By Mike Mallett
Donny Schatz accomplished something on Wednesday night that he hadn’t done in 20 years. He won a preliminary night feature at the Knoxville Raceway during the Knoxville Nationals.
He qualified 10th, finished second in his heat race, and drove from seventh to score the $12,000 victory in the 25-lap affair. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to more than likely lock him into a top-six starting spot in Saturday night’s 62nd running of the event, as he ended the evening with 479 points, more than any other driver. It may or may not be good enough for a front-row starting spot, but that doesn’t matter. He’s in.
“I just wanted to get locked in the show,” said Schatz. “That’s kind of the goal. Once you get yourself in a position where you get qualified, you can kind of move them goalposts. I don’t know if being on the front is where a guy wants to be anymore. I think second row, third row. I think we’re going to be pretty solid there, but it’s all going to depend on what happens tomorrow in those heat races.”
After the event, Schatz described all the pressure that comes with competing at the Knoxville Nationals on a preliminary night. In his mind, it’s still the most important event on the schedule. He’s an 11-time winner of the finale, trailing only Steve Kinser in that category. You wouldn’t know it by how he races, but there is pressure to get the job done.
“It’s pretty gut-wrenching,” he said. “I’ve told everybody that’s around me a couple days leading up to Knoxville, I’m not mad at you; I just don’t really want to talk to you. You just kind of get yourself in a mental zone. You think about it. You think about scenarios; you think about what if this, what if that? At least that’s what I do. You think of what you’re gonna do when you get to the first turn: do you want to be behind somebody or do you want to fill the gap? You can’t really second-guess it, but you gotta play them scenarios through your mind to kind of know what you’re going to do, and then you have to be able to do it when it happens. So that’s what it’s all about.”
Things haven’t been great for Schatz on the World of Outlaw tour this season. There is no consistency, even at Knoxville Raceway. When the Outlaws paid a visit earlier this season, he struggled. On Wednesday, there was no struggle. There was the Knoxville Nationals version of Schatz.
“We haven’t been consistent,” said Schatz. “There’s no surprise in that; you can look on paper and see that. On normal nights, we struggle being inside the top 10. Just the way it is racing, it is pretty tough. Right now, sometimes we get ourselves back in a corner with some of the things that we have to do and can’t do, but when you come here, the bigger tracks seem to be where we have been a little bit better.
“Last year at this time, Ron and Scuba and all the guys came up with a good combination to come here. We tried that combination here in April or June, whenever we were here, and it just wasn’t very good. So here we are. It’s the middle of summer when the racetracks start to slow down a little bit, and that seems to be when we can be a little bit better. So, surprised no. Maybe a little bit, you know. I feel good that we’re in a good spot because it’s hard to dig out of bad spots anymore.”
On Wednesday, Schatz rolled off seventh in the A-Main. He was one of two drivers who timed in the top 10 to transfer out of the heat race. In the feature, he was the typical Schatz, rolling the bottom, but maneuverable when he needed to be. He got up to fourth before his charge stalled in traffic. A red on lap 18 set up a restart, and that was all he needed.
He got by Kerry Madsen for third at the green before then driving by Blake Hahn for the runner-up position.
“You just gotta go where they’re not,” said Schatz. “I was behind the 55 (Madsen), and I fully expected him to go down to the bottom there because I’m sure he knew I was gonna be down there. We got a spot there. I just kept moving around, and if the yellow hadn’t come out, it might have been a different story, but the yellow came out.”
Young Chase Randall was next on the list. Schatz made the pass in turns one and two on lap 21. Randall drove back by. Schatz wasn’t done. He went to the top before coming down to the bottom of the exit of turn two to take the lead a lap later. That was all she wrote for Randall.
“I didn’t really have any rhythm going when I got to him and got past him,” said Schatz. “I kind of went for it and really thought he’d like to look at me like a senior citizen and give me a pass, but he didn’t. So he went right back on by, and that’s cool to see. I mean, that’s why we’re here. That’s why this is the Knoxville Nationals. That’s why this is where the best come, so it’s good. It’s good to see that, and he’s obviously got a pretty bright future ahead of him. I just had to settle myself back down there a little bit and really could go wherever on the race track.”
So chalk another one up for Schatz at Knoxville. He’s never won the Nationals after winning a preliminary night, but to be fair, he’s been pretty good the last 20 years. It’s on to Saturday for the 11-time champ.