KNOXVILLE, Iowa — As Tasker Phillips signed autographs and took photos with the huge gathering of fans surrounding his pit area Thursday night at Knoxville Raceway, his grin never wavered.
The full-time farmer, part-time racer from Pleasantville, Iowa, had just locked into the Knoxville Nationals feature for the first time.
After a decade’s worth of attempts, his 11th try proved to be the lucky number as the 30-year-old’s dream came true. His point total of 451 slotted him 15th in Nationals standings, just enough to secure a spot for Saturday’s $175,000-to-win finale.
“I just want to make it in the big show,” Phillips said. “It’s all I ever wanted to do in racing.”
The local favorite owns many laps at the iconic half-mile. After ascending through the 305 and 360 ranks, Phillips moved to the 410 division in 2012. Like every other Iowa sprint car driver, Phillips has had a lifelong goal to qualify for the country’s most famous sprint car race. That goal has been accomplished.
“That’s really my biggest dream in racing was to just get locked into this show,” Phillips said. “It’s all gravy from now on.”
When he pulled in the pits after Thursday’s 25-lap prelim feature, his crew quickly let him know.
“They were all over me and jumping up and down and all this stuff,” Phillips said, smile as bright as ever. “So, that was a pretty good sign.”
Phillips’ route to locking in began in the best fashion possible. Despite not being known for qualifying prowess, he laid down a 15.407-second lap to claim fast time honors, topping the field of 51 of the sport’s best drivers.
“I think that was my second ever quick time here, so I’ll take it,” said a chuckling Phillips.
In the heat race Phillips advanced from eighth to sixth but missed the transfer by a pair of positions. In the B-main the driver of the No. 7az lined up on the pole and quickly found himself in a spot he didn’t anticipate – a fierce battle with defending Knoxville Nationals champion Kyle Larson.
“I definitely didn’t think I was going to be battling with Larson,” explained Phillips. “I was reeling (Daryn) Pittman in there before the yellow, but after that I probably should’ve tried to go down low where everybody else was, but it was just too easy and fast enough to stay up top. So, I kind of played it safe.”
Ultimately, Phillips transferred to the feature with a third-place result and went on to move forward from 23rd to 18th in the main event, just enough to lock him in tonight.
“It’s such a relief,” Phillips said of his post-race emotion. “We’ve had a rough few years, basically starting my own team a few years ago. I’m just a farmer and got a couple buddies that do what they can when they can. We’ve got some people that throw some change at us. It’s just a huge load off our shoulders and awesome to make all of the local community proud.”
Friday provided a nice relief as Phillips and the team could relax knowing their spot in the 50-lap A-main tonight is safe. And now, mere hours remain before Phillips’ dream is realized as he rolls out on track as a feature starter at the Knoxville Nationals.
And while the largest task still awaits with 50 trying laps around Knoxville ahead, Phillips has, in a sense, already won.
He won for the underdogs. He won for Davids in the face of Goliath. He won for all those who face the tougher paths but find the mental fortitude to keep going and succeed.
When the No. 7az car fires off for the feature tonight, it’ll be a victory in itself. And while rolling under yellow, awaiting the command to line up for his inaugural Nationals start, it’s safe to assume Phillips might just take a moment to smile under the helmet just as he did while signing every autograph and posing for every picture two nights ago.
“It’s a big win for all the small people out there,” Phillips said. “I have three good guys and all I do is hold my foot down.”