It's the biggest sprint car
race of the year. The equipment is fresh, the stickers are clean. Teams
prepare all season for the Knoxville Nationals, hoping to peak in time for
a trip to the winner's circle on Saturday night. The race? August 13-16,
$125,000 to win, and the money through the D-Main is incredible. When you
consider that in the past 23 years, only seven men have driven to the Knoxville
Nationals winner's circle, it could be argued that the Nationals Feature
is THE hardest major event to win in all motorsports, if not all professional
In the same 23 year period,
there have been 17 different Indy 500 winners, 16 different Daytona 500
champions, and 14 different cities claiming Super Bowl titles. Yet at Knoxville,
only seven winners since since 1980. Steve Kinser, Danny Lasoski, Mark Kinser,
Dave Blaney, Bobby Allen, Doug Wolfgang, and Sammy Swindell.
4-wide at the start of
the 1983 Knoxville Nationals (Scanned from 1984 Knoxville program)
The Kinser name knows the
sticky clay of Knoxville Raceway the way Hendrix knew a guitar. Steve, Mark,
and Karl (Crew Chief) Kinser are the main reasons why this race has been
so hard for anyone (else) to win. The dozen triumphs that "King Steve"
has amassed leaves only crumbs for the others. Wolfgang, with five victories
is second on the all-time Nationals win list. Mark Kinser has three wins,
Lasoski did it twice. Sammy Once.
The last time an "upset"
occurred at the Knoxville Nationals was 13 years ago. When "Scruffy",
Bobby Allen beat Swindell to win the biggest prize in sprint car racing.
As good a racer as Allen was, it seems like a slap in the face to call his
National win an upset. But really it was. Scruffy was still winning races
but this was late in his career. Heck, he went into the National Sprint
Car Hall of Fame in 1998, only eight years after the BIG Knoxville win.
The point is, upsets seldom happen at the Nationals.
So who is in-line to win it
in 2003? Among the 95 teams entered, there are a number of men who COULD
do it. However, reality says it will be Danny Lasoski. His 81 feature wins
make him the winningest driver in the history of Knoxville Raceway. Driving
for Tony Stewart, the #20 sprinter wrenched by Jimmy Carr has been the car
to beat at the World of Outlaws events at Knoxville this year. The "Dude"
won the most recent WoO race at the track, the July 5th, NAPA Classic. He
has been the best on a consistent basis in the last three years at Knoxville.
Most prognosticators will
point to Steve Kinser, or Donny Schatz next. Kinser won his first National
Championship in 1980. Steve will enter the 2003 Nationals as the defending
champion. In the midst of his finest season since the late 80's, Kinser
(48) already has over 20 feature event wins in 2003. But he has struggled
a bit on half-miles this year. Poor qualifying times (12th), and a mid-pack
run (13th) at the Knoxville NAPA Classic have Steve scratching his head.
"We’ve had the fastest car for the ‘A’ Feature pretty much every night
this year," Kinser said after a recent win, "but we fell out of too many
races just because of some funny stuff happening – flat tires mostly. We’ve
had some really good runs on the three-eighths miles and smaller tracks
this year, and Danny (Lasoski) has pretty much been spanking us on the bigger
tracks. That’s kind of strange because the bigger tracks is where I used
to win all of my races." Steve did pick off the 2003 Kings Royal at Eldora.
You never discount Steve Kinser at Knoxville.
Kinser picked up his 12th Knoxville Nationals Title in 2002. (Doug Johnson
If the winner is not Lasoski,
or Steve Kinser we believe it could be Donny Schatz, Tim Shaffer, or Tyler
Walker. Schatz, the Fargo, ND. native is in top driving form, coming off
an impressive Summer Nationals win at Williams Grove. Schatz is always good
at Knoxville. The Parker-Store #15 was second both nights in April, and
Schatz ran from 16th to 4th in the NAPA Classic at the "Sprint Car
Capital of the World". He was runner-up to Steve Kinser last year.
Donny is focused and will heap pressure upon himself to perform well. Perhaps
that's why Schatz is the "BIG-race" driver that he is. Rookie
crew chief Tyler Swank will have help from Donny's Aussie tuner, Keith Giles.
The key for this team is qualifying. Schatz races strong but if he has an
area for improvement, it is being better in time trials. The Knoxville points
system is hard to beat without a good performance in qualifying.
He may not generate headlines
like other drivers, but Tim Shaffer is as good as anyone driving a sprint
car today. The Pennsylvania pilot is a rare 'hired-gun', driving for Fresno,
CA. car-owner, Dennis Roth. The #83 Beef Packers team won the Nationals
with Lasoski driving in 1998. Shaffer was fast at Knoxville as recently
as last Saturday when he posted a second place run at the Pella Classic.
His win in the first preliminary feature at the Pella races could be just
enough to give him the confidence needed to win at the Nationals. A solid
fourth place finish in the 2002 Nationals A-Main was further proof of his
Walker is ready for the Nationals. (Doug Johnson Photos)
Tyler Walker was super fast
at the July races at Knoxville. He started inside the fourth row, and passed
Knoxville Raceway points leader Terry McCarl, 1983 Nationals champion Sammy
Swindell, Shaffer and Jason Meyers during the first four laps to take over
third place. His experience at the track, and strong will serve him well
at the pressure packed Nationals. Walker will take chances many other drivers
will not. Now 24 years old, Tyler has mastered winged sprint car driving.
We wouldn't even blink if he put it all together and won the deal.
Terry McCarl won the Pella
Corporation Classic, considered by many the last major tune up for the Nationals.
McCarl should be on the short list of possible 2003 Nationals winners. (Jim
Drivers to Watch:
- Joey is a smart driver that will surely qualify strong. With time-trials
offering the same weight of a preliminary feature win, you can pencil
Saldana, the son of the 1970 Nationals winner, into the A-main starting
- A given. Haud is with a newly formed team, and he has the ability and
skill to 'gett er' done at Knoxville.
Paul McMahan - Paul
is now 32 years old. He nows the Knoxville drill like he knows how to
put tears offs on his helmet. This season at the Marion County half-mile,
McMahan posted a sixth place finish in the NAPA Classic.
Kerry Madsen - Madsen
won the Australian Sprint Car Championship earlier this year, and put
the #82 in the top five over the Fourth of July. He is looking to make
up for being the first car out of the 2002 Nationals A-Main.
Greg Hodnett - His
Knoxville appearances are rare these days but whenever he shows up, he
is a fast cat.
Greg Hodnett at work, Knoxville
Shane Stewart - The
cool kid from Oklahoma was impressive at the Pella Classic, and then won
the last 410 race (Saturday night) before the Nationals. Shane raced his
first Nationals in 1993, ten years ago.
Ricky Logan - The
Knoxville weekly competitor is too good to ignore.
Jason Meyers - California
young man is comfy at Knoxville. He won a WoO race there in 2001. Driving
for injured Caig Dollansky, Meyers won a prelim of the Pella Classic.
Johnny Herrera -
In Guy Forbrook's car, Herrera can run with the best at the Nationals.
Johnny is a former track champion at Knoxville.
- The feature is only 30
laps. They call it 'sprint car racing' for a reason. The idea is that
the National Championship race should be a test not unlike what a driver
sees every Saturday night at his local track.
- T-shirt sales hit a seasonal
high as the winged sprint car community gathers from all the regions of
the United States. Canada, Australia, New Zealand will also have a strong
- Live television returns
in 2003. Speed Channel will broadcast the Saturday night portion of the
43rd Annual Nationals beginning at 10pm Eastern time.
- Tony Stewart will be in
the joint on Saturday night. Read his thoughts
about the Nationals here.
Steve Kinser, and his son,
Kraig. Kraig will try to make his first Knoxville Nationals A-Main in 2003.
(Jim Fleming Photo)
The Fast Way Around
All the drivers agree, Knoxville
is a hard track to drive. Blending finesse, and bravery is vital to going
fast at the 1/2 mile. Knoxville rookies claim that holding your right foot
to the floor and maintaining a "straight" entry into turn one is a concept
in total opposition with what your mind is telling you. Your mind is telling
you, "If you don't turn the wheel, you are going to crash into the
wall". So first, a driver must overcome any uncomfortable feelings in the
cockpit. Fears tend to dissipate with laps driven at the "Sprint Car
Capital of the World".
Teams save their best 800
horsepower engines for Knoxville, and sometimes wind them so tight, that
they blow up. The chassis tuning must be precise as well. The track changes
constantly, so the brightest mechanics are at a premium during the Nationals.
What the dirt is like at lap one will be a far cry from what the same dirt
is like on lap 30. Just as it is important to drive straight on entry to
the wide Knoxville turns, the exit may be even more crucial. The fast guys
will rocket off of turn-two and down the backchute, while the tailenders
will be fishtailing in the black, slick, part of the track. The wrong angle
coming off of turn two has cost many drivers.
In April 2003, Steve Kinser
#11 races with Jac Haudenschild #5 during the A main at the Knoxville Raceway.
Doug Johnson Photos
Heat races are totally inverted.
Some of the best racing I've ever seen happens in the Nationals heats on
Wednesday, and Thursday nights. The fast guys are all trying to get into
the top four to make the feature, and the chances they take are a bit wilder
than usual. The point structure is such that sandbagging is totally out
of the question. Qualifying has the same weight as a preliminary feature
win. The heats weigh less but you have to finish in the top four to transfer
to that night's preliminary feature. The best thing a driver can do is try
to cut the ten cleanest laps he can, without wasting time "racing"
with anyone. Knoxville is super wide, so there should always be another
groove to try if someone is in your path.
Race Fan Tips
- Buy a program. The book
is always topnotch. It's pricey, but quality costs. Lots of color photographs,
great columns, and tons of historical data make it a must buy.
- Don't rush. Treat the Knoxville
experience with patience. Nobody is in a hurry except the competitors.
You can roll into the track at 7PM and not miss a thing on prelim nights.
- ...If you are staying in
Des Moines, you can expect long lines at coffee shops after the races.
If you have a chance to eat somewhere after the races before you get back
to Des Moines, you should grab it.
- The races are at night,
so days can be filled with a trip to the Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum.
Many restored sprinters, and nostalgic treasures await you in the building
located outside of turn two.
had to pick (in advance) the 24 Nationals starters for 2003, who would they
be? (subject to change up to Wednesday)
- Danny Lasoski #20,
- Tim Shaffer #83
- Jac Haudenschild #4
- Joey Saldana #17
- Tyler Walker #35,
- Donny Schatz #15
- Steve Kinser #11,
- Terry McCarl #24
- Shane Stewart #4m,
- Tim Kaeding #7T
- Kerry Madsen # 82,
- Johnny Herrera # 5
- Greg Hodnett #12
- Paul McMahan # 11h
- Ricky Logan #17g
- Jason Meyers #7
- Jon Allard #35
- Sammy Swindell #1
- Jeff Shepard #92
- Daryn Pittman #21,
- Lance DeWease #77,
- Mark Kinser #5m
- Don Droud Jr. #7x
- Stevie Smith #19
If not above, here are
the drivers "bubbling under" that are most likely to make it:
Wayne Johnson, Randy Hannagan, Jason Sides, Jeff Mitrisin, Chad Kemenah,
Skip Jackson, Kasey Kahne, Travis Cram, Brian Brown, Kraig Kinser.