By Mike Spieker
WEST FARGO – While other tracks have been forced to remain idle during COVID-19, Red River Valley Speedway has not only found a way to continue racing, but they’ve also taken advantage of the unique circumstance this summer to add prestigious national events to their already stout lineup.
On Saturday, the speedway is set to host its biggest event of the season as the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Cars make their 35th appearance to West Fargo. Ten-time World of Outlaws champion, Donny Schatz of Fargo, is looking forward to returning to his home track.
“Any time you come up here, it just gives you that warm, super fuzzy feeling. It’s just the atmosphere,” said Schatz. “When you roll through the gate at places you aren’t really familiar with, then come to a place that you are extremely familiar with, it makes you feel good. Good or bad [result], you’re going to enjoy it and see some friends, family and people that support you. It just feels pretty incredible.”
The World of Outlaws schedule has been severely affected by COVID-19. Saturday’s race will be just the 34th event of the season. Most years, that number is doubled when the Outlaws make their August swing through North Dakota. Despite the fewer races, Schatz said it’s still been a hectic season for his Tony Stewart Racing team.
“I wouldn’t say we are more refreshed this year with the fewer races. There’s been a lot more traveling for my guys than what people might think,” Schatz explained. “They’ve been chasing back to North Carolina several times this year to get engines refreshed or changed. With the shop being based in Indiana, the guys have had to do a lot of traveling back and forth to the shop in between race weekends too. This will probably be one of the first weeks of the season where they won’t have to.”
Schatz currently sits third in the Outlaws standings, 62 markers behind Logan Schuchart of Hanover, Pa. The Fargo driver has three wins on the season and currently sits at 297 career Outlaws wins. Despite only 19 races remaining on a fluid schedule, Schatz still isn’t worried about chasing points and his 11th series title.
“It’s really in the back of my mind right now when you look at the races we haven’t finished,” said Schatz, eluding to some of his early-season troubles. “We are pretty fortunate to be in the mix, but it’s still too early in the year to be focused on a championship. We’ve got other things to overcome to even say we are ready to be in that position. Still, though, we’re glad to be in the position to be towards the top of the standings. Everybody [at Tony Stewart Racing] is working their tail off to make sure that on the last night, we still have an opportunity and a chance at the championship. That’s all you can ask for. Hopefully, this weekend gives us another opportunity to stay in this position.”
For the past couple of seasons, Tony Stewart Racing has teamed up with Ford Performance to create a 410 cubic inch Ford sprint car engine. Currently, all other World of Outlaws teams run Chevrolet engines. Schatz raced the all-new FPS (Ford Performance-Stewart) engine to victory lane at Lakeside Speedway last October, giving Ford their first World of Outlaws win since 1998.
While the engine has been a proven winner, Schatz still sees a lot more potential in the powerplant.
“We’re still trying to develop things the way we want them. They make a ton of horsepower,” he said. “They make a lot of horsepower in some good spots and they make a lot of horsepower in some spots where we need to move it around. It’s the same thing with the torque. We can’t compare it to what we had in the past. It’s apples and oranges. The reliability is there. We’ve had a few failures related to parts that weren’t directly related to Ford. It was aftermarket stuff that couldn’t stand up to the conditions we put it in. We are working on that. Everybody is doing double-overtime trying to get it right and trying to win us a championship. For what we’ve had to overcome, I think we are still in a really good spot. Everybody is pretty happy with the progress and each time we get something, it’s more in the direction in which we are looking. It’s really promising and, down the road, it looks really good for the future.”
Last weekend, Schatz put on a spectacular performance at Knoxville Raceway’s $50,000-to-win Capitani Classic. After having engine trouble in his qualifier, Schatz came from 17th in the C-main and won it. He then started 18th in the B-Main and claimed the fourth and final transfer spot into the A-main, where he started 24th. After 30 laps, he crossed the line in 12th, passing 42 cars in total throughout the night. Schatz hopes to carry that speed into Saturday’s event.
Schatz has raced at hundreds of tracks across the world throughout his 27-year career, but Red River Valley Speedway has a special meaning to him. Schatz not only got his start at the West Fargo dirt track, but he won his first-ever race there in 1993. Since then, he’s tallied three World of Outlaws wins, two All Star Circuit of Champions sprint car wins, and an NLRA Late Model win to his résumé at his home track. His family also operated the speedway from 2010 to 2012.
“There’s a lot of memories that stick out [at Red River Valley Speedway] over the years. There are memories that go back to day one making laps around that track. Now things are way different there. Obviously the race track is a lot shorter and racier now,” said Schatz, referring to the current three-eighths mile configuration. The track was originally built as a half-mile in 1967. “But a lot of things are still the same. That’s the facility, the grandstands, the people, the location, and the atmosphere. It still has that awesome atmosphere.
“[Track operators] Jake [Bitker] and Nick [Skalicky] and everybody at the speedway has done a great job providing a great venue for the fans, a safe venue for the racers, and an awesome show. I’m excited to get there Saturday and hopefully, we can make that turn off the scale and be able to park on the front stretch and do some celebrating with the great local fans.”