FARGO – May 25, 2016 – Seven-time and reigning World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series champion Donny Schatz is in the midst of his 20th season of competition with “The Greatest Show on Dirt”. There have been thousands of laps made and a ton times more miles accumulated traveling up and down the highways across America to chase checkered flags.
During the last 20 seasons, Schatz has been surrounded by a number of crew members and all of them have a story or two about life on the road. In the record books, it reads that on May 25, 2007, Schatz won his 59th career WoO A-Feature and first official A-Feature at The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was a memorable night for Schatz, who used an uncharacteristic path to pick up win number seven on the season, and for every member of the team. But as always, there is more to the story.
The annual trek to Charlotte in May is one that is much anticipated and nine years ago today that was the case as well. It was the 2007 season, the 11th year Schatz raced with the World of Outlaws driving his family-owned No. 15 ParkerStore/Snap-On/Bellrud Transport J&J with Shaver power. The Fargo, North Dakota racer was defending his first WoO championship with a crew made of up of “Dyno” Dave Lawrence, Shane Bowers, Brad Sparks and Dave Nisbet. The foursome traveled up and down the road with two guys driving the race hauler and the other two in the accompanying merchandise unit.
This “Charlotte adventure” officially began about 45 minutes after Schatz was defeated by .036 seconds at Grandview (Pa.) Speedway by Danny Lasoski in a highly contested 35-lap A-Feature. It was a rather warm night in eastern Pennsylvania and as the rigs were loading up and filing out of the track ready to embark on the 475-mile trip to North Carolina, Sparks, who would be driving the truck pulling the merchandise trailer, told Nisbet that he was going to grab a couple drinks from the concession stand for the ride. By the time he had the sodas in hand, things got a little crazy.
“All I remember is looking over and seeing the t-shirt truck rolling out of the gate and (car owner) Danny (Schatz) jumping out of it while it was rolling,” said Nisbet, who was a 19-year-old from East Grand Forks, Minnesota. “Danny said you better jump in there and get going. I didn’t know where I was going and I saw the race hauler leaving the track, so I got in the line of traffic behind them.”
Sparks, a Dallas, Texas native who joined the team at the beginning of the 2007 season after working for a Sprint car team in Minnesota the previous season, came back to the parking lot with his two cold drinks and began to panic. No truck. No race hauler. No way to Charlotte. All he could see was the line of vehicles making their way out. So he took off and hoped he could catch his ride somehow.
“I started running and if you know me, well I’m a pretty big guy and running isn’t something I normally do,” recalled Sparks. “I could see the big yellow trailer in the line of traffic getting out. You know it was a one road in, one road out kind of track so I was hoping I’d have a chance. I think I got to the trailer a couple of times and pounded on the side door, but of course no one inside could hear me. I’d get there and then the traffic would take off and I’d have to catch up. That happened like three times and then finally I couldn’t catch them anymore. Luckily another racer pulled over and picked me up. Justin Henderson said jump in and then I started calling all the guys, but service in the area was terrible. Finally I was able to reach Donny and he said don’t worry about it…we’ll stop on the turnpike and go from there.”
It was funny for everyone, but Brad. He heard about it countless times the the following day while the crew prepared for the race the next day. Sparks heard plenty from everyone about being left including Danny Schatz, Donny’s dad and team owner, who assumed he was just trying to quit.
“Danny just kept saying to me, I need that Outlaw card back from you,” said Sparks. “He was saying ‘if you were going to quit, you could have just told me.’ I kept saying I’m not quitting. He kept on me the whole time we were in Charlotte … I need that Outlaw card back..but I remember Donny saying on a couple of occasions. Not to worry about it.”
Traveling all night and then spending the next day doing maintenance on the car … and catching a lot of grief from your teammates when they have the chance … is just part of being on the road with the Outlaw tour. And it’s still the same today.
“I obviously didn’t know Brad was left at the track, but I do remember us giving him a pretty hard time,” said Bowers, a native of Hanover, Pennsylvania who won four championships with Schatz. “We had a really good race there at Grandview and any time you have long drives late at night leaving the track on a good note is a plus. It still makes me laugh thinking about what he looked like running down the road, cokes in hand trying to catch the trailer.”
With the laughs and drama of getting there behind them, as well as the maintenance complete, the crew along with Donny and Bill Klingbeil shared a meal at the restaurant just across the parking lot from their Moorseville hotel that Thursday evening. It’s a tradition that Donny does to make sure his guys do get to enjoy a good meal together after a couple of long days of hard work and knowing the difficulty team members face being away from home some many nights during a season.
The next day it was time for the reason they made they journey into the heart of NASCAR county. The Eckerd Outlaw Showdown at The Dirt Track at Lowe’s Motor Speedway was the 26th race of the season, but a race in front of a lot of prominent people in motorsports. The team was leading the championship standings and coming off a two-race sweep at Williams Grove the weekend before and that second-place finish two nights earlier. But winning in Charlotte was important. And everyone knew that.
It was a hot Friday afternoon and the team was ready. Schatz was busy with a number of PR and fan activities that afternoon while the crew went through their normal pre-race routine at the track. Once the action began, the night went pretty fast. Schatz qualified fourth and finished second in his heat. The track was narrow with only a racing groove maybe a car width and a half from the bottom. Passing was at a premium. The racing surface was a little wider in the dash where Schatz advanced from seventh to fifth. He advanced two positions, but he wasn’t happy after the dash and he barked instructions to the crew on what needed to be done to the car for the feature.
“I still remember Donny saying heck with it,” said Nisbet. “put these bars in the left side and these bars down the right side. We’re going for it. He is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around. He just know s what he needs to get around the track. He had a plan for the feature and we just went to work.”
The crew made the changes and had him ready to go for the 30-lap main event. And just before pushing him onto the track, Sparks had an idea something pretty cool was going to happen.
“Donny was getting strapped in and I think Dyno was telling him something, but Donny was so focused I’m not sure he heard a word Dave said,” said Sparks. “He was just looking straight ahead. He had that stare. Kind of like he had this thing all figured out. It was just a matter of getting him on the track. He was going to win it, no matter what.”
Schatz started fifth, but actually dropped back to 10th in the first five laps before he started picking cars off one at time. Several cautions slowed the first 10 laps and it was following a lap 10 restart that made this race memorable. Schatz moved all four wheels up into the choppy, heavy dirt on the top side of the track and moved from fourth to second on the restart. The problem was an accident on the ensuing lap nullified the pass and he had to do it all over again. It took him a couple of laps, but he again “Cowboy-upped” and worked his way into second.
“We were all in awe of seeing him go up there where no one else was driving and make it work,” admitted Bowers. “Guys were crashing left and right up there early in the race, but he just got up there and drove through it. It was impressive, big-time.”
Schatz was all over race-leader Paul McMahan when a red-flag on lap 17 slowed his pursuit. With a number of cautions and previous reds, WoO officials declared it an open-red so crews could add fuel and make any adjustments.
“I remember getting to the car and saying what do you need Donny,” said Lawrence. “He said he was really good and it was all under control. We all knew he was bad fast. I just wanted to make sure he had everything he needed.”
After the crew finished up around the car they began heading back off the track when Schatz yelled for them to all come back to the car.
“We walked back wondering if he wanted us to make a quick adjustment at the last minute,” said Bowers. “He kind of looked at us all with a smile and asked, what lap do you want me to pass him on? It was a pretty good moment. He was confident in the car we gave him and we all knew he was driving his butt off. I’ll always remember that moment.”
The final 13 laps went non stop and McMahan was able to hold off Schatz for eight laps. Schatz seized his opportunity heading into turn three on lap 26 and used a slide job to grad the lead. He pulled away during the final laps to cap a memorable 48 hours of life on the road with the World of Outlaws.
“It was a good feeling all of us packed onto the victory stage,” recalled Sparks. “We even laughed while smiling for pictures about me being left. Someone said, maybe we should leave you behind more often. It was certainly something I’ll never forget.”
The race was captured for television and pit reporter Sean Buckley asked Schatz about him not being the happiest of campers earlier in the evening. That’s when his personality that most people don’t often see came out. Schatz remarked “Me grumpy? Never.” And flashed a really big smile.
Schatz spent more than 45 minutes visiting with fans after the race. The crew packed up and prepared for another all-night run back north trying to get a member of the team to the Baltimore airport in time for a Saturday morning flight. During a quick stop to fill up for food in the middle of the night, the laughs and story-telling continued at Waffle House somewhere between Charlotte and Baltimore, but this time when everyone got up to leave Sparks made sure he was the first one out the door.