Rookie drivers make their debut in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series on a regular basis. However, very few of them enter their first race with the kind of credentials that one first-timer will bring with him on July 9th at the Knoxville Raceway. Donny Schatz will be no ordinary rookie when he climbs into a Ford truck for David Gilliland Racing on the famed half-mile dirt track most noted for its Knoxville Nationals race for Sprint Cars and the Knoxville Late Model Nationals.
Schatz is not lacking for experience or success at the Iowa facility. The Tony Stewart Racing driver who has won a total of ten World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car championships has also won the Knoxville Nationals on ten different occasions. For what he will be lacking in NASCAR Truck experience, he will more than certainly make up for in track experience.
The 43-year-old ace from Fargo, ND always aspired to be a Sprint Car driver with NASCAR never being a particular goal of his. However, the opportunity to race the full-bodied machine on this track was one he could not let pass by.
“I was asked a year ago if I was interested in running a truck on dirt and I said I would give anything a try,” Schatz revealed in a recent NASCAR media appearance. “It’s not something I set out to do but once I was asked and analyzed whether it was something I was interested in, I felt like it is a great opportunity.”
However, finding a date on which the driver who competes on the always busy WoO Sprint Car circuit was a challenge. Fortunately, Schatz’s hectic schedule does not have a race that will conflict with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event in Knoxville.
“The sticky part on whether to make this all work or not, you all know what my commitment to the World of Outlaws has been for twenty-five years, that’s a tough schedule to try to fit something like this in,” Schatz pointed out. “Without this July 9th date we wouldn’t be racing, we’re not racing with the World of Outlaws. It wouldn’t really be possible if a person’s forced to choose that but my commitment is fully to our partners and to Tony Stewart Racing with the Sprint Cars. This is just a perfect opportunity at Knoxville with David Gilliland Racing, it’s a perfect fit. Obviously we have some of our marketing partners who are coming with us and we have the opportunity to present everyone to the dirt world and to NASCAR’s world at the same time. It’s something I’m excited about but it wasn’t something I ultimately set out to do.”
Although Schatz has done some testing of a Late Model car on a pavement surface, he felt as if this particular occasion on a familiar dirt track provided him with the best opportunity to be competitive against drivers who have many more laps behind the wheel of these machines.
Schatz did pay attention when the NASCAR Cup Series raced earlier this season on the dirt-covered surface at the Bristol Motor Speedway. In particular, he was interested in how those with dirt racing backgrounds would do in an event ultimately won by Joey Logano.
“I didn’t get to watch the entire race,” the driver admitted. “Obviously, as a dirt guy, we pull for dirt guys, it’s just the nature of the beast. We were pulling for Christopher(Bell) and Kyle(Larson) and I think when both of them ended up in crashes early, we gave up on it.”
Schatz believes the nature of the two different types of racing makes it difficult for some fans to be in tune with both.
“I think sometimes our attention span in dirt racing isn’t long enough to sit there and watch three-and-a-half hours of a race so we watch tidbits and we watch certain people to a certain point then you do something a little bit different,” he explained. “It was really neat to see NASCAR go way outside their box and go on the dirt. I fully expected to see a dirt guy win it but that didn’t happen so it was unique to see the way it went. I think the winner had that ultimate feeling that he had really done something huge in the sport because they’re not a dirt driver. It was neat to see that dynamic.”
Schatz thinks that NASCAR is doing the right thing by incorporating more dirt into its schedule. That will allow the typically pavement-based form of racing to broaden its appeal. And it is especially important to try to capitalize at this time considering the attention garnered by Kyle Larson for his dirt racing prowess in 2020.
“I think it’s a really smart thing for NASCAR to do,” he said. “There’s a lot of dirt fans out there they’re getting in touch with. What Kyle did last year I think excited every dirt track fan in the country, winning all the races he did spending the whole year racing on dirt, he’s bringing those fans to NASCAR races. So with NASCAR having certain events on dirt I think is a huge opportunity for them and it opens doors for guys like myself to want to be a part of their series and want to do some things with them.”
And with no desire to take up a new discipline at this stage of his career, Schatz can still bring fans to NASCAR by getting the opportunity to participate on his more familiar surface.
“I don’t have any aspirations for racing on pavement so these certain little things, obviously every series is trying to build up their fanbase and to grow it,” he remarked. “To me, it’s a perfect opportunity for them to get in touch with new people and broaden their horizons and go to different places and see how different series function. I think it’s ultra smart on their part and they got their reputation and their credibility for that very reason.”
Previously, Dirt Late Model drivers such as Scott Bloomquist, Mike Marlar, and Bobby Pierce have raced with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in the Eldora Dirt Derby at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway with varying degrees of success. Pierce earned two top-10 finishes, including a second-place effort, in his three starts at Eldora while Marlar’s lone Eldora start resulted in a fourth place result. Bloomquist ended up 25th when he drove a truck at Eldora in the series premier on dirt in 2013.
The legendary Sprint Car racer who currently stands with 299 career wins on the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series believes that noted drivers from the dirt racing world who compete in NASCAR will help to expose fans from each discipline to the other side of the sport. That can only help both sides.
“Absolutely, he agreed. “You can take a look at Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne who have owned teams for a long period of time, that’s one thing, but now to see NASCAR opening their eyes to doing events at Eldora, and Bristol, and all of these other things. I’ve never seen it closer in my time. Maybe a long time, 50 years ago, they probably had a close relationship, but it all kind of got down that pavement path so I think it’s a great fit. It helps us grow and if we can help them grow we can all grow together. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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