Charles Dickens already used the opening line about the best of times and the worst of times, so it probably isn’t proper to use it to describe the 50th running of the Goodyear Knoxville Nationals presented by Lucas Oil.
Yet it’s an appropriate lead, because Saturday night’s feature brought emotions that reached the highest pinnacle and the lowest trough. Just as Dickens described: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Sammy Swindell has raced the Knoxville Nationals more than any other man, with 35 attempts coming into this weekend. But he has just one lonely win — 1983 — to show for his efforts, despite 29 appearances in the championship finale.
At 54, Swindell is surely in the autumn of his career, but this season has been as sharp as ever. Despite drawing the very last qualifying number on Thursday, he timed well and won the preliminary feature, giving him a front-row starting spot for the Friday night scramble.
When the Friday program rained out, Sammy had a default front-row starting spot in the main event. After suffering some wretched luck at Knoxville through the years, it seemed that the racing gods had finally smiled upon him.
He was stellar in Saturday’s main, fighting off charges from Brian Brown and later from Donny Schatz, and as the laps clicked away media guys were already forming the questions in their mind: “Is this the greatest moment of your career?” “After 27 years, did you think you’d be able to win it again?” “Sammy, what’s it like out there?” Well, maybe not the last one.
But as he battled with Schatz with just three laps remaining, Swindell’s left-rear tire exploded, leaving him upside down in turn four.
All the preparation, all the momentum, all the things he had done to put himself in position to win, lost to a scattering of rubber chunks strewn across the racing surface.
He climbed from his wrecked machine and bowed to the crowd, feeling the applause sweep over him in a salute that was both loud and heartfelt. He pulled off his helmet and gloves and began walking toward his pit.
The lines in his face revealed the profound depth of his pain, and his eyes blurred with a mixture of disappointment, heartbreak, anger and frustration.
Minutes later — as Swindell changed clothes in his pit and tried to digest what had just happened — Tim Shaffer swept past Schatz on the final lap to win the event, bringing forth a roar that will long echo across the Iowa landscape.
Shaffer, a journeyman professional racer and all-around good-guy, etched his name in the record books as the winner of perhaps the most dramatic and memorable Nationals in history.
As he climbed from his car on the victory stage, his face told a starkly different story: Eyes that widened with pure, unabashed joy; laughter and shouting that couldn’t stop; and the growing understanding that this is real, and not just the fanciful dreams of a Pennsylvania schoolboy.
There are experiences in life that are forever, planting a bookmark in our brain where we can readily recall the sights, sounds, tastes and emotions that were part of the rich texture of the moment. For both men, the memories of this moment will yield far different experiences.
Both will move on from this weekend, and within a matter of days will be back at it. Their focus will be on going down the road, taking care of business, winning the race at hand. Life doesn’t give us much chance to chew on what happened yesterday, because too much energy is needed for this day, or the next.
But years from now — 10, 20, 40, whatever — this moment will still exist in their mind. Each time they encounter the memory it will trigger the same maelstrom of emotions, ranging from bright beams of joy to the stinging lashes of heartbreak.
Much of life is lived in the mundane center of the emotional range. But Sammy Swindell and Tim Shaffer this past Saturday night found the extreme reaches of what this sport can bring.
Looking on, it was utterly painful and joyous, all at the same time. Almost too much to bear.