INDIANAPOLIS (Sept. 30, 2015) – Every race is important. Some just have a little more meaning. In Sprint car racing, there are a handful of races, including the National Open at historic Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, that every World of Outlaws (WoO) Sprint Car Series driver has on his or her bucket list.
As a kid growing up in North Dakota, the only thing on the bucket list of Tony Stewart-Curb Agajanian Racing (TSR) driver Donny Schatz was to become a WoO driver. Over the past 19 years, he’s been a regular on the tour and has become of one of the sport’s all-time greats. Ironically, the 2000 Williams Grove National Open was his first major Sprint car victory at the historic racetrack, a breakthrough win 15 years ago today that was viewed by most as an upset.
Since that memorable night, the driver of the TSR No. 15 Bad Boy Buggies/Chevrolet Performance J&J has added 198 more WoO A-Features to his win list, including four more National Open triumphs. The six-time and reigning WoO champion is the only driver in the event’s 52-year history to win the coveted National Open five times and enters this year’s three-night event that begins Thursday on a roll after claiming his 30th WoO A-Feature victory last Saturday at Berlin Raceway in Marne, Michigan.
Winning the National Open is a career-changer. The event, which was first run in 1963 at the fabled half-mile dirt oval and won by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Gordon Johncock, is the biggest Sprint car race of the season in the East. The list of 31 drivers who have won the event is a virtual who’s who in Sprint car racing and includes numerous hall of famers. With the rich tradition of Central Pennsylvania Sprint car racing, where so many of the sport’s legends made a name for themselves, it’s the toughest regional group of racers the Outlaws face, and winning the race in 2000 enabled Schatz to experience what it took to come out on top at one of the biggest races of the year.
He had finished second in the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals six weeks prior to his first National Open win and the fourth-year Outlaw was just getting started. With his victory two weeks ago in the Gold Cup Race of Champions at Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico, California, Schatz now has 18 wins in the sport’s four most prestigious races – nine Knoxville Nationals, five National Opens, two Kings Royals and two Gold Cups.
The 2015 season has been a career-best for Schatz and, statistically, one of the best four ever in WoO history. Schatz became only the second driver to reach the 30-win milestone – Steve Kinser is the other with win totals of 46 in 1987, 36 in 1991 and 31 in 1992. Earlier this month, Schatz became only the third driver to win 200 WoO A-Features. He has built a 459-point lead in the championship and, with nine races remaining, he has almost clinched a seventh title. Saturday’s win at Berlin marked the 45th time Schatz has finished first or second this season. The Fargo, North Dakota racer tops the series in top-fives with 56, top-10s with 64 and laps led with 588.
Schatz admits that his first couple of years racing at Williams Grove were forgettable but, after that initial National Open victory, things changed. He has 19 career wins at the track, tying him for 19th all-time with Jan Opperman, Tommy Hinnershitz and Kramer Williamson. If can earn his 20th victory at “The Grove” this weekend, he’ll tie his childhood idol Doug Wolfgang.
One of the 30 wins Schatz has earned this season came in May during the Spring Classic at Williams Grove. He outdueled Greg Hodnett and led the final seven laps to pick up his ninth victory of the season. In July, Schatz finished second in both Summer Nationals A-Feature events at Williams Grove.
This year’s 53rd annual Williams Grove National Open has been expanded to three-day program with complete shows Thursday and Friday. Saturday’s program will be lined up by points drivers accumulate during the first two nights. Heat races and a dash will set the field for Saturday’s 40-lap A-Feature that pays $50,000 to the winner.
Schatz will continue piloting the TSR No. 15 Bad Boy Buggies/Chevrolet Performance J&J with pink striping in conjunction with promoting breast cancer awareness and the fight against cancer. Schatz’s dramatic victory last Saturday at Berlin Raceway came while wearing a special firesuit and pink gloves in support of breast cancer awareness, and he’s looking to add more victories in TSR’s effort to generate awareness as part of the team’s appreciation for Chevrolet’s continued support of TSR’s winged Sprint car teams. Anyone interested in donating to Chevrolet’s 2015 pink initiative is encouraged to visitwww.cancer.org/chevroletmsabc and follow the interactive steps to contribute. This marks the third consecutive season TSR and its drivers are racing for awareness through special pink programs. The team is encouraging fans to join the cause and spread awareness through social media with images of the car and Schatz using the hashtag #IDriveFor.
For all three nights at Williams Grove Speedway, the pit gates will open at 3 p.m. EDT and grandstands open at 5 p.m. Hot laps are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. More details are available by calling Williams Grove Speedway at (717) 338-3815, or by visiting www.williamsgrove.com.
Race fans unable to attend this week’s races can catch all of the action on DIRTVision.com. Fans can listen live as Johnny Gibson, “Voice of the Outlaws,” calls the action as he does at all WoO Sprint Series events on the DIRTVision.com cybercast, as well as on the DIRT Radio Network. Go to www.DIRTVision.comfor more information on all the site features, including updated results from each night of racing, as well as a chat room to interact with other race fans.
Donny Schatz, Driver of the No. 15 TSR Bad Boy Buggies/Chevrolet Performance J&J:
It was 15 years ago today that you won your first National Open. What do you remember about that night?
“It was certainly a long time ago, for sure, but you just remember some of the feelings that you have. I really struggled at Williams Grove the first few years I was on the World of Outlaws tour. I had a started working with Kenny Woodruff at the (Knoxville) Nationals and he was a really good teacher. He threw some things at the car that night and I just went out and drove it. I got out front and got the win. It was my first win there. It was a big deal. I couldn’t believe that I had won the National Open. I knew we were getting better, but that night it all came together.”
Three years ago, you became the only driver to win the National Open five times. You admitted that night it was a special accomplishment. Looking back now, has it become more important to you?
“Nobody comes out here thinking you are going to put your name in the record books. That night when (track announcer) Bruce Ellis said that I’d become the only guy to win it five times, it kind of hit me. Steve Kinser is the greatest driver ever in Sprint car racing and when you do something he hasn’t done, it takes you back. The National Open is one of the toughest races to win and to say that we’ve done it five times is incredible.”
You come to Pennsylvania fresh off a thrilling last-corner win in Michigan, which was your 30th victory of the year. You won earlier in the year at Williams Grove. What is it going to take for you to claim your sixth National Open victory?
“They’ve got a new format with it being three days, so the biggest thing is giving yourself a chance on Saturday night. We need to qualify well, get through our heat and challenge for the feature win on Thursday and that’s where it starts. Once you’ve got through Thursday, you can begin concentrating on Friday. The Bad Boy Buggies/Chevrolet Performance guys have been busy this week getting ready. We felt like we let a couple races get away at Williams Grove in July and we want to come out on top this week. Saturday’s feature is 40 laps and that’s a long race. Having a car good at the end is really important and that’s one of things we are really working on.”