By T.J. Buffenbarger
(August 13, 2021) — After a great night of racing where four drivers punched their ticket into the biggest feature in all of sprint car racing here are a few takeaways from the “Hard Knox” program Friday at Knoxville Raceway.
• Sprint Car racing is better having Rico Abreu on his game. Abreu giving Jac Haudenschild a quality ride with an iconic paint scheme is fitting because like Haudenschild, Abreu has a very large and passionate fan base.
The fact that he races to win features and doesn’t chase a championship of any sort fits into the true “Outlaw” mold of sprint car racing. Abreu is one of the most beloved drivers currently in the sport.
The past couple of seasons Abreu has struggled with inconsistency, which he even admitted post-race on Friday. Abreu seemed to find something during his trips to the Knoxville Raceway culminating in his second victory in the Hard Knox program.
I remarked at one point that Abreu’s driving style closely resembled Haudenschild after getting by Dale Blaney to win an All Star Circuit of Champions feature at Eldora Speedway. Having Abreu on top of his game is great for the sport, and hopefully he can continue his recent found momentum.
• I’ve always subscribed to the theory that drivers can’t just drop in at the biggest race of the year and expect to be competitive. Shane Stewart broke that theory on Friday turning in a vintage performance.
Stewart looked like he hadn’t missed a beat in the late stages of Friday’s main event finding momentum off the inside of turn two better than anyone else I witnessed on Friday.
Seeing Stewart qualify for the biggest event in sprint car racing after sitting on the sidelines all year promoting a racetrack is remarkable. It also says volumes about Indy Race Parts Bernie Steuben’s ability to get a driver comfortable in a car. Now Bernie has two cars he works on in the feature including Giovanni Scelzi starting from the pole position on Saturday.
Maybe some of the things Bernie learned the night’s Stewart ran the car could propel Scelzi to back up his 360 Knoxville Nationals title with one in the 410’s.
• PA Posse fans were happy seeing two of their residents in Brock Zearfoss and Anthony Macri lock into Saturday’s feature.
Zearfoss’ second appeared comes after having to sit out for an extended period after suffering a concussion earlier in the season. Zeafoss showed speed all week, but everything came together on Friday. Even though he’s on the Outlaw tour now, I’m sure some of the Central PA faithful were cheering him on in the late stages of that feature.
During the post-race press conference when asked about his goals at the start of the year, Macri had to take a moment to compose himself after stating his goal was to put his car in the Knoxville Nationals finale.
Macri is no longer the kid that just rails around the top of Port Royal Speedway. Macri’s growth as a driver has been enjoyable to watch and more people seem to be paying attention as he branches out more. Macri has the potential to eventually go on the road and race or become the next Central Pennsylvania star, depending on which direction he chooses to go in.
• The atmosphere was electric on Friday when Jac Haudenschild led a portion of Friday’s main event driving his iconic Pennzoil #22 livery around the Knoxville Raceway.
Being fortunate to witness Haudenschild’s performance on Kings Royal weekend and Friday’s Knoxville feature is something I’ll be telling people a decade from now I got to witness.
While the fairy tale came up a few laps short of Haudenschild locking into Friday’s feature, Knoxville was graced with a bit of “Wild Child” electricity one more time.
• The Knoxville Nationals seems busier than ever. I didn’t notice it as much on Wednesday, but Thursday and Friday seemed busier than I can remember around town. Highway 14 had heavier traffic, the side roads seem jammed with way more people than I’m used to being around on Thursday and Friday.
I did confirm that more tickets were sold than in 2019 to the Thursday program. Combine that with Saturday’s finale being sold out early on Friday and it appears Knoxville is on the upswing again.
I recall back in 2002 and 2003 being concerned seeing empty seats on the backstretch for Saturday night. Kendra Jacobs and the entire team at Spire Sports and Entertainment, and Marion County Fair Board have done a wonderful job getting people’s attention to visit a wonderful event. Knoxville has always been a special experience, but the work this group is doing is getting people to travel out to experience it.
I know this because I’m running into more first-time attendees than I can recall during my previous visits. When asking them about the experience they are quickly catching on to the small-town festival ambiance of the event combined with what is essentially part “sprint car con” (think ComicCon only sprint cars), the biggest party in sprint car racing, and an event that fully celebrates the sports past and present.