DUBUQUE, Iowa — As Donny Schatz took the checkered flag for his first win in 259 days with the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series Friday night, a mountainous weight melted away.
More accurately, one might have called it “a load the size of a gorilla” that jumped off Schatz’s back.
Whatever the term, it was a relieving moment for Schatz to pull into victory lane in the Outlaws’ debut at Dubuque Fairgrounds Speedway. Not only was it his first checkered flag on tour in nearly nine months, but it also marked his milestone 300th career World of Outlaws victory.
It was a mark Schatz had been chasing since the National Open last fall at Pennsylvania’s Williams Grove Speedway, when the Fargo, N.D., native won his 299th race with the Outlaws and set his sights on 300.
Many pundits thought the historic win would happen quickly. When it didn’t occur by the end of last season, it was assumed that Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park –— where Schatz had been so successful through the years — was the obvious site of win No. 300.
Then the misfortune began, and with it, slowly but surely, doubts began to creep in.
A mechanical failure — a faulty ignition box — robbed Schatz of victory on Feb. 7 at Volusia, after he led coming to two laps to go at the half-mile dirt oval.
That was only the first stumbling block. Whether it was being passed late, traffic that didn’t fall his way or gremlins with his No. 15 Ford Performance-backed, Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing-prepared sprint car, Schatz simply couldn’t find his way to the top step of the podium. And it frustrated him.
“You always wonder if your last win could be the last one,” Schatz admitted in the wake of his 300th victory celebration Friday night. “You can’t take anything for granted in this sport.”
This time, however, the stars finally aligned for the most dominant driver of the modern era.
Schatz, a 10-time World of Outlaws sprint car champion, took the top spot 12 laps in after then-leader Aaron Reutzel pulled to the work area with a flat tire. Schatz led the rest of the way.
Fending off the advances of Kasey Kahne Racing with Mike Curb’s James McFadden, Schatz maneuvered through traffic like a master, and held McFadden at bay after a late caution forced a green-white-checkered finish to secure the $10,000 score after “what felt like eternity.”
Considering he hadn’t won in 38 races — Schatz’s longest winless drought with the Outlaws in two decades — eternity seemed like a somewhat-apt descriptor, all things considered.
“I’m finally over the hump,” Schatz said. “We needed that win, we needed it anywhere. The first one is always the hardest. One year we had to wait eight races until Las Vegas and that felt like an eternity, but let me tell you, 32 races is really an eternity.
“It wasn’t from a lack of effort, or lack of anything. It’s just the way things go in racing sometimes.”
As the drought stretched longer, Schatz’s patience visibly wore thinner at times. But at Dubuque, on Father’s Day weekend and with his dad, Danny, in attendance, Schatz felt calm as he chased history.
“I thought this was going to happen about 15 times already this year, so we knew we were capable of it. That’s the way racing is, though,” tipped Schatz. “Sometimes the best things come to those who wait. It seems to be that way in life, and lately it seems to be that way on the race track. There was something about the atmosphere here that made me feel like tonight was going to be the night.
“I’m really glad my father was here for this one,” Schatz added, tears dotting his vision. “He doesn’t get to go to all of them anymore, but he was here tonight.”
Friday’s win made Schatz the third driver in World of Outlaws history with 300 or more victories. Only Sammy Swindell (394) and Steve Kinser (690), the King of the Outlaws, have more wins than Schatz.
As he lifted the trophy and marveled at it, Schatz joked with DIRTvision pit reporter Dave Rieff that “I might sleep with this thing” and was quick to add that he’s “not done winning” by any stretch.
But Dubuque provided a reminder of two things: that Schatz is still the greatest sprint car driver of the past few decades and that, sometimes, even great racers have to go through droughts to appreciate the best of times.
“There are a lot of great racers out here, and sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good some days,” Schatz said. “I guess this one proved true with that. But we want to get back over that hump and be just as good again. We’re working toward it, Scuba (Steve Swenson, crew chief) and this entire crew.
“Hopefully, now, they haven’t forgotten we’re here.”