On June 3, Joey Saldana, long known to sprint car fans as the “Brownsburg Bullet,” will be inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, joining his father, Joe Saldana, who was enshrined in the Knoxville, Iowa, facility 23 years ago.
“When you mention the Hall of Fame, I see guys like Lee Osborne, Lil’ Joe Saldana, guys like that — Steve Stapp, Pancho Carter — those are the people I see in the Hall of Fame,” Saldana told SPEED SPORT. “Then, when you mention my name, I just don’t see it. I was just trying to be a race car driver. Hopefully, my father can go with me to the induction ceremony and we can enjoy it as a father and son.”
The record books tell us Joey Saldana won 105 World of Outlaws features and 74 All Star Circuit of Champions main events during a career that spanned nearly three decades. Despite the impressive statistics, Saldana, who celebrated his 51st birthday in mid-March, admits he was never confident in his ability to wheel a winged sprint car.
“I always felt like I was never good enough and I had to try really hard to be successful,” he said. “When I compare myself, I always compare myself to Donny Schatz. He and I both started about the same time and he is such an elite race car driver. It seems like I was always chasing him and he’s done so much more than me, so I never felt like I was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame or win the big races.
“In 2002, when I won the Kings Royal, that confirmed I could compete at a high level and race with guys like Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, Mark Kinser, Jac Haudenschild and Donny Schatz. It put me on the map, which led me to racing for KKR and Kasey Kahne. That Eldora win gave me the exposure to get with the bigger teams, which is where a lot of my wins came. It set the table for me to become a World of Outlaws driver.”
Saldana’s earliest memories of growing up in a racing family center around his father’s time at the Indianapolis 500.
“My mom and dad, and my sisters, are from Lincoln, Neb., and they moved to Indiana so my dad could pursue USAC and the Indy 500,” Saldana recalled. “I was born in Indy in 1972, so really to me, my dad’s journey to Indy was pretty early and I was pretty young. I think his first year there was ’77, and I was 5. But that’s what I remember most, the time at Indy.
“I remember how important it was for him and my family to make it to Indy, being a dirt-track racer from Nebraska. Indy was the biggest thing that influenced me. I always wanted to be an Indy car driver, but the road to Indy has changed so much that I never got the opportunity.”
Saldana’s racing opportunities started as a teenager at Indiana’s Paragon Speedway, driving a sprint car owned by Lee Osborne, and he enjoyed a career that saw him visit victory lane at tracks across the country, as well as in Australia and New Zealand.
“I miss driving the race car, but I don’t miss the process,” said Saldana, who opted to retire at a rather young age. “A lot of it was not being around when my kids were growing up, and then just the way the sport is. For me, later in my career it was tough to find a good, solid ride. When you get to that point, you’ll jump from ride, to ride, to ride, and it’s such a grind – and those rides are dwindling down to nothing.
“I really didn’t have anything to bring to the table but my helmet bag and myself. A lot of the teams need help and at my age I wasn’t willing to go out and hustle that up to go find a ride. And at the end of the year, you could be doing it again and again.”
Guidance from his father positioned Saldana for a post-driving career.
“Like said, I had a great mentor in my father. When I was making money racing, he definitely made me pay attention to what he did to be successful and retire at a young age. My dad retired from racing at 40 years old,” Saldana explained. “My last full year on the Outlaws tour was 2016, so I was in my mid-40s.
“The things I wanted to accomplish in racing were winning the Knoxville Nationals and a World of Outlaws championship. I had my opportunity to do both, especially at Kasey Kahne Racing, and it just didn’t happen. Reality eventually sunk in and made me realize I needed to step back.”
Even though he is retired from driving, Saldana has numerous irons in the fire.