O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — A victory has the potential to parlay into something bigger, and every good finish can grow into a better one at the next race. At least, that’s how two of the top runners when the World of Outlaws unloaded at Bloomington Speedway were thinking on Friday.

“Every win is important,” Donny Schatz allowed after his fourth visit to victory lane this season. “We’ve kind of been playing around the last month and a half, trying to get the car to do different things that we want it to with the way the tires are. We went back to some things that we knew worked before and here we are.”

The four-time Outlaws titlist is chasing last year’s champion Jason Meyers, but Schatz’s Tony Stewart Racing STP/ArmorAll J&J had been without a win since mid-July.

“We went back and quit playing around and the car’s competitive in qualifying and the heat race, and it’s good in the feature, even on long runs. That’s probably the biggest importance, getting confidence built in the guys. We know we are some of the best in the sport, we just don’t show it every day. And today, we showed it. So tomorrow will be just as good,” Schatz said firmly.

But the North Dakotan is after one of the toughest drivers on the Outlaw trail. Meyers can carve out a win any night of the week and he scores points even on an off night. With 11 top-five finishes in the previous 14 events, he was rolling well.

Meyers notched the quick qualifying lap, turning the quarter-mile in just 9.672 seconds. But being fast isn’t always a blessing, and when the invert for the dash came up six, Meyers found himself in a hole. On an oval like Bloomington, with its banked turns and virtually no straightaway, the racing line becomes real narrow for the fastest cars. Meyers started and finished sixth in the dash, and lined up sixth for the feature.

It was the first World of Outlaws visit to Bloomington in a dozen years and in spite a late afternoon shower and a hot, sticky evening, sprint car fans packed the hillside grandstands above the track and overflowed in every direction. Bloomington native Steve Kinser had won the first Outlaws feature at the Speedway in 1974, during the series inaugural season. He and son Kraig were interviewed on the front straightaway before the main event and, 37 years later, the King promised he’d try to get the win.

When Paul McMahan was moved back a row at the start of the dash because he was ruled to have jumped too quickly, it gave Schatz the front row seat. He quickly cashed that in on a win and the pole for the main event.

The Tony Stewart Racing 15 quickly barged into the lead, with Jason Sides taking second and Lucas Wolfe clawing from fifth to third on the first lap. Only Sides appeared to have the moxie to challenge Schatz, catching him in traffic and battling wheel-to-wheel again and again. Sides edged ahead on lap 13, but Schatz took the lead back on a lap 14 restart. While Sides was keeping pace, Wolfe was right on his heels. On the 25th circuit, Sides slid over the top of a turn, then rolled to the pits with a broken U-joint.

With a straightaway deficit, Wolfe began reeling in Schatz, slicing high and low, running wherever they needed to clear traffic and maintain their momentum. But Wolfe couldn’t catch him until the caution came out on the last lap, putting the young Pennsylvanian outside of Schatz for the restart and a green-white-checkered finish. Schatz made a great start, but Austen Wheatley flipped in turn four, giving Wolfe another run at a two-lap shootout. As they had before, Schatz jumped quickly ahead and Wolfe pinched down, ahead of McMahan to hold onto second. Schatz scored the win a half-straightaway ahead of Wolfe and McMahan, Chad Kemenah, followed by Meyers and Steve Kinser in sixth.

“It’s always fun to win in the King’s hometown. He likes winning when he comes to my house,” Schatz said later, in the coolness of his hauler. The race had clearly been one of track position and getting through the slower cars. He came upon them so rapidly that he ran most of the laps working to get past as quickly as possible. A driver is very vulnerable when he has to slow for slower cars.

“That’s the way racing should be, as far as I’m concerned,” Donny said. “Every race should come down to some sort of traffic. Everybody here’s got the best equipment there is in the country and unless a guy makes a mistake, or out-daredevil’s someone, it just doesn’t happen any more. Everybody is going too fast. So, traffic, when you see it, is what we all live for. If your car’s not so good, you can be smarter and get under someone or get over them. I mean, it’s what makes it fun.”

A second-generation racer, the lanky Wolfe was another who saw Friday as part of a turning point. As he put his helmet into its bag, he said, “We’ve struggled miserably at the beginning of this year. Not only did we not finish well, but we weren’t really competitive at all. We were a lot of times battling, especially at the end when we would get into double-file restarts. We would run an okay race and just be miserable at the end and end up losing five or more spots in the restarts at the end. So, it was good to be up front.”

Wolfe had only two top-five finishes coming into Bloomington, including a third in the last race. But he didn’t look in any way like a driver who was struggling, rather it was a performance that would have been anticipated from someone on the top of their game.

“It was a good race,” Lucas added. “It was obviously a difficult track because of the track being narrow. So it was really quite exciting and it was a lot of fun to be in. It was a good race with a lot of guys that are all really good to race with and a lot of fun. Everybody kind of gives each other enough room that you can race and have a good time and everybody is also extremely competitive out here. It was just one of the nights that you always dream about being a part of when you’re a kid growing up. I’m glad I was a part of this one.”