Knoxville’s Key: Great Racing!

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Mike Kerchner

CONCORD, N.C. — What makes the Knoxville Nationals at Iowa’s Knoxville Raceway such a popular and successful event?

It’s really pretty simple — great racing.

The Nationals, which was held for the 58th time Aug. 8-11 at the historic half-mile race track, is one of the country’s strongest short-track events, and there is no denying there are many elements that make the event so popular — and so much fun.

But at the end of the day, folks started attending the Knoxville Nationals because of the racing and the event and the facility grew together through the years. Grandstand seats were sold out for the first time in many years on Saturday.

And it’s still the racing that leaves most of us talking when we leave the Sprint Car Capital of the World to return to reality.

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While there was no rain to deal with this year, temperatures soared into the 90s on two of the four days, making track preparation a challenge. Still, as usual, Knoxville’s Dunkin family, which has prepared the black-dirt surface for decades, provided an immaculate track that produced multiple grooves to race on all four nights.

At some multi-day events, it seems there is always at least one clunker where the track just wasn’t racy enough to put on a good show. That never happens at Knoxville, and that is a very important aspect of why the racing is always so memorable.

Through the years, many drivers have learned to make their cars fast racing the top groove, the bottom groove or even the middle path through the corners, but it’s been those who are able to make their cars fast in all three grooves who conquer the Knoxville Nationals.

For years, 10-time Nationals winner Donny Schatz has been the only driver who could make his car fast in all of Knoxville Raceway’s lanes on a consistent basis, but this year Schatz was one of three drivers who could run anywhere on the track. Brad Sweet and Kyle Larson were the others.

Sweet’s always been fast at Knoxville, but this year he added the bottom groove to his repertoire and he used it masterfully in holding off Schatz to win sprint car racing’s most prestigious event for the first time.

While Schatz was winning 10 of the last 12 Nationals heading into this year, his competition was watching, trying to figure out how he did it.

“I felt like if I was going to win I needed to be able to hit the bottom,” Sweet explained. “That’s one of the things I’ve studied over the years is this guy here (Schatz) has won a lot of races by being able to run his car all over the race track.

“The last two or three years I have tried to make my car be able to run all over the race track and we really hit on something that made my car be able to run on the bottom and through the middle.”

And he ran that bottom groove well enough to click off two perfect laps during a green-white-checkered finish and beat Schatz to the checkered flag by 0.133 seconds.

Sweet maintains that Knoxville Raceway is the most technical track the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series visits during its February to November campaign from coast to coast.

“This track is very technical,” Sweet said after winning his preliminary night feature. “It is the most technical track we go to, that’s why you see the best driver (Schatz) win every year. Nobody else has been able to get the right car and the right driver to beat Donny Schatz. You only come here a couple times a year before the Nationals, so it is difficult to build confidence in your race car and your driver.

“What Rico (Abreu) wants in his race car and what David (Gravel) wants in his race car is different, you really have to work with your crew members and build confidence between you and the crew to make the changes during the course of the night because the track is always changing so much. Last night was a lot wetter and tonight it was a lot drier. You are constantly adjusting for those things and when you have confidence, you can make those moves better.”

Sweet believes it’s easier to gain time or lose time at Knoxville Raceway than at other tracks.

“It’s flat,” he said. “This is probably one of the only dirt tracks in the country where if you miss your line, you could literally lose a second a lap by just making a bad decision.”

Sweet made all the right decisions and earned $150,000 for his effort, wrapping up four nights of action-packed racing.