INDIANAPOLIS (Aug. 9, 2016) – From the first time he set foot on the famed Marion County Fairgrounds, Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing (TSR) driver Donny Schatz knew he was someplace special. Twenty-six years later, Knoxville is more significant than the kid from North Dakota could ever have imaged. He’s grown from a wide-eyed youth into one of the most decorated drivers ever to compete in Sprint car racing’s marquee event, the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals. Schatz will begin his quest for a 10th Nationals crown in Wednesday’s opening night of the 56th annual 5-hour ENERGY Knoxville Nationals presented by Casey’s General Store.
For the 21st consecutive year, Schatz will compete in “The Grandaddy of Them All” at the famed half-mile, dirt oval – a place where’s he delivered an incredible run of memorable performances. He returns to Knoxville as the event’s defending champion after leading all 50 laps of last year’s main event and will carry new colors aboard the TSR No. 15 Bad Boy Off Road/Chevrolet Performance J&J. The scheme promotes the recently released Bad Boy Off Road Stampede 900 4×4 and the nine-time Knoxville Nationals winner is hoping to take it all the way to victory lane wearing a custom-painted helmet that is part of a promotion titled “Are You Bold Enough?”
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
When Schatz made his initial run at the Nationals back in 1993, no one could have predicted his impact on the event that is so rich in history. Despite qualifying 63rd that first year, Schatz continued to hone his craft and qualified for his first Nationals’ A-Main in 1998 in his fifth Nationals appearance. In that A-Main, he provided a glimpse of his talent at Knoxville by passing Steve Kinser late in the race to finish fourth. He took center stage two years later, jumping out to an early lead and leaving Knoxville favorites Mark Kinser and Danny Lasoski to battle for second. Schatz was strong early in the race but ultimately was overtaken by Mark Kinser with five laps remaining and he finished second for the first of what would become four times before finally reaching the sport’s pinnacle.
That occurred in 2006, when he arrived at the Nationals as the World of Outlaws (WoO) Craftsman Sprint Car Series points leader and top winner. He out-dueled Joey Saldana during the first 17 laps and pulled away during the final 10 laps to finally score that coveted Nationals victory. The next three years ended with victories, as well, but each was earned a different way. He dominated the 30-lap race in 2007, used a late restart to beat Jason Meyers in 2008, and tracked down Saldana in 2009 with five laps remaining the first time the race went 40 laps. He nearly made it five straight in the 50th running of the Nationals, but was forced to nurse a souring engine to the finish line after staging an epic battle with Sammy Swindell during the first 40 laps of the 50-lap marathon.
In 2011, the challenge to regain his post on top at the Nationals was more difficult than he hoped after finishing 24th in his qualifying-night feature. A blown engine in that 25-lap preliminary feature put him 13th overall in points and many felt he was too far back to be a factor. Schatz proved those prognosticators wrong by racing his way into the lead on lap 15. He would lead the rest of the way to score his fifth Nationals win. He made it back-to-back wins in 2012 by racing from fifth to first in 14 laps and then leading the final 36 laps.
The 2013 event was Schatz’s 20th Nationals appearance and most likely one of the most memorable in the history of the event. After struggling during his qualifying night, Schatz lined up fourth in the B-Main and won the 22-lap event after making a final corner pass to advance to the 50-lap A-Main. The focus was up front as Brian Brown pulled out a to huge lead, but Schatz, who professed to his crew before the race that he better be in the top-five by the break – a five-minute stoppage for fuel and tires – if he was going to have any chance. He worked his way from 21st to 15th and then he was inside the top-10. By the time the race was stopped, Schatz had worked his way into the fifth position. It was game on from there as Schatz, who was celebrating his 36th birthday, continued attacking and took the lead from Brown with six laps remaining and pulled away to score a convincing triumph. He was the first driver to win the B-Main, A-Main and be named the race’s Hard Charger.
His eighth Nationals triumph came after another battle with Brown in 2014. Schatz led every lap but one as Brown made his move on lap 44. Schatz passed Brown back the following lap and for the fourth year in a row stood on top of the Knoxville podium. Last year, it was another top Outlaw who pushed Schatz to the limits. Kerry Madsen started next to Schatz and looked to be in striking distance, but Schatz never gave Madsen any opportunities to get around him.
SURROUNDED BY AN INCREDIBLE TEAM
Schatz admits that being surrounded by a great team is the biggest key to succeeding in both the Nationals and on the rugged WoO trail. For the 12th consecutive Nationals, Rick Warner will be making the calls on the No. 15 machine. The first race the tandem ever worked together was the 2005 Nationals and they’ve won all nine Nationals together, as well as seven WoO championships. Steve “Scuba” Swenson is the car chief for the No. 15 team and has been working with Schatz for the past six years. He’s a five-time Nationals winner. Brad Mariscotti is the third member of the crew and will be making his first run in the Nationals with Schatz. Mariscotti is a decorated champion turning the wrenches in USAC for TSR. He’s hoping to become the 10th different crew member to help Schatz win the Nationals.
ARE YOU BOLD ENOUGH?
Starting Wednesday, fans have the opportunity to win a replica of the helmet Schatz will wear while driving the black, blue and white colors of the Bad Boy Off Road Stampede car during a promotion called “Are You Bold Enough?” Visit www.areyouboldenough.squarespace.com to enter. No purchase is necessary and entrants must be at least 18 years of age. The promotion will conclude Nov. 1 following the Outlaws’ season-ending Bad Boy Off Road World Finals.
BACK IN BLACK
The high-profile Knoxville Nationals has traditionally been the event where teams elect to bring out special paint schemes. The 2006 victory came in a black car that was a departure from Schatz’s traditional yellow machine. In 2009, Schatz drove a retro STP-schemed machine that was a tribute to Mario Andretti’s 1969 Indianapolis 500 victory. He drove a gold No. 15 to celebrate the 50th Knoxville Nationals in 2010 and, the following year, more than 1,000 names of fans were part of sign-and-ride promotion. And, Schatz’s miraculous run from the back to victory in 2013 was in a black-and-orange-trimmed STP Gas Booster car. This year’s car is primarily black with white and blue striping and also includes the Stampede tackling terrain.
LEADING THE WAY
Schatz again heads into the Nationals as the leader in the WoO point standings and leader in a number of other statistical categories. He has a 242-point lead over David Gravel through 58 races. His 16 WoO A-Feature wins are nine more than the seven posted by David Gravel, Daryn Pittman and Brad Sweet, and no driver has matched his 42 top-fives and 55 top-10s.
SOCIAL MEDIA ALERT
Look for images and updates from Knoxville throughout this week’s again through TSR’s social media platforms. The TSR Bad Boy Off Road/Chevrolet Performance team can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TonyStewart_Rcg, liked on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TonyStewartRacing, and followed on Instgram @TonyStewart_Rcg.
Donny Schatz, Driver of the No. 15 TSR Bad Boy Off Road/Chevrolet Performance J&J:
The old saying is that everything before the Knoxville Nationals is just hot laps. How important is this race?
“It’s the biggest race of the year, no doubt – the one race everyone strives to be completely prepared for. And Sunday is the worst day of the year because you have wait another year to be back there. Knoxville has been so good to me over my career. I love racing there. I can’t describe the feeling I get when I go to Knoxville. It’s just something you can’t duplicate. The fans are incredible. The competition is so intense and that’s what you want. You know if you can win the Knoxville Nationals that you beat the best there is in this sport. The Knoxville Nationals can make your season and that’s why everyone is here.”
Are you happy with where you are heading into the Nationals?
“I am extremely excited about this year’s race. My guys – Rick Warner, Steve Swenson and Brad Mariscotti – have us prepared to make a run at it. We’ve spent a lot of the early season getting ourselves headed in the right direction. We raced at Knoxville in June and weren’t great the first night but got going really well in the Saturday show. So, to come out of there with not only a second and first but, more importantly, information we feel like will help us this week, was really big for us. This is a process and you do everything you can to be prepared for that qualifying night. Everything is so important and my guys are ready.”
Does it seem like you’ve been racing in the Nationals for the 23rd time?
“No, it really doesn’t seem like it’s been that many years. I’m still not sure how I got to being out on the World of Outlaws tour for 20 years. But this is where I want to be and always have. Ted Johnson gave us a place to do what we love for a living and the Knoxville Nationals has always been a huge part of it. I remember those first few years vividly. It was incredibly hard. This event humbles you. You have to learn and become focused on exactly what’s in front you. I’ve had some great mentors along the way who helped me get here. My dad has been teaching me life lessons for years. Former crew chiefs like Dave Yingst and Kenny Woodruff helped me understand how hard you have to go at this to fully reach your potential. Each and every Nationals is special, so it may not have sunk in that it’s been this many years, but we’re really looking forward to this one.”