For more than half a century of summers, the pinnacle of short-track open-wheel racing on dirt has been discovered beyond the cornfields, farms and water towers of middle America in the tiny Iowa town of Knoxville.
Interstate traffic spills onto four-lane highways, funneling race haulers onto Route 14, which leads to the destination — a half-mile black gumbo track in the epicenter of the Marion County Fairgrounds.
Outside of this arena of speed, vendors sell fried pork sandwiches, varieties of pie and 50/50 tickets to raise money for community groups while grass-roots racing fans donned in their favorite driver’s T-shirt endure sweltering heat amid the aroma of livestock in the show barns.
Part county fair, part family reunion, the Knoxville Nationals is sprint car racing’s signature event.
Motivated by passion, fueled by the will to win, roughly 325 men and one woman (Erin Crocker Evernham) have earned the right to be part of the prestigious A-Main field — not an easy accomplishment.
Of those drivers, a small percentage had the honor of pulling into victory lane at least once to collect the accolades befitting of a champion.
Based on their performances, I have sifted through the numbers and scoured the history books to present the Ultimate Knoxville Nationals lineup, taking into consideration the number of starts, wins, laps led and average finish on sprint car racing’s grandest stage.
The 24-person grid includes two sets of siblings and one father-son combination. Thirteen are members of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, while several others in the field are destined for enshrinement.
There are no provisional starters, but with respect to Roy Robbins, who won the inaugural race in 1961, the first alternate is Nebraska’s Ken Gritz, who won the Knoxville Nationals in 1969 in his only A-Main start.
Before we summon the push trucks to fire the engines for this fantasy race, let’s meet the starting lineup for the inaugural Ultimate Knoxville Nationals.
24th: JAC HAUDENSCHILD
-1998 Knoxville Nationals polesitter and runner-up is shotgun on the field based on his three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes. Although he has yet to lead a lap in the main event, the Ohio driver has an average finish of 10.8 in 17 starts.
23rd: JOEY SALDANA
-The second-generation driver has led more laps (70) than any non-winner at the Nationals. Half of his 14 starts ended with top-10 finishes, including a four-year span from 2006-’09 in which Saldana finished second on three occasions. However, his failure to complete several races drops the average finish to 12.6 for the Indiana native.
22nd: BOBBY DAVIS JR.
-1989 World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series champion boasts a pair of runner-up finishes (1987 & ’88) among his five top-fives and nine top 10s in 14 appearances with an average finish of 9.7.
21st: CRAIG DOLLANSKY
-World of Outlaws veteran has posted 12 top-10 and six top-five finishes in the 16 times in which he qualified for the A-feature. The Minnesota driver has wound-up in the top 10 the past eight years in a row.
20th: JERRY WELD
-Oldest child of famed sprint car owner/builder Taylor “Pappy” Weld, Jerry finished in the top ten at the Nationals in seven of his eight appearances between 1961 and 1968, with a top showing of second in ’63. Jerry Weld is the highest-ranked driver who never led the Knoxville Nationals, but three top-five runs gives Weld an average finish of 8.5.
19th: BOB WILLIAMS
-An associate of the famed Weld family in Kansas City, the driver known as “Tiger” never landed outside of the top 10 in seven Nationals A-Mains. Williams compiled 15 laps led and turned-in a top performance of second at Knoxville in 1967 to go with third-place finishes in 1962 and ’69, giving “Tiger” an impressive 4.9 average finish.
18th: JEFF SWINDELL
-Between 1980 and 1999, the younger of the Swindell brothers registered a Knoxville pole (1994) and two runner-up finishes (’94 & ’95) in 17 starts. The Tennessee driver carries an average finish of 8.8 on the strength of six top fives with seven laps led.
17th: STEVIE SMITH
-Second-generation competitor is the highest-ranked of any driver without a victory in the Nationals on the heels of 13 top 10 and six top-five finishes in 18 starts. The former Outlaws regular and one-time Pennsylvania Posse stalwart sat on the pole in 2009 and went on to earn his third third-place finish to go with a runner-up outing in 1993.
16th: RAY LEE GOODWIN
-Kansas City driver led all 30 laps of the 1968 Knoxville Nationals from the pole position. Inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1999, Goodwin posted three top five and five top-10 finishes in nine starts.
15th: TIM SHAFFER
-Western Pennsylvania product has led only two laps at the Knoxville Nationals, but they were the final pair of the 50th running of sprint car racing’s crown jewel in 2010. Shaffer has qualified for the A-Main in 12 of the past 14 years, using six top-10 finishes to calculate an average finish of 10.3.
14th: BOBBY ALLEN
-Regarded as one of the “Original Outlaws,” the Florida-born, transplanted Pennsylvanian captured sprint car’s biggest prize in 1990. Nicknamed “Scruffy,” Allen produced three top-five and six top-10 finishes in the 11 times he made the Knoxville finale between 1973 and 1993 in a Hall of Fame career.
13th: RON SHUMAN
-2003 National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductee claimed the 1979 edition of his sport’s premier event while ending in the top-10 eight times in 11 starts. In addition to the victory, three of his finishes were in the top-three, giving “Shu” a more-than-respectable 7.2 score for an average result.
12th: JOE SALDANA
-Diminutive “Little Joe” never finished worse than 8th in seven Knoxville Nationals A-Main appearances. 1970 winner registered three poles, four top-fives and six top 10s. The father of our 23rd ranked driver, Saldana joined the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2000.
11th: GREG WELD
-Second member of the Weld family to grace our fantasy field, Greg’s first three Nationals starts produced top-five finishes. Fifth in 1962, he led all 25 laps in 1963 with brother Jerry running second. A year later, another brother, Kenny, took top honors as Greg motored from 22nd on the grid to finish in the runner-up position. After a 12-year absence, Greg Weld returned to Knoxville in 1976 and ran sixth, giving him an incredible average finishing position of 3.5.
10th: DAVE BLANEY
-Current NASCAR driver cracks our top 10 by virtue of his 1997 victory, the Ohio driver’s top result in 15 Nationals starts. Two-time polesitter ran second in 1989 and ’96, adding to his total of seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes to go with 44 laps led.
9th: EDDIE LEAVITT
-Back-to-back triumphs in 1975 and ’76 make the Missouri native one of seven multi-time winners of the Knoxville Nationals. With five top-fives and seven top 10s in nine starts, the Hall of Famer clicked off 50 laps as the leader of sprint car racing’s premier event.
8th: SAMMY SWINDELL
-Despite a lone Knoxville Nationals win in 31 attempts, the 1983 race champion has compiled some big numbers on the brightest stage. With 14 top-five and 20 top-10 performances to accompany 85 laps led, the aggressive Tennessee driver remains one of sprint car racing’s fiercest competitors and a viable threat to get that second Nationals victory that has eluded him for nearly 30 years.
7th: MARK KINSER
-Three-time event winner (1996, ’99, ’00) boasts an average finish of 7.8 in 19 consecutive starts between 1986 and 2004. Indiana driver earned three straight poles beginning in 1995 and racked-up nine top-fives and 13 top 10s in an illustrious driving career.
6th: JAN OPPERMAN
-The legendary sprint car driver’s results at the Knoxville Nationals are staggering. In six A-Main starts, Opperman posted a win (1971), three runner-up finishes, a fourth and a fifth. Six top fives in six races give “The Hippie” a remarkable 2.7 average finish, the best among our fantasy grid. Although leading 75 laps, Opperman is not ranked higher because he only went to victory lane once at the Nationals.
5th: DANNY LASOSKI
-The winningest sprint car driver in Knoxville Raceway history, “The Dude” parlayed that experience and success to four victories in 23 starts in the mid-summer classic. The four-time polesitter carried home the big trophy in 1998, 2001, ’03 and ’05 and has led 103 circuits around the imposing half-mile. The Missouri native’s 15 top-five finishes are the second-most in event history.
4th: KENNY WELD
-Third member of the Kansas City clan to qualify for our fantasy grid, Kenny Weld was a mere 18-years-old when he won the Knoxville Nationals from the pole as a rookie in 1964. The talented teen backed-up the performance by repeating the feat the following year and returned to the podium with a third-place run in ’66. Several years later, Kenny did another double, taking the top prize in 1972 and ’73 to become the first four-time winner of the Nationals. What is amazing is that those victories came in a scant nine starts, and he only finished outside of the top seven once while earning two poles and leading 74 laps.
3rd: DOUG WOLFGANG
-Five-time Knoxville Nationals champion from South Dakota finished on the podium nine times in 15 starts and ranks second in laps led with 152. “Wolf” never ended the A-Main outside of the top-five nine years in a row from 1981 to ’90. Twice a winner in successive seasons (1977 and’78, ‘84 and ’85) his last trip to victory lane came in 1989. Two-time runner-up and two-time polesitter, Wolfgang retired with an average finish of 5.5 in the big show at the Marion County Fairgrounds.
2nd: DONNY SCHATZ
-Reigning Knoxville Nationals champion has identical numbers to Wolfgang in terms of wins (five), top fives (11) and top 10s (12), except the North Dakota driver has amassed them in one fewer start and remains in his prime, likely to pad those figures. In fact, Schatz has finished first or second in nine of the last 10 years. A four-time polesitter, an average finish of 4.5 and 131 laps led earns Mr. Five Time a front-row starting spot.
1st: STEVE KINSER
-Indisputable selection as polesitter for the inaugural Ultimate Knoxville Nationals is the king of sprint car racing, who has dominated this event unlike any other. The leader in all major categories, superlatives fail to magnify the sheer excellence Steve Kinser has demonstrated at the Nationals. Not only has he started the A-Main 34 times, he has done so in 34 consecutive years. During a span of 16 seasons from 1980 to 1995, Kinser wore the crown an incredible 11 times. The numbers speak for themselves. Wins: 12. Top fives: 17. Top 10s: 26. Poles: 8. Laps led: 302. The only miniscule dent in this rugged warrior’s armor is that he has not tasted victory at the Knoxville Nationals in 10 years. In that span, he has posted one top five, which deceptively skews his average finish of 6.9 since his first start in 1978.
While the Ultimate Knoxville Nationals must be left to our imaginations, I wonder what would happen if these 24 drivers, in their prime, took the green flag together for 30, 40 or even 50 laps?
As we ponder the possibilities, know that the 52nd annual Knoxville Nationals is coming up Aug. 8-11, with television coverage Saturday, Aug. 25 at Noon ET on SPEED.
Jim Chiappelli is SPEED’s Coordinating Producer of Studio Programming & News Director, whose family has been involved with sprint car racing for more than 30 years.
Hurry and enter! Winners will be announced Saturday at the Knoxville Nationals finale! Chance to win a $2,500 VIP prize package to the 2013 Knoxville Nationals and be on Donny Schatz’s pit crew!