-five that we can’t get back. On Saturday, we drove from seventh to fourth in the dash and I really thought we were going to have a great shot in the feature. The first 10 laps or so, we were right there but, after the wing broke, I was just hanging on. I guess there are two ways to look at it. Yes, we missed a chance at finishing further up front, but at least we finished where we did. We have to get all of that out of system and have nights where nothing goes wrong for a while. We’re building momentum, just not winning like we want to be.”
You mentioned momentum. How important is it to get both nights in this weekend at Knoxville?
“It’s really important. I think last weekend was the first time since the first weekend in April that we were able to race both on Friday and Saturday. We only got to run one night at Eldora. We raced once at Williams Grove. These two-night programs are the events where you can learn and improve. The fact that we only get to race here this weekend before coming back for the Nationals makes it even more important. If we can continue tweaking our program and getting better and better, I’d say we’ll be on the right track. When you don’t get to race consistently, sometimes it feels like you take two steps forward and then one back. We need the track time this weekend for a lot of reasons. I’m hungry to win races and I know my team has been doing everything possible to put me in a position to win. As long as Mother Nature cooperates, I think this weekend is great opportunity for us to make a move.”
About Armored AutoGroup
Armored AutoGroup Inc., headquartered in Danbury, CT, is primarily comprised of the Armor All® and STP® brands. Armor All’s® current product line of protectants, wipes, tire and wheel care products, glass cleaners, leather care products and washes is designed to clean, shine and protect interior and exterior automobile surfaces. STP’s® offering of oil and fuel additives, functional fluids and automotive appearance products has a broad customer base ranging from professional racers to car enthusiasts and ‘‘Do-it-Yourselfers’’. The company has a diversified geographic footprint with direct operations in the United States, Canada, Australia and the U.K. and distributor relationships in approximately 50 countries. For more information, please visit www.armorall.com and www.stp.com.
About Bass Pro Shops Group
Bass Pro Shops -56 retail stores in 26 states and Canada visited by over 109 million people annually, international catalog and internet retailing, American Rod & Gun wholesale division selling to over 7,000 independently owned retail stores worldwide, Outdoor World Incentives also selling Bass Pro Shops gift cards through over 132,000 retail outlets across America and a restaurant division with 26 locations. For more information regarding Bass Pro Shops store locations, products or special events, please visit www.basspro.com. To request a free catalog call 1-800-BASS PRO.
Tracker Marine Group – Manufactures and sells Tracker, Nitro, SunTracker, Tahoe, Grizzly and Mako boats through Bass Pro Shops retail stores and over 400 dealers worldwide.
Resort Group – Big Cedar Lodge and other resort properties including restaurants and golf course. Visit www.bigcedar.com for more information.