It’s been more than 20 years since eight-time World of Outlaws (WoO) Craftsman Sprint Car Series champion Donny Schatz earned the Outlaws’ coveted Rookie of the Year honors. Last week, the Fargo, North Dakota racer was a rookie in the 31st annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire held at the Tulsa (Okla.) Expo Raceway. Following his seventh-place finish aboard the No. 15 Arctic Cat-sponsored entry of Clauson-Marshall Racing (CMR) in Saturday night’s first B-Feature, Schatz was recognized as the event’s top rookie in the field of 365 entries.
“What an incredible opportunity,” Schatz said. “We came here with high expectations. We wanted to make the show first and foremost and, unfortunately, we came up one spot short. Racing in the Chili Bowl was something I wasn’t sure I’d ever do, but I’m thrilled I had the chance to do it. I’m very thankful to all of the people who made this possible – The Clauson Family, Richard and Jennifer Marshall, as well as, Arctic Cat. Being part of what Bryan had envisioned as his ‘Dream Team’ is an honor that I’ll always cherish. This CMR team is filled with incredible individuals. I’ve met some people I know I’ll call friends from now on. To fulfill a dream of Bryan’s and to hear how important having me part of his team from his parents was truly a blessing.”
Schatz made his first laps around the roughly quarter-mile indoor dirt oval Monday during a pair of practice sessions. With guidance from CMR teammates Tyler Courtney and Shane Gobolic and co-owner Tim Clauson, Schatz went into Tuesday’s VIROC IX 20-lap race with a plan. He found his rhythm early before being shuffled back midway through the race. After being lapped, Schatz worked on making consistent laps in preparation for his qualifying night. It became evident he was becoming more comfortable in his first career Midget race following a late-race restart, when he kept pace with eventual winner Kyle Larson and two-time-defending Chili Bowl champion Rico Abreu. He would be credited with a 19th-place finish.
With both Monday’s practice sessions and Tuesday’s VIROC experience under his belt, Schatz began his quest to earn a Golden Driller trophy in the second qualifying-night program Wednesday. The qualifying nights offer points for drivers in heat, qualifying race and feature action. Schatz started third and finished second in heat six to earn the pole for A-qualifier race number two. He led the first nine laps of the qualifier, making impressive laps attacking the cushion, and had taken the white flag before a caution erased his nearly half-track lead. On the ensuing restart, Andrew Felker executed a perfect slide job and relegated Schatz to second. His point total through his heat and qualifier put him 15th on the grid for Wednesday’s 25-lap A-Main. In the early going, Schatz worked both the high line and bottom groove seeking the best way around the semibanked dirt oval. During the second half of the race, he began making progress with consistent laps around the bottom. He ultimately reached eighth, a finish that would lock him into one of Saturday night’s B-Features.
In Saturday’s finale, the first B-Feature was the 26th race of the day, a 20-lap sprint with the carrot of qualifying for the 55-lap Chili Bowl finale up for grabs. Schatz started 10th and held his spot during the opening eight laps before edging his way forward. The top six finishers would transfer directly into the A-Feature and, when the race was halted by the first caution, Schatz was up to eighth. A good restart allowed Schatz to crack the top-six and he patiently worked the bottom groove for the majority of the race. It looked as though he had advanced into the top-five on a multiple occasions, but cautions each time put him back in sixth. With two laps remaining, Schatz was vying for fifth when the final caution again thwarted his advancement. Unfortunately, the late-race restart enabled Thomas Meseraull to get by Schatz for the final transfer position.
“We gave it everything we had,” Schatz said. “It was a work in progress all week, but I can’t thank all the other drivers on this team for their help. I felt like we had fifth several times but just didn’t get across the finish line. I really wanted to get this Arctic Cat car in the show and see what we could have done in that long of a race. It was a great experience and, hopefully, we’ll have another crack at making the big show in the future.”
With his annual Australian tour and first Chili Bowl Nationals complete, the focus for Schatz now turns toward the 2017 WoO campaign. The Tony Stewart Racing (TSR) crew continues preparing for the upcoming season with an eye on February, when they’ll make the annual trek to Florida to kick things off during Speedweeks.