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Trackside with Dr. Bob Leonard at the World of Outlaws

Posted: Monday, June 7th, 2010 at 6:28 am
Author: KNIA/KRLS News-Dr. Bob Leonard


Brooke Tatnell, Randy Smith, Jac Haudenschild, and Sammy Swindell took home the money at the the Knoxville Raceway Thursday and Friday nights, and a few newly minted Hall of Fame inductees took home some historic hardware and racing immortality on Saturday afternoon. A drenching rain that evening sent us all home with damp clothes, squeaky shoes and a little disappointed as the races were cancelled. But as always, the fans were the big winners at the Knoxville Raceway when the World of Outlaws came to town. We locals knew something big was coming when the RV’s started rolling into town early in the week, and the traffic grew thick as crankcase oil with faces we don’t regularly see. I started hearing the talk in the coffee shop on Monday, when more than one experienced fan commented to me–unsolicited–that this was starting to look like “Mini-Nationals,” a reference to our annual racing riot held in August.  And then defending Nationals Champion Donny Schatz’s big rig pulled in and parked at the track a few days early just like a kid who can’t wait for Christmas morning. And on Thursday, if license plates provided any clue, by my observations people from at least 16 different states came to watch. And that’s nothing compared to the geographic diversity of the drivers and crews. I have to admit that here’s still enough small town kid in me that i’m always pleased when I see license plates from other states.

And Knoxville rolled out the welcome mat, as we are used to doing. People from out of town tell me how friendly people from here are, but it just seems normal to me.  I had an unexpected taste of it though when I was standing on a street corner downtown Thursday.  A lady from town I see on occasion pulled up to the stoplight near where I was standing.  She motioned at me to go ahead and cross the street.  I waved her on, and mouthed the words “Thank you, you go ahead,” but she insisted I cross, smiling broadly and motioning more urgently for me to hurry up and cross. She’d wait.  So I waved thanks, stepped off of the curb and crossed the street.  She nodded, smiled and waved back when I reached the other side safely and continued through the intersection.  The only problem was that I hadn’t wanted to cross the street!  I was just waiting for a friend. I watched her to pass out of sight, and then went back to the corner where I had been waiting.

The first day of the World of Outlaws Knoxville Mediacom Shootout dawned clear and bright, but between the weather reports and the feelings in our bones we all knew that it was unlikely the weather would be on our side all weekend. On a hot day like Thursday, all it takes is a single cloud to make Iowans in general and race fans in particular a little uneasy. While there were grumbles in the infield that the track wasn’t perfect, the weather was. In the 410 class Brooke Tatnell (San Souci, NSW, Australia) starting from the pole took the lead from the get go and from my seat it looked like he never was seriously challenged as he won the event. The real racing was behind him as eventual second place winner Jason Meyers (Clovis, CA), Sammy Swindell (Germantown, TN) in third, Jason Sides (Bartlett, TN) in fourth, and Joey Saldana (Brownsburg, IN) in fifth battled for position. Saldana had been running second for much of the race, but bumped into a lapped car driven by Jac Haudenschild and lost ground.

One of my favorite things to do at the races is to turn and watch the crowd whenever there’s a gap between the leader and second place. Even doing this once, you’ll see everyone is watching a different race. Eyes go every which way, and no one ever seems to be pointing the same direction, except during the last lap, when everyone follows the leaders. While I was watching the crowd a young guy next to me with a dragon tattoo on his arm nudged me and yelled over the roar of engines–”You’re missin’ the race man, look at number seven!” After I finally figured out where number seven was, I watched the car pass five others before the race ended. “Who’s that?” I asked. “Craig Dollansky, from Minnesota. He came from way back.” Indeed he did. When looking at the official track results later I learned that he had come from 24th to finish tenth.

In the 305’s Randy Smith from Mt. Ayr (IA) out-raced a tenacious Tasker Phillips from Pleasantville (IA). While Smith got the win, most of the cheers coming from where I was sitting were for young Tasker. We sure do like our local racers. Especially those that are still in high school and made the state wrestling tournament this past year. Finishing out the top five were Tim St. Arnold (Des Moines, IA), Steve Breazeale (Trenton MO), and Mathew Stelzer (Omaha, NE).

On Friday the crowds thickened even more. Cottonball-like cumulus clouds were building, mainly to the south and east, meaning that if the rising hot air meeting the cool air above it that was creating the clouds was going to also bring rain, we were likely going to miss it. Looks far enough south to be Missouri, I thought. Most of the people that I spoke with believed that the rain wouldn’t get us that night, unless there was something beyond the horizon we and the radar couldn’t see. Fingers crossed. The forecast called for rain after 11 PM, which would work. For now anyway.

I went to the Knoxville Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum during the afternoon. My friend Tom Schmeh, who is Curator of the Museum had promised me something special. A time to chat with four of the best writers in the racing world–Alan Brown, Dr. Pat Sullivan, Spencer Riggs, and Tony Martin. I was about 15 minutes late getting there (that’s another story) and huffed and puffed my way up the stairs and to the table mumbling my apologies. They were so engaged with each other in conversation that they really didn’t seem to mind my tardiness. About an hour and a half later I walked out the doors of the Hall of Fame and Museum with lots of stories, and four new friends, if I’m lucky. After I left, I realized that among the four of them, they had well over one hundred years of writing about racing collectively.

One of the things that I asked them was how Knoxville–the community and the racetrack–could do better. They thought for a moment, and then agreed that Knoxville, the Hall of Fame and Museum, and the track were doing great things. They came up with no criticisms or suggestions whatever. They did say, however, that Sprint Car racing in general needs to do better at attracting a younger audience. That younger audiences were impatient, that they wanted constant action, constant entertainment, and that any delays whatsoever caused disinterest in the sport. So we needed to recognize that. Someone–I believe it was Dr. Pat Sullivan said–that this is the age of extreme sports, and that there is no sport more extreme than sprint car racing. That connection has to be made, but no one was sure how to make it.

Later on, I ran into Tony Martin again. He said, “I forgot one other thing–we also need young, charismatic stars. We need drivers that people like, drivers that people want to watch race because they truly like them.” “Got anyone in mind?” I asked. “Well,” he replied, “I was at Mr. C’s the other day…”

For those who are not familiar with Knoxville, Mr. C’s is a restaurant near the track that is a cultural institution that serves up hearty, traditional American food at a reasonable price.

Tony continued: “…and in walks Tyler Walker, a bright, young, charismatic kid, from California. And all of the waitresses are in there falling all over themselves trying to take his order, talk to him, flirt, whatever. And it seems that everyone in the place knows this guy, he’s nice to them, has a great laugh and smile, and charisma that I wish we could bottle. And none of us could get waited on till he was gone. When he left some girl fanned herself with her hand and said ‘Whew, he’s hot!’ And we need more of that!”

That night Jac Haudenschild (Wooster, OH) ran away with the World of Outlaws Feature, with Brian Brown (Grain Valley, MO) on his tail most of the way. In third was Tyler Walker (Encino, CA)–I’m sure the ladies at Mr. C’s were happy with this–and in fourth Locus Wolfe (Mechanicsburg, PA). Kerry Madsen (Sydney, NSW, Aust.) came in fifth. One of the old boys I spoke with before the race told me that it would be Haudenschild hands down. He was just too fast, and starting at the pole no one would ever catch him. The man was right. A few people thought that the inversion would bring more passing, but so it goes. The leaders were having a tough time with lap traffic when there was a yellow on lap 23. Four-time consecutive Knoxville Nationals Champ Donnie Schatz blew a tire while he was in sixth. Conversation around me went two ways. One school of thought had Brown having a shot at passing Haudenschild with a clear field. The other thought the clear field would let Haudenschild run away with it, no contest. All he needed was no one in his way. This latter perspective was proven correct.

Between races I chatted with my friend Mrs. K. who knows everyone. She took the time to teach me who was here, there, and yonder and other important things to know. When I asked her if she had lost Mr. K. in the crowd, she said “Oh, no. He’s over in section C, where he’s been sitting with his buddies since he was eight years old.” Since the K’s have grown children, I was impressed and envied the memories he must have of some great races.

In the Master’s Classic it was Sammy Swindell (Germantown, TN) repeating in the 18th running of the race, with Danny Lasoski (Dover, MO), Mike Peters (Wichita, KS), Roland Johnson (Tampa, FL), and Mackie Heimbaugh (Des Moines, IA) as the top five place winners in order. At the start of the race Doug Wolfgang led the missing man formation driving car 77 in honor of Jesse Hockett, who lost his life in a tragic accident recently.

A couple of yellow flags came out, one because a car wound up on its top in the first lap. Mike Peters led for awhile, battling Swindell, Smith, and Lasoski. Lasoski tried working the bottom of the track for awhile, which for some reason bothered the man next to me. He jumped up and yelled at the track, as if the drivers could hear him, “Lasoski you always were a bottom feeder!” I guess that’s an insult, but I’m not sure why. And now here is an existential question for you. Is an insult an insult if the other guy doesn’t hear you? At 15 laps it was all Swindell for the rest of the way, and most people seemed perfectly happy with that.

Raindrops hit my windshield as I drove home Friday night, and it was still raining when I woke up. That morning the weather lady had it raining all day and night and for maybe forty more. No one was optimistic till the skies cleared unexpectedly mid-morning and it looked like we just might have some racing if they could get the track prepared. And the track crews sure worked hard at that.

Clouds then started rolling in again, and by late afternoon nothing looked right in the skies and then it turned worse when the National Weather Service issued a tornado watch. We’d been watching the sky all day, but now we turned to studying it. I was waiting for the light to change on Lincoln across from the track when about a dozen storm spotter vehicles pulling flatbeds with radar dishes on the back of went by. I noticed that one of the vehicles had University of Oklahoma decals on the side, and thought that this storm sure must be bad if scientists from Oklahoma were here to study it. It didn’t get that bad though, just bad enough.

I was at the track, standing under an awning of a t-shirt trailer talking to some people from out of town when the rains hit about an hour before the races were to start. And rain it did. It rained cats and dogs and maybe a parakeet or two. Which really didn’t bother me or the people I was talking to much until the guy in the trailer told us he had to close the awning down. The lady next to me said “you’re kidding, right?” and he said, “No ma’am,” and so we grabbed our caps and gear and sprinted to get underneath the stands. I must say that I surprised myself and won that sprint by a car length and didn’t hurt any body parts doing it.

I turned around and watched other people running in from the entry to the track to shelter under the stands. The wind picked up even more but a beautiful rainbow came out to the east, and it was quite the scene watching people running through the torrential rain with a rainbow arching over them. As soon as they were safely under the stands I told a few people what a beautiful sight it had been watching them run in under the rainbow but they seemed uninterested in the aesthetics of the situation. Either that or they didn’t like being wet. I stopped mentioning it to people after just a few groups given the unanimous disinterest I was getting. I guess it’s tough to appreciate beauty when you’re soggy and hoping for a little racing.

The rain slowed, then stopped, and I walked over to the Hall of Fame and Museum. I sat and chatted a bit with 2010 Hall of Fame inductee Casey Luna about his career in racing and the early days when they were trying to get the Hall of Fame and Museum off of the ground. Not everyone knows this, but Casey is a former Lt. Governor of New Mexico. I lived in the state during his term of office, and have always thought that he did a great job. I also remember that he had a Ford dealership in a little town called Los Lunas, about 20 miles south of Albuquerque. He ran some of the most effective radio advertising campaigns that I have ever heard. They were something like this–”Cars are like eggs–cheaper in the country.” It was a brilliant campaign, as I don’t know of anybody in Albuquerque during those days that didn’t think of at least visiting Casey before they bought a car. After that successful career, he’s now working with the state of New Mexico to build a space-port. An amazing guy.

I also had the pleasure of meeting another 2010 Hall of Fame inductee, Bobbie Adamson. Adamson was honored for his victories and contributions to sprint car racing, primarily in central Pennsylvania. He told me a few stories about the old days there, but we laughed most when he told about the time he went to Ascot Park in California in 1967 to take on the big dogs of racing in the western part of the country. He says that at first all of the drivers were “standoffish,” that there was no drivers meeting, and that as warm ups and time trials progressed, he was black flagged twice for not knowing some rules. During time trials, he tied the track record. In the pits, some “banty rooster” like fellow told Bobbie that they had just given the record to him because he had come so far. He thought maybe that was the case, but he didn’t really think so. Regardless, the fellow irritated him a bit. Bobbie then knew he wanted to “own” the track. In the 100 lap race Adamson went from last to first and dominated. After the win, and as he approached the pay line, all of the other drivers stopped talking. Renowned Ascot racer Bob Hogle, who Bobbie had lapped in the race, came up and said “I’ve never been beat so bad in all my life.” He then turned to the banty rooster guy and said “think that they gave the race to him too?” Everyone laughed, including the banty rooster fellow and then Bobbie said, “If anyone knows where we can by some beer, it’s on me.” Things were fine after that.

As nine o’clock approached, Bobbie and I watched the crews work hard at preparing the track. Even I could see that not much progress was being made, and we sat there in silence for a few minutes, knowing that the races were going to be cancelled for the night. “What’s your favorite part about being in Knoxville?” I asked. “Well, the racing, of course,” he said, and then after a moment he pointed at the track. “And I like that black dirt. You’ve got real black dirt. Like we had when I was a kid in Pennsylvania.” He laughed. “And now I’m retired in Florida, and all we’ve got is sand. Only sand. I miss that black dirt.”

We heard over the loudspeaker that the races had been cancelled, and that they wouldn’t be rescheduled. We sat still for for another few moments.

“And you can grow amazing things in that dirt can’t you?” he asked.

“Oh yeah,” I said. “When I wake up tomorrow morning I’m going to make a cup of coffee, and then go to the back porch before my wife and kids wake up, sit down, and write this up on my computer. And as I do it, I’ll look at the fields behind the house and watch the young corn grow.

“That’s the life,” Bobbie said, with a smile.

And as I sit here and type this on the back porch, and hear the waking up sounds of my family in the house behind me, I realize just how right the Hall of Famer was.

That’s all from me for now.

I’ll see you in the concessions line…

P.S. And here I have to put a plug in for our guys doing the race coverage, Derek Cardwell, Jamie Brockman, and Eric Wade. They do a great job, and know more about racing than I ever will. I enjoy listening to them, and believe you will too if you don’t already listen.