Knoxville Nationals Night 4: Brad Sweet wins thriller over Donny Schatz

Brad Sweet found himself feeling tense and nervous all day heading into the Knoxville Nationals, the race he’s worked his entire life to win.

Sweet had the fastest car in Iowa all week and was starting from the pole position for sprint car racing’s Super Bowl. But that did nothing to alleviate the nerves.

Thoughts swirled through his head about his game plan — stick to the bottom — and the notes he’d been taking since the very first race of the season at Volusia. What can I learn in this race that can apply to Knoxville?

But then, before the racing started, everyone in the pits stopped what they were doing. A video paying tribute to the late Jason Johnson, who was killed in a June sprint car race, appeared on the track’s big screen.

The tribute footage included moments from Johnson’s own Knoxville Nationals win, and suddenly everything changed for Sweet.

“It really brought a calm over me,” Sweet said later. “I didn’t feel any pressure anymore. It put things in perspective. He was just a tough guy who would go run the shit out of it. So once that happened, I kind of just got in the race car and just drove.”

Ultimately, that’s what Sweet had to do to win his first career Nationals and etch his name among the greats who have won the legendary race.

The Kasey Kahne Racing driver’s lead over 10-time Nationals winner Donny Schatz was erased by a red flag with two laps to go, and Sweet sat in his car knowing he’d have to hold off the world’s two best sprint car racers — Schatz and Kyle Larson (Sweet’s soon-to-be brother-in-law) to win.

Two more laps. Just two more laps. Sweet decided to run the bottom, as he’d done all weekend, leaving Schatz a chance to win from the top.

“I ran the bottom 75 straight laps this whole week, so what was two more?” Sweet told himself.

One mile later, Sweet was screaming with joy while standing on top of his wing in victory lane. He’d done it. The Californian was the 2018 Knoxville Nationals champion.

“Everything about what just happened to me is what I’ve strived for my whole life and my whole career,” he said. “This means the world to me.”

The side-by-side finish at the line over Schatz was recorded at a margin of 0.133 second, which was the second-closest in Nationals history. Schatz said he was hoping for one more lap, but ran out of time.

“I can guarantee one thing: I didn’t lift on the pedal,” Schatz said. “I really thought I had a good shot at Brad. He just didn’t make any mistakes.”

Larson, meanwhile, will have to wait another year to try and win his first Nationals. But Sweet, the brother of Larson’s fiancee Katelyn, had at least one member of the Larson family who was quite pleased with the outcome.

An hour before the final night began, Larson held 3-year-old son Owen in his arms and asked an innocent question: Which driver did Owen want to win the Nationals: Owen’s dad or Owen’s uncle?

“I want Uncle Brad to win!” Owen said.

Owen, as it turned out, got his wish.

Knoxville Nationals Race Day: Stage set for sprint car’s biggest show

What’s happening in Knoxville, Iowa this week is a shockingly well-kept secret.

Any follower of sprint car racing knows about the Knoxville Nationals, of course. This is the 58th year, and many of the fans have been making an annual pilgrimage to the races here for 10 years or more.

But outside of the community, sprint car’s most prestigious and high-paying race doesn’t get the widespread attention it deserves.

The Nationals aren’t on TV; they can only been seen through a $49 internet pay-per-view. The media presence outside of the normal sprint car publications is practically nonexistent. Heck, most people hear “Knoxville Raceway” and assume it’s in Tennessee.

That all adds up to make Knoxville a hidden gem on the motorsports calendar, despite roughly 25,000 people descending on a sleepy country town that normally has a population of 7,300.

But here’s the thing: While people at Knoxville are extremely happy for newcomers to experience the event for the first time — and are very open to welcoming others — they’re not crying for attention.

Sprint car fans know the edge-of-your-seat, jaw-dropping racing at Knoxville is ridiculously good. They know the county fair atmosphere surrounding the track is a party-lover’s dream. They know the raceway itself is a top-notch dirt venue, complete with a new suites tower, paved infield and large Hall of Fame facility overlooking the track (not to mention what drivers say might be the best dirt in the country).

So if you come to Knoxville and see that for yourself, then great! People will be thrilled you discovered what they’ve already known for awhile. But if not, well…it’s your loss. They’re still going to soak up the joy and intensity of the most important week in sprint car racing and love every second of it anyway — while drinking their asses off, of course.

Interestingly enough, that attitude about the Knoxville Nationals is representative of sprint car racing in general these days.

Fan interest in sprint cars is growing. Drivers and community members all agree on that, because they can see the crowded stands and the car counts and the purses. It might be gradual, but they feel it’s going up.

But while that growth is positive, no one seems to have any interest in sprint car racing — even the World of Outlaws — going too big-time.

There’s a great hesitation toward anything that could “NASCAR-ize” sprint car racing. The community loves what it has and doesn’t want to lose any of what makes it special.

Right now, the sprint car experience is this: You get to the track before hot laps and walk around the various merchandise stands (with drivers often selling the shirts themselves when they aren’t at the car), then maybe grab some cheap food or a beer. Once hot laps start, the lack of a TV presence keeps everything moving quickly; from qualifying to the heats to the features, the show keeps rolling along.

At a World of Outlaws race, drivers are asked to stay at their cars for at least 30 minutes so fans can come down to the infield and get their autographs or a photo. And that’s if you haven’t met one of the drivers already while they’re just walking around the track (they don’t have PR people or handlers).

The racing seems pure — drivers are basically racing a seat strapped to rocket ship — but many formats around the country (even Knoxville) are twisted for entertainment purposes. There are inversions and bonus spots and all sorts of fan-focused rules, but that’s accepted because the show is an important part of what they do.

If it’s not good racing, people won’t come back. And if people don’t come back, the purse and merchandise sales will shrink.

Since most sprint car drivers make no base salary, that’s pretty important. They rely on race winnings (splitting the purse with the team owner) and profits from T-shirts (which go 100% to the driver since there’s no middle man).

Want to know why Knoxville is the center of the sprint car world? One reason is the promoter decided to put up a giant purse back in the day. It now pays $150,000 to win, whereas the average winner on the elite WoO tour might get around $10,000.

That’s a big deal for a no-frills sport like sprint car racing. The goal of this form of racing seems to be about two things: Providing an opportunity for these daredevils on wheels to eke out a living while making sure fans enjoy watching them compete at the same time.

That’s it.

No, the venues aren’t stadium-quality palaces. Yes, there’s dirt flying and lots of bugs and the bathrooms probably won’t be clean by the end of the night.

Oh, and the sport is quite dangerous — if you haven’t heard.

But damn if it isn’t fun, and plenty of people have already figured it out.

They’ll be thrilled to have you if you want to see for yourself. Just don’t come expecting to mess with a good thing.

Knoxville Nationals Night 3: Logan Schuchart’s sweet redemption

Logan Schuchart made a soul-crushing brain fart on Wednesday night, and it would have been easy to run away and hide for the next 48 hours after that.

Instead, he did the opposite: Schuchart showed his face and did interviews, owned his mistake, took all the blame on himself and didn’t shy away from discussing the error — as embarrassing as it might have been.

Then, on Friday night, Schuchart did something even more impressive: He went out and made up for it on the track, completely redeeming himself in the process.

Hey kids, want to know how to handle adversity after a self-inflicted mistake? Be like Logan.

Of course, Schuchart would rather not have been the example for this — and at the start of the week, his story seemed like it would be much different.

Schuchart, a 25-year-old from Pennsylvania, went out and set the quickest time in qualifying on Night 1 of the Knoxville National prelims on Wednesday.

Pretty great start for the biggest sprint car race in the world.

Qualifying so well results in a poor starting spot for the heat races, and Schuchart ended up in the B-Main.

But then he went out and won the B — even driving past the legend Donny Schatz — and put himself in a points position to get an excellent starting spot for Saturday night’s A-Main.

But then the mistake happened.

Drivers at Knoxville are required to drive straight to the scales after every race so officials can ensure they’re within the legal weight rules. That’s different than the World of Outlaws, where drivers just go to the scales after the feature.

Schuchart, already thinking about competing in that night’s A-Main and used to the WoO format, skipped the scales and drove back to his pit instead. By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late.


Officials had no choice but to disqualify Schuchart, stripping his finish and leaving him well outside the points position needed to lock into the Saturday feature.

It was every driver’s nightmare: A great performance on the track erased by a procedural error off it.

Schuchart could have thrown a fit about it, arguing his case with officials or blasting the rules in the media.

Instead, he spent Thursday doing interviews — including two in front of live audiences — where he owned up to the mistake.

“They call it a driver’s meeting for a reason, and I guess I wasn’t paying attention at it,” Schuchart said Friday night. “They tell you where you’re supposed to go, and I’ve been here in years past and I should know that. It was my fault and it’s the driver’s responsibility.”

Fortunately, the Knoxville format gives drivers one more chance to lock themselves into the A-Main before Saturday — though it’s arguably much more difficult (four spots available vs. 16 spots on the first two nights).

But guess what? Schuchart went out and got himself into Friday night’s A-Main, started from the pole and won the race after a fierce battle with local favorite Brian Brown.

“I was expecting (the team) to come in and be all mad at me and not talk to me or whatever, but they just went right back to work and started getting it ready for today,” Schuchart said of the fallout. “They gave me a great race car to come up tonight and come back swinging.”

And that he did — this despite Schuchart’s grandfather/team owner, sprint car great Bobby Allen, hospitalized nearby. Schuchart said the race was the first his grandfather had missed since the driver was 10 years old.

Nevertheless, Schuchart will start 17th in the A-Main on Saturday night. And even though he likely would have been higher in the field had the error not occurred, there’s no time to dwell on it now.

Anything can happen on Saturday, including an even happier ending to this redemption story.

“We’re lucky to be there and happy to be there,” Schuchart said. “It’s a long 50 laps.”

Knoxville Nationals Night 2: What it’s like to ride in a sprint car

If you’re wondering what it’s like to ride in a sprint car and rip the cushion around Knoxville Raceway, I took mental notes on a once-in-a-lifetime experience Thursday night.

Long story short, I hit the jackpot and got to be the passenger in a two-seat sprint car just before the heat races at the Knoxville Nationals. We ran three laps, and I can distinctly remember my thoughts on each one.

On Lap 1, I was thinking this: “HOLY FUCKING SHIT!!!!!”

On Lap 2, I was thinking this: “HOLY FUCKING SHIIIIIIIIIT!!!!!”

On Lap 3, I was thinking this: “I CAN’T BELIEVE PEOPLE DO THIS!!!!”

Sorry for the bad language, but those were my true, honest feelings while we were making the laps.

In fact, after the first two trips around the track, I realized I wasn’t even breathing. The stands were just a blur. Gravity was smashing me to the right side like a sumo wrestler was trying to squeeze into the seat.

They’d installed a fake wheel in my seat behind the driver — like how toddlers have a wheel in their car seat while mom drives them to preschool — and I noticed I was gripping it so hard, I could feel my pulse through my hands.

Honestly, all of that shocked me. I did not expect it was going to be that intense. I’ve been lucky enough to do some NASCAR ridealongs before, and those felt more like I was watching an in-car camera except with a sensation of speed. Those experiences were: “Yeah, that was really cool but pretty much what I thought it would feel like.”

But the sprint car was the opposite of how I thought it would be. Of course I knew it would be fast, but I thought the drivers sort of floated it into the turns and feathered the throttle while trying to manage the back end without spinning out.

Uh, no. Not in this case, anyway. The speed was up the whole time, and there was SO MUCH GRIP! The driver was wide open, and I was stunned how much we stuck to the tacky track. If we slid, I couldn’t really tell.

Anyway, I can’t even fathom being out there with other cars and no spotters with people trying to slide-job you while driving THAT all-out. Are you serious?

Anyone who races a sprint car, whether it’s a local track or in the World of Outlaws, I am now officially in awe of you. You people are insane, and I’m perfectly fine with my balls not being big enough to ever attempt something like that.

Knoxville Nationals Night 1: Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne’s unique position

From left to right: Second-place finisher Tim Shaffer, A-Main winner Greg Hodnett and third-place finisher Kyle Larson after the first night of the Knoxville Nationals.

There are roughly 90 drivers entered in this year’s Knoxville Nationals, and the format is similar for 88 of them:

— Score enough points during your prelim night (through qualifying, heat races and the feature races) and you’re locked into the big show on Saturday night.

— If you don’t score enough points, there’s essentially a chance to try again on Friday night before Saturday’s lineups are set.

But two drivers — Kyle Larson and Kasey Kahne — don’t have that luxury due to their NASCAR commitments this weekend in Michigan. That meant their chances of making the main event for sprint car racing’s Super Bowl seemed to be resting solely on how they performed in Wednesday night’s prelims.

It went well for Larson, who scored the most points of anyone — even 10-time Knoxville Nationals champ Donny Schatz — but it didn’t go well for Kahne, who found himself in poor position to return Saturday.

“Your prelim night is important for everybody, but it’s really important for me because I can’t come back on Friday,” Larson said. “I knew I had to be locked in to be able to come back Saturday and race. So it would have been very disappointing if I didn’t have a good night tonight and came back to Knoxville and was just watching.”

Points are scored based on single-car qualifying, then how cars do in their heat races (which have an eight-car invert) followed by how they fare in the features.

The night started well for both: Larson qualified 10th — despite drawing the 45th and final pill — and Kahne was ninth.

But then their results went in opposite directions. While Larson went from the last row to finish second place in his heat — thus advancing to the A-Main — Kahne finished eighth in his heat. Then, relegated to the B-Main, Kahne finished seventh (only the top four advanced) while Larson drove from sixth to third in the A.

That left Kahne sitting 22nd in the points with half the field still to run on Thursday. If he can’t figure out a way to get from Michigan to Iowa on Friday night, it’s probably pointless for Kahne to even return on Saturday.

Why? Because Kahne would likely have to start in an E-Main and race his way up the ladder (which is extremely difficult and rare).

“Really bad position,” Kahne said. “I don’t know if I could come back. I don’t know how it would all work.”

Could Kahne possibly return Friday and salvage an attempt? Larson said the NASCAR buddies walked into the Knoxville drivers meeting together on Wednesday and were examining the schedules closely in case they found themselves in that very position.

“We were looking at qualifying, when that starts, when it would finish, how long it takes to get to the airport, the time change, what airport to fly into,” Larson said. “I think he can make it work. It’s just a matter of whether he pulls the trigger and does it.”

Cup cars qualify at Michigan at 5:05 p.m. ET on Friday (4:05 p.m. CT). Kahne would have to qualify, get to the airport, fly to Iowa, get to the track and get in his car by the time hot laps start around 8:15 p.m. ET (7:15 p.m. local).

“I just feel like it would be really hard to make qualifying,” Kahne said. “I’m going to look at it, but I might be done.”