The mecca. A crown jewel. “Our” Super Bowl. The greatest week of the year.
For more than 60 years, the Knoxville Nationals has been turning Sprint Car drivers into motorsport legends and providing fans with one of the most unique event experiences. And because of that, fans voted the Knoxville Nationals to third on USA Today’s 10Best Reader’s Choice list for Best Motorsports Race – behind only the Indianapolis 500 and Formula 1’s U.S. Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas.
The Knoxville Nationals, featuring the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series (Aug, 9-12), ranked higher than the likes of NASCAR’s Daytona 500, INDYCAR’s Grand Prix of Long Beach – which set an attendance record this year – the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, among others.
“I think Knoxville separates itself from every other event, due to the fact of where it is at and the history behind the event, everything that goes on in the little town of Knoxville during the week,” said Brad Sweet, four-time and reigning World of Outlaws champion and 2018 Knoxville Nationals champion. “There is so much to do for the fans, such a great atmosphere. It’s a really quiet town when you’re there for not the Knoxville Nationals. But, when the Knoxville Nationals is there, it’s like a buzzing little city with all Sprint Car enthusiasts and race car fans.
“So, you bring 25-30 thousand people into one place that all love to do the same thing, which is race and have fun and there is Dingus (the bar across the street), there is the atmosphere around the vendors, there’s concerts going on. There is so much to do and the race is also such a big deal for the drivers.”
Twenty-seven drivers have claimed the Knoxville Nationals title since the first race in 1961. Of them, only seven have won it multiple times – adding to the prestige of the event. Steve Kinser, the 20-time World of Outlaws champion, has the most wins at the event with 12. Ten-time World of Outlaws champion Donny Schatz continued his climb to that benchmark last year by scoring his 11th triumph at the event.
And while Schatz continues to add Knoxville trophies to his collection, he iterated there is nothing easy about conquering the week-long event.
“It’s been the mecca of our biggest races since I was a kid sitting in the grandstands,” Schatz said. “And you know, the size of the racetrack, the big half mile, the flat surface, the tricky berm on the bottom, the river gumbo dirt that can be super hooky when it’s wet and when it starts to dry out it gets ultra-slick like glass. You get all ends of the spectrum with Knoxville, and it makes it a feast or famine type of scenario when you’re there racing.
“It makes it a lot of fun and it’s ever-changing. So, it’s an incredible place… you always have to be up to the challenge at Knoxville as it’s changing, and they can change the berm on the bottom a little bit and it changes your whole entry to the corner and the way your car responds and it’s tricky to stay down there. It’s a game of cat and mouse with both pedals and a steering wheel and even the thought process, so it makes it a lot of fun as a driver for someone like myself to be able to go there and try to master that craft.”
Along with the prestige and trophy, the Knoxville Nationals pays out one of the biggest purses in Sprint Car racing.
This year, the event boasts a record-high $1,159,005 overall purse, paying $185,000 to the winner and $15,000 to start the Feature.
Outside of the perks for the drivers and on track action for the fans, when it comes time for the Knoxville Nationals, the town of Knoxville morphs into a Sprint Car haven. Race haulers are parked in parking lots of local businesses along North Lincoln Street. Campers are packed in like Tetris blocks on residents’ lawns. Vendors and driver merchandise trailers occupy sidewalks across from the track.
For the week, race cars being pushed up and down the street by four wheels becomes normal. You feel like you’ve entered a racer’s fantasy as the town becomes an annex of the track.
“It’s such a unique area,” said David Gravel, the 2019 Knoxville Nationals champion. “When that event is going on, the whole town shuts down. Campers surround the whole area and, you know, there are 25 to 30 thousand people. It just has an atmosphere and a buzz around it.
“You always get butterflies and goose bumps when you’re getting ready to race there. Having the Hall of Fame there and the suites all packed, having fans all the way down the front stretch and back, it’s just a one-of-a-kind event. Probably, definitely, my number one for sure still in Sprint Car racing.”
The World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series will first visit Knoxville Raceway on June 9-10 before venturing back to Iowa’s Marion County Fairgrounds for the 62nd NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals, Aug. 9-12. For tickets, CLICK HERE.
The full list includes:
- Indianapolis 500
- United States Grand Prix
- NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals
- Pikes Peak International Hill Climb
- Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals
- Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach
- Motul Petit Le Mans
- Daytona 500
- WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca – IMSA
- Rolex 24 at Daytona