KNOXVILLE, Iowa — The Donny Schatz era isn’t over.
It’s been a slow few seasons for the 10-time World of Outlaws champion as his team has struggled with developing the Ford sprint car engine, battled personnel changes and Schatz struggled with his father Danny’s cancer battle and death earlier this year.
But while some started to dismiss Schatz as “not as good as he once was,” observers could see the results improving on the track and the gleam in Schatz’s eye getting a little bit brighter. He and the Tony Stewart Racing team were building for something big.
To the surprise of only a few, that something big came during the 61st running of the Knoxville Nationals at Iowa’s Knoxville Raceway.
After finishing second in the Kings Royal at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway and a victory at New York’s Weedsport Speedway, Schatz, the TSR team and the Ford engine were showing the speed necessary to contend on a nightly basis.
Schatz tuned up for the Nationals by finishing second in the Capitani Classic at the Knoxville half-mile. He followed that with a second-place effort during his qualifying-night feature and he locked up the third starting spot for the $175,000-to-win finale.
The North Dakota native was sixth at the halfway break in the 50-lap affair. With five laps remaining, he swooped under David Gravel for the lead and raced away from the field to record his 11th victory in sprint car racing’s most prestigious event, prompting Gravel to call him, “The King of Knoxville.”
And that he just may be, though, there are certainly those out there who would argue that Steve Kinser, “The King of the Outlaws,” should be considered the best driver in Nationals history.
Schatz’s 11th Nationals triumph brings him to within one victory of Kinser’s record 12. There are certainly some similarities and some differences when examining the runs of Knoxville Nationals success for each driver.
Kinser won the race 12 times in 35 starts, but those victories all came in his first 25 Nationals features. Schatz’s 11 victories came in his first 24 Knoxville Nationals features.
Kinser was 48 years old when he won his 12th Nationals in ’02. Schatz, who finished second to Kinser in 2002, was 45 when he picked up his 11th Nationals trophy.
In Kinser’s first 25 Nationals, he had a pair of runner-up finishes to go with his 12 victories. Here’s where it gets interesting.
Schatz has 11 victories and eight second-place finishes in his 24 main event starts. In 24 races, Schatz has 20 top-five finishes and 22 top-10 results. He won the race for the first time in 2006 and has finished first or second every year since 2005 with the exception of 2019 when he finished ninth.
Kinser’s 12 victories came during a 23-year span between 1980 and 2002, while Schatz’s 11 wins came in a 17-year period, though, there was no Knoxville Nationals during the 2020 pandemic season.
Schatz will likely contend to win the Nationals for another five to seven years and we’ll all wait to see if he gets that 12th victory, or maybe even 13. But until then, he’s racing with a new attitude and a confidence that says the 305-time World of Outlaws winner has a lot more victories ahead of him.
He says he’s approaching life and racing with a different perspective, much the result of Danny Schatz’s death in June.
“My perspective is to enjoy every day as if it is the last. You just don’t know. We are all fierce competitors and we get caught up in that and sometimes nothing else matters,” Schatz said. “That perspective has changed a bit for me.
“I’m no different than anyone else. We are all going to lose family members, we are all going to lose people close to us. It has opened my eyes to enjoy the moment,” added Schatz. “Enjoy it for what it is today because you never know when or if it is the last time you are going to get that opportunity. I am very lucky and very blessed and get to do what I love to do. I’m probably enjoying it as much now as I ever have.”
That joy may translate into trepidation for the competition.