Contrary to popular belief, Ken Schrader’s racing career did not begin during the sport’s board-track era. However, it has been more than 50 years since the native of Fenton, Mo, began competing — and winning — at local tracks near his hometown.
By the early 1980s, Schrader had found success on the national stage, capturing the USAC Silver Crown title in 1982 and the USAC sprint car championship the following year. A failed attempt to qualify for the 1983 Indianapolis 500 resulted in Schrader taking his talents south to NASCAR.
Between 1984 and 2017, Schrader made 984 starts across NASCAR’s trio of national series, winning four times in the Cup Series, twice in the Xfinity Series and once in the Truck Series.
His last full-time NASCAR Cup Series season was in 2006, but today, at age 67, Schrader is still running wide open — on and off the track. With a passion for the sport that’s as strong as when he was a teenager, Schrader crisscrosses the country, racing a broad spectrum of cars at a variety of tracks.
If he’s not at a race track, Schrader can usually be found at his shop in Dittmer, Mo.
That’s where he recently took time to answer our many questions.
Q: Tell us about the different cars you’ve raced this year, and which was the most fun?
SCHRADER: Well, they’re all fun — but what have we driven? OK, we’ve driven an IMCA modified, a UMP modified, drove a street stock and a late model at Toledo. Drove a truck at Vado, N.M., we won that. Drove a school bus at Toledo in a Figure-8. We ran a midget twice and a sprint car twice.
Q: Is there one event that stands out?
SCHRADER: It’s only September so I hope the one event that stands out hasn’t happened yet.
Q: What will your race count look like when the season’s over?
SCHRADER: It’s going to be down again. It was down last year at 65 races. It’s going to be something right around that again because the SRX testing really screws us up.
Q: Do you enjoy testing the SRX cars?
SCHRADER: It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed it a lot — but it’s still testing; it’s not like racing.
Q: Did you ever think you’d see a tire shortage in racing, and did it impact your schedule?
SCHRADER: No, it did not impact our schedule at all. There are people a lot smarter than me, but people at Hoosier tell me they are going to build the same amount of tires, if not more, this year than they’ve built in years past. I think a lot of what we have going on is a shortage was talked about and we’ve got some hoarding. Hoosier is on track to build the same number of tires as they have in the past.
Q: How has your life changed since you moved home to Missouri?
SCHRADER: It’s just simpler — it’s still pretty screwed up, but it’s simpler not having a 45,000-square-foot shop to worry about and as many people as we had before. Now, on the payroll, it’s the wife and I, and two more full time and one part time.
The kids (Dorothy and Sheldon) are still in North Carolina. That’s the only bad part.
Q: Most fans don’t know you attempted to run the Indianapolis 500 in 1983. Tell us about that experience.
SCHRADER: It’s the best wreck I ever had. It really was. In ’82, we won the Silver Crown championship, we were winning midget races and some sprint car races every now and then. We were kind of on top of that little group, or whatever you want to call it. We were one of the guys, and I got asked to drive an Indy car.
Usona Purcell owned it and Grant King took care of it. They had a Finley-Eagle copy. We went to Rookie Orientation and we weren’t geared up. We were just getting me some laps. We ran 182. That sounds really slow now, but I want to say that in ’83 I think it took 186 to make the race. They eventually bought a year-old March and we were running 192, and we wound up wrecking. I think we could have gotten the Eagle up to speed, but it was not entered because there was like a thousand-dollar entry fee. It wasn’t entered so that wasn’t an option to get it out.
I had some car owners come by and ask me what I had. I told them I had a new helmet I hadn’t cracked, and I hadn’t poked any holes in my uniform with the lower control arms when they came through when I wrecked. I was good to go. They were wanting to know about money and, hell, I didn’t have any money, so I kind of made up my mind then that if I was going to get serious about this, I was going to look down south.
That’s what made up our mind to go. That was in ’83 and then in ’84 we ran five NASCAR races, and that was the start of it.
Q: What’s your take on the new NASCAR Cup Series car?
SCHRADER: I haven’t driven it, but I’ve talked to some of the guys. Apparently, they have some parts problems and it’s transferring too much of the energy when it hits to the driver. They have some issues to work out, which anytime we build something new we usually have some issues to work out. But I know we are at 19 winners already this year, so it’s definitely done something.
Q: Do you like the concept that all the cars are the same?
SCHRADER: Yes, IndyCar is the same way. Without them being the same, they are going to run the costs way out of hand with all the engineers and stuff.
Q: What’s your fondest racing memory and why does it stand out?
SCHRADER: There are too many. Going to Terre Haute for the first time to drive a Silver Crown car and winding up on the pole in the Delrose-Holt car, and running, I don’t know, third or fourth, that was a pretty big deal.
But if you want the biggest, it’s probably winning a pole at Darlington for Mr. (Junie) Donlavey and winning a Daytona qualifying race for Mr. Donlavey. The people, the whole garage area was so pumped up for Mr. Donlavey, because he was such a good person, had been there so long and they worked so hard. That was probably the neatest.
Q: Who is your racing hero and why did they earn the distinction?
SCHRADER: There are a few, but Foyt was the one — driving and winning in all of those different types of cars.
Q: What’s the No. 1 item on Ken Schrader’s bucket list?
SCHRADER: I don’t really have a bucket list. Hell, all I ever set out to do was race to keep from getting a job — and we’ve kind of got that accomplished. I’ve never actually had a bucket list, so we’re still racing.
There are two states that we haven’t raced in, but that wasn’t a bucket-list thing and still isn’t because I never set out to do that. It just happened.
Q: What are the two states?
SCHRADER: Hawaii, which is no problem because we’ve got a couple of standing invitations for over there, and Rhode Island, which doesn’t have a track right now.
Q: What do you enjoy doing when you can step away from racing?
SCHRADER: I ride my motorcycle quite a bit, but I don’t want to get away from racing. You know, I don’t want to do anything else. I was in the shop at 7:30 this morning and I’ll be here until 6:30 tonight. Then, I’ll watch the Kokomo race. I don’t really want to do anything else.
Q: Buzzie Reutimann is still winning modified races at 81. Do you look at that with amazement or is it a goal?
SCHRADER: Buzzie Reutimann winning a race doesn’t come as a surprise to me, you know. He’s been winning them for years. Why can’t he still win a race? I don’t know what happened to him in the feature, but Red Farmer won his heat race at Talladega Saturday night and started on the front row of the feature at age 90.
I’ve got no idea how long we’re going to do this, but, hey, compared to those guys I’m still pretty young.
Q: Racing is notoriously hard on marriages. How have you and Ann made it work for so many years?
SCHRADER: (Laughter) There have been a few tight spots. Oh, I don’t know. She’s pretty tolerant and she still goes to a lot of the races.
Q: Does she still have some race fan left in her?
SCHRADER: I know she does. Something we do a lot of are these things we call “Get Dirty with Kenny.” We do them for Federated Auto Parts throughout the country where we take five cars, we only use three at a time but we have backups, and we’ll run five or six days in a row at these different dirt tracks.
Federated will bring out customers. We’ll suit them up and put them in a car. They’ll go run eight to 10 laps and come in and tell us how fast they were. Then, we’ll put them in the two-seater and I’ll go run them around there for two or three laps. Then, they’ll sing a different song. She goes on those trips and works them. I think she’s got a little bit of time left in her.
Q: How has your sponsorship deal with Federated Auto Parts lasted 23 years?
SCHRADER: They are really good to work with. We try to do pretty much anything they want because they’re the boss. We have gone to every part of this country and Canada doing stuff with them because they have members all over. It’s a give and take, and we just work good together.
Q: Are you content with the way your career turned out, or is there something you wish you would have done differently?
SCHRADER: Oh, hell yea, I wish I would have won a lot more races. But as far as decisions, it worked out good — but it could have been better. I could have been more cutthroat, serious about it all the time, and maybe made a couple career decisions where I wouldn’t have some of the buddies I’ve got now, but I might have had a few more dollars. I don’t regret any of it. HendrickCars.com is on every race car we’ve got and I quit there. I’ve got a lot of good friends because of the sport. n