Donny Schatz (Frank Smith photo)

Schatz Pilots More Than A Sprint Car

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Race fans across the country have watched Donny Schatz wheel a sprint car to a Hall-of-Fame worthy career over the past three decades – 10 World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car titles, 313 wins and more.

But there’s been a different type of driving going on behind the scenes for most of Schatz’s World of Outlaws career that began in 1997 — aviation. 

His air travel is different than most. He’s not slogging through a long TSA line and cramming into seat 28C. The 46-year-old is the pilot. He flies his own plane to nearly every race and back home to Fargo, N.D., during the week — a love for air time that trickles through the Schatz family tree.

“It all starts really with my grandfather,” Schatz said. “My grandfather was in the military and airplanes were something that enamored him. He was a private pilot for recreation, and in the late ‘60s he was able to get his own plane. I think it’s what enticed my father to get involved in his aviation endeavors as kind of a recreational pilot.

“When we started racing in ’93, my father was trying to expand his business from Minot, N.D., to Fargo. And the only way that was going to work with living in Minot and having stuff to do in Fargo, going back and forth every day is 280 miles or four-and-a-half-hour drive, so it really brought aviation into play for my father to be able to make his dream come true at the Petro in Fargo.”

Schatz was on the path to acquiring a pilot’s license in his teenage years before racing became priority. Life on the road appealed to the up-and-coming driver as he began to travel the country with The Greatest Show on Dirt. After a handful of years of traversing the country’s highways in a motorhome and racing, the desire to be home more often emerged.

“I realized if I wanted to have somewhat of a normal life and still continue to race, the best balance was going to be to get my pilot’s license and I did,” Schatz explained. “And it’s not just a matter of getting your recreational pilot’s license. You need to be able to fly a twin-engine plane, an all instrument, basically the next thing below a commercial airline pilot without being a commercial airline pilot. You want to keep yourself safe and have the knowledge and be able to deal with weather, all the emergencies and things that happen.

“When you start racing with the World of Outlaws, anything you do, anything you inject into your life, whether it’s learning to be a pilot or learning to do this or that, obviously your priority is your racing,” Schatz said. “For me, it was a situation where I had to find somebody that would train me and was looking for a full-time gig that could work around my schedule. We would do training during the week here and there and then obviously go to the races. Flying is really about building time… It took me about a year from the time I got my private single engine to working multi-engine to working on instrument and the things I did. It took quite some time, but I was trained by great people.”

The ability to journey home between nearly every race has helped Schatz stay focused and content throughout his historic career. It’s given him a sense a normalcy through the grueling World of Outlaws calendar. It’s also helped put the bad nights behind him.

“The thing about flying is you can’t get in the plane and be mad about something on the race track or if you had a bad finish,” Schatz said. “When you get in the airplane it’s like getting in the race car, you better be switched on. You better be focused at what you’re doing or you could pay for it with your life and whoever is along with you could pay for it with their life as well.”

This year has been no different for Schatz as he continues to rely on flying to be home often throughout the year. The only difference has been the results. Back before the season started, the 10-time champion promised the racing community they’d see a different Donny Schatz. And he’s delivered on that promise. 

After struggling to a sixth-place finish in the 2023 standings, Schatz has been one of the tour’s most consistent drivers in 2024 with his Tony Stewart/Curb Agajanian Racing team. Through more than a quarter of the campaign he sits third in points and only 58 markers behind David Gravel for the top spot.

Schatz won’t have to travel far for this weekend’s racing as it kicks off on Friday at Grand Forks’ River Cities Speedway. The bullring is only 80 miles from his home in Fargo, and full of Schatz fans.

“I think a lot of people had the mentality that, ‘Well, he doesn’t care. He’s won 10 championships.’ That’s not the case,” Schatz said. “I never expected in my career to win those things, and I have won them, and I’m still going to try to win another one. That’s why I keep going. I love the competition.”

Cap Ad