There’s a massive piece of history on the line at this week’s NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals presented by Casey’s General Store for Donny Schatz. For the first time, he’ll have a chance to equal Steve Kinser’s record of 12 Knoxville Nationals titles.
But long before this opportunity stood in front of him, Schatz’ experience at The Granddaddy of ‘Em All began like many others – a kid in awe, seated in the Knoxville Raceway stands. Even more than three decades and 11 Knoxville Nationals victories later, Schatz vividly recalls the impact it left. The magnitude of the grandstands. The mass of people. A deeply palpable atmosphere unlike anything he’d experienced.
“When I got my first opportunity to go to Knoxville, my father had always hyped it up talking about the Knoxville Nationals,” Schatz said. “When I first went, you got the little town in Iowa that’s got the biggest grandstand you’ve ever seen, even the backstretch grandstands. Everybody that’s anybody is there. It’s pretty intimidating. You look at it like it’s a whole other world. You’re used to seeing from a local level or a local show to the Holy Grail. I guess it’s always kept that feel of the almighty event.”
Eventually, Schatz’s budding racing career led him to venturing to the Knoxville Nationals as a competitor for the first time in 1995. For a young driver accustomed to racing primarily on a local basis, it was a somewhat overwhelming experience.
“It was definitely intimidating,” Schatz admitted. “When you’re used to racing at racetracks where there’s 20 to 30 cars and then you’re at a place where there’s 100 and you’re all racing for the same thing – the Knoxville Nationals. It’s very intimidating. It was pretty neat to do. I think it’s something that takes a long time to be able to put that in the back of your mind that this is just another race even though it’s Knoxville.”
Three years later, Schatz realized a childhood dream by qualifying for his first Knoxville Nationals Feature. And not only did the Fargo, ND driver make the show, he brought his #15 home in fourth.
“I had a buddy that I grew up with that was a big Sprint Car fan and we kind of thought along the same lines,” Schatz recalled. “And we talked about getting to Knoxville and making the A-main. I think the most intense moment of the whole week is the four-wide on Saturday night. It just sends chills down your spine. I remember standings there saying ‘I’m going to be in that.’ That was my goal in life was to make that A-main and get in the show… In 1998 we did, and it was the greatest feeling ever, and then to top it off with a top five finish was pretty incredible.”
With the satisfaction of a strong showing in his first Feature, the hunger for more grew. It didn’t take long, and Schatz was contending for a Knoxville Nationals title. But like any major accomplishment, tough losses preceded glory. In 2000, Schatz led the opening 24 laps before Mark Kinser got by him late. That was the first of four second-place finishes in six years. While the taste of repeated runner-ups was sour, Schatz knows with hindsight they equipped him with the tools to win.
“Obviously, we had a long run of second place finishes that at the time we probably felt we were eluded,” Schatz said. “But that place doesn’t owe anybody anything. The second-place finishes are definitely what I think propelled me to having the record that we do there today. You got to know how to lose it and what not to do before you figure out what it takes to win it.”
Then, in 2006, the dam broke. Schatz outdueled Joey Saldana for his first Knoxville Nationals triumph, and there was no slowing him down from there. Schatz topped the next three editions to string together four consecutive titles.
Schatz’s streak came to a halt in 2010 when he posted yet another second, but then he promptly began another run. A triumph in 2011 marked the first of five straight victories. He came home runner-up again in 2016 before returning to Victory Lane in 2017 for his 10th. Fast forward five years to a season ago when he upped his total to 11.
Among his 11 Knoxville Nationals wins are some memorable moments. In 2013, Schatz rallied from transferring out of the B-main. He wheeled all the way from 21st to the win in the finale. Two years after that, he crushed the field by leading all 50 circuits. While Schatz notes that each is special in its own regard, it’s tough to top the feeling of that first in 2006.
“They’re all special in their own way,” Schatz said. “I don’t think you’ll ever be able to equal that first Nationals win, that first sense of you did it. I don’t know if that can ever be toppled… There’s nothing like it. It’s one of those feelings that I wish everyone that wanted to win that race or had the desire or drove a Sprint Car got to have that feeling, that sense of satisfaction and gratitude. But unfortunately, that’s not something they just give out or you can buy at your local T-shirt store. It’s something that’s earned, and very few people get that luxury. I’m just honored to be one of them.”
The success has now led Schatz to this week. The first time someone will even have the chance to equal Steve Kinser’s record of 12 Knoxville Nationals titles. When “The King” made it a dozen back in 2002, the next closest total was Doug Wolfgang’s five. The record seemed untouchable, but 21 years later, it’s within Schatz’s reach.
But the historic marker isn’t on Schatz’s mind. The 10-time World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series champion and 11-time Knoxville Nationals champion is entirely focused on what got him here – the process.
“You race so much, and you don’t think about the success. You think about the process,” Schatz said. “That’s something I feel like I’ve not wavered from is the process.”