This week American Correspondent Dan Zimmermann concludes his Special Feature Article on the 2012 Knoxville Nationals with this epic behind the scenes spectator’s account of all the action and activities. (Story and photos by Dan Zimmermann unless otherwise noted)
The Wednesday before the National brought a bit of a warmup for the weather, the sun came out and the air heated up quickly. The vendor areas behind the track had filled up and many sprint car related items were available for sale. During the afternoon, the weather took a major turn for the worse. At 3:15 pm, a text message went out requesting all teams to get into the infield as soon as possible. The sky was darkening to the west and the inevitable severe weather was heading for us. We broke down our campsite as much as we could to minimize damage as the severe weather rolled in around 4:30.
All hell broke loose again and it appeared that racing would be an afterthought for the evening. The Knoxville Raceway track crew and management had other ideas however and worked their magic to get the track in raceable condition. The hot laps commenced a little after 9 pm and although we would be there late, there would be racing. Good thing too as Jeff Gordon was in town as his Salute to Champion exhibit in the hall of fame was on display for the public. He was also there supporting Shane Stewart with his Kick It Foundation for Children’s Cancer.
I was very pleased to see Jeff get back into sprint car racing in some capacity. Some of us wondered if he would bring a presence back to the motorsport that helped launch him to his Nascar fame. Jeff got up on Doug Clark’s flagstand and dropped the green flag on the third heat. About the time he waved the flag, Austin Johnson was tumbling down the front straightaway. I’m sure Jeff has a newfound appreciation for the job the Clark’s do on the flagstand after that. Jeff stayed in the stand for the restart and dropped the green again. He also took a few photos while up there and the crowd gave him much better accolades than what he receives at Talladega.
Jeff also paid sprint car racing a tremendous compliment when he stated “I thought I wanted to get back into one of these until I saw hot laps”. I’m sure this was due to the high speeds attained on the wet track. The time trials were 0.3 seconds off the track record and it looked like passing would be very difficult in the heats. However, Jonathan Allard and Donny Schatz made some slick moves to get transfer spots from the back of their heat races.
Unfortunately several quick timers could not get out of their heats to the A-Main including Joey Saldana, Craig Dollansky, Shane Stewart, David Gravel, and Steve Kinser. Kinser also missed the A main with an 8th place finish in the B feature which relegated him to the Fri night non qualifier race.
The track did get racy as the night went on, and the A feature looked to be a heated battle. Davey Heskin took an early lead with Jason Sides, Randy Hannagan, and Brian Paulus on his tail. Brian has raced a very limited schedule this season and it was a bit of a surprise to see him running toward the front. Unfortunately being 1st or 2nd in this race had some disastrous consequences. Randy Hannagan had taken over 2nd place when the yellow flag waved for Mike Reinke. Under yellow, Hannagan’s car belched smoke and eventually a fire developed on the right side of his engine. Hannagan had to pull into the pits where a loose oil fitting was discovered which took him out of the race.
Kerry Madsen also blew an engine and retired. The restart saw Jason Sides slide job Heskin to take the lead. Sides was pulling a pretty good advantage but two laps later, his left rear blew sending him into a spin and ultimately on his lid. Sides tried to get his car repaired but was only able to complete two laps before retiring. Kyle Larson assumed the lead and Paulus had taken over second.
Paulus’s night would come to an unfortunate end coming to the white flag as his car quit running. Larson would not relinquish the lead and took the main event with Davey Heskin coming back to 2nd and Donny Schatz 3rd. It was an impressive victory for Kyle as he had only competed in a winged 410 two other times at Knoxville. The A main finished up at 1 am and we didn’t get back to the campground until 2. The after race festivities would have to be short as we had heaps more racing ahead.
The weather would not be a factor the rest of the week fortunately. A trip to the Hall of Fame was the first order of business, I had not been there all year and was excited to see some of the displays. The Mickow (TMC) #12 that was driven by Mike Brooks was on display – this is one of my favorite cars from my youth.
Mike sat on the pole of the 1980 nationals that was ultimately won by Steve Kinser in this borrowed Bob Trostle racing machine which sports some cool zoomie headers.
The Jeff Gordon’s Salute to Champion Feature Display in the National Sprint car Hall of Fame and Museum is simply awesome. It was unveiled just before the nationals and runs until the end of the year. The display features several of Jeff’s winning cars and is a testiment to the adapability of this great driver. Jeff can drive any form of race car and be competitive. Nowadays he centres his racing around NASCAR, but he has never forgotten his Speedway roots.
Also amongst the many displays is a great BR Motorsports “cutaway” sprint car which has several key components exposed so you can see the inner workings.
We walked around to a few cars that were in the parking lots surrounding the track to take a few photos. Most of the race teams either stay on the fairgrounds or park their rigs outside the track in some of the parking lots surrounding the facility. Race teams must work on their cars each day to keep them in tip top condition for the week long events.
The drama for Thursday races started early when Dale Blaney lost an engine in hot laps. His George Fisher team was unable to change the engine before time trials and Dale ended up not racing. Normally this would put an end to a racer’s nationals but with the new format, Dale had a 2nd chance coming on Fri. night and took full advantage of that. More to come on that later. The Thursday night races started with a bang, literally! In the first heat on the first lap, Cody Darrah and Jason Johnson made contact 2 times down the backstretch, the final contact resulting in a Darrah flip.
Johnson would be able to make repairs and restart while Darrah’s car was too damaged to continue. Johnson was able to make the 4th and final transfer spot. Geoff Ensign was making his first attempt at the Nationals and was running in the 4th position on the last lap when his engine exploded in a great fireball. Terry McCarl had nowhere to go and stuffed his 24 car into the wall and ultimately on its top. The result was both cars being taken out of contention and 6th running Brian Brown inheriting the final transfer position.
The fifth and final heat was a wild one with Sammy Swindell displaying his skills and showing why he is named Slammin Sammy. He started inside row 4 and moved up to challenge Wayne Johnson for 2nd quickly making moves all over the track. While battling Johnson, both cars made contact sending Sammy up the track, over the cushion, and almost into the wall. He held on and was more determined than ever. Coming to the white out of turn 4, Sammy made a get the hell out of my way move on Wayne showing him his right rear as he went by. The crowd was buzzing as Sammy was showing the old form that people have seen now for close to 40 years.
The A main was a tremendous race with a race track that was good for passing on the high and low grooves. Mark Dobmeier jumped to the lead with Sammy, Kraig Kinser, and Stevie Smith dicing it up for 4th, 5th, and 6th until a broken U joint in Sammy’s car sent him pit side and out of the event. A yellow flag for a stopped Greg Hodnett bunched the field up for the restart. When the field got underway, quick qualifier Ian Madsen looped the 55 car out of turn two. Danny Lasoski had nowhere to go and slammed into Ian which caused his car to roll over a couple times down the backstretch. Lasoski was finished for the night while Ian changed a right rear and was able to continue.
Jason Meyers had been trailing Dobmeier but not for long. After the next restart, Meyers threw a slider at Dobmeier going into turn one to take the lead. Dobmeier was unable to return the favor and was relegated to 2nd. By this point, the Steel City Outlaw had quietly moved up from his 15th starting position up to 5th place. He was utilizing the low groove and was passing cars at will. Stevie Smith and Mark Dobmeier were racing hard for 2nd place allowing Shaffer to move in. With a few laps to go, Shaffer blew past Dobmeier in turns 3 and 4 and then slid under Smith through 1 and 2. Shaffer was closing in on Meyers for the win but coming to the white, he was held up by the lapped car of Tony Bruce Jr. which sealed the win for Meyers. Shaffer took 2nd with Kraig Kinser coming up to third. Smith was 4th and Lance Dewease passed Dobmeier for the 5th position. Meyers was obviously elated for winning after being on a hiatus from racing most of the year.
After the races were over, we snuck quickly back to the campground to prepare a surprise birthday party for Graham. I know he was already excited to see racing on his birthday but a cake and libations capped the night off. He was very happy and it was fun to celebrate his birthday with him. Some friends from Montana stopped by to add some additional entertainment and a good time was had by all. Unfortunately bedtime called around 2:30 so we put a cork in it and got ready for the Friday festivities.
The new format for Friday had been a big conversation for weeks leading up to the event. Many traditionalists would prefer that the Nationals preserves its current format as they state it is tough enough to make the A main field. Others were in favor of changing the format to have more racing on Friday night and make more drama for the teams and fans. Eventually the new management at the fairgrounds went with an updated format for Friday resulting in ten teams determining whether they would come back on Friday to race for the last 4 spots in the Saturday night A Main or hold their position and race their way to the A from the Sat. night B feature.
Only Danny Lasoski opted to run on Fri. night as the other top 10 cars chose to race from the B on Sat. Time trials were run with in a one lap format that would determine the starting positions for the heats. They had an inversion of 4 but only the top 2 went to the A. This brought on even more spirited racing and some heated moments.
David Gravel was quick time and shot past Justin Henderson and Chad Kemmenah to win the first heat. Sheldon Haudenschild collided with Tasker Phillips spectacularly knocking both out of the race. Cody Darrah and Brad Sweet showed each other no love in the second heat as Darrah cut Sweet off pretty hard going down the front straight. Surprisingly both continued which is good as Sweet would have taken a hell of a ride if he would have gotten upside down. Critter Malone dumped his 7x to cause a yellow which allowed Darrah to give Josh Schneiderman a slide job for the final transfer.
Wayne Johnson won the 2nd heat. The third heat drama featured a blown engine for Steve Kinser who did finish third but would be coming from the B main. The rest of the heats were entertaining with slide jobs and passing for the final 2 transfers.
3 B mains were next with 2 cars coming out of each to complete the field for the A main. In sprint car racing, desperation usually leads to damage which was an immediate result in the 1st B main. Mike Reinke, Lee Sowell, and Austin Johnson flipped hard in 4 with parts flying over the fence. The Goody’s Headache Powder award for the week should have went to Johnson who flipped three times during the week. That is probably the reason the Marty Johnson team does not paint their wings. They went through a few of them unfortunately. Hopefully they will have better luck next year.
Steve Kinser’s engine change was successful and he rode from 3rd starting spot to the lead and the win. Kevin Swindell put his car into the 2nd transfer spot. Chad Kemmenah took a hard fought battle with Cap Henry who started 7th in 2nd for the 2nd B main. Bronson Maeschin took the final B main with 5th starting Aussie champ James McFadden in 2nd. McFadden showed good speed all week in his first outings at the Knoxville raceway. He was impressive and I hope he returns in the future. Fred Rahmer lost a right rear and retired. Fred’s nationals did not go well and the CJB team packed the hauler and went back to PA. Caleb Helms lost control later in this B giving Seth Brahmer nowhere to go and he took his 13v car over.
The field was finally set for the A main which ended up being the best A main of the season. The cars were lined up heads up based on time trials which put David Gravel on pole and Cody Darrah outside of him. Cars were three and four wide immediately with Steve Kinser passing 5 cars down the backstretch from his rearward starting spot. Darrah and Gravel fought hard for the lead the first four laps with Gravel taking control with a lap 5 slide job in 1. Lasoski had moved up to 6th from his 10th starting spot using his customary low groove.
Kerry Madsen and Terry McCarl exchanged slide jobs as the long time competitors were scratching for everything they could get. The yellow waved for a blown engine in the Joey Moughan machine. Simultaneously disaster struck for Lasoski whose engine also gave up and he retired from the event. Lasoski’s risk of racing on Fri. night to get into the A did not pay off and he would be starting on the pole for the C main instead giving him a tall mountain to climb.
The restart would see Gravel and Darrah picking up where they left off with slide jobs traded several times on the ultra racy surface. The race within a race was also heating up as that final transfer for the A main became a battle between Dale Blaney, Danny Holtgraver, Steve Kinser (from 15th) and Kerry Madsen. You needed three sets of eyes too be able to take in all of the racing that was occurring. Justin Henderson had made his way into the third spot and began to pressure Darrah for 2nd which he took over with a rim riding move off of turn 4. Two laps later it was Dale Blaney’s turn to take 3rd from Darrah as he was running the bottom hard off of turn 4.
All eyes moved to the front of the pack at this point as Henderson had reeled in Gravel for the lead and both drivers would stage an epic battle to the finish. At one point they went three wide with the lap car of Jeff Swindell while only using half of the track off of turn two. How they avoided colliding with each other was anyone’s guess. Gravel severely jumped the cushion in 4 giving Henderson a run at him and ultimately the lead. While this was going on The Blaney/Darrah battle was joined by Kerry Madsen. Kerry was able to get around Darrah for the final transfer coming to the white flag. Meanwhile, Gravel made one more run at Henderson on the low side of two but was unable to complete the pass. Henderson took the win with Gravel close behind.
Dale Blaney held the third spot but the passing wasn’t over as Darrah retook the final transfer from Madsen coming to the checkered. Madsen had to settle for the 5 position and unfortunately missed his opportunity to go straight to the A main. The crowd was in a frenzy and heaping praises were given to the new format. No one cared how late the races ran as we were all treated to the best Friday night nationals competition ever.
There was still one race on the docket which is the Speed Sport World Challenge. Two stars had the fans eagerly waiting this one as Kyle Larson was competing with Shane Stewart. Unfortunately Larson got sideways on the third lap in front of Shane taking both of them out of the event. Sammy Swindell had taken off to a sizeable lead and it appeared that he would check out. Donny Schatz was flying up from his 10th starting position and was blowing the competition into the weeds.
A restart with 15 to go allowed Schatz to move up to 2nd place. He stalked Sammy and then put a high side move around him to take the lead with relative ease. Schatz was in another time zone the rest of the race and left the crowd shaking their head as he took the win. A sinking feeling went throughout the crowd after this one, almost surrendering the 1st place trophy for Sat. night to Donny. However, spirits were raised as we convened back at the BHG compound were lemonade was served and we were able to enjoy a great evening with race fans from far and wide. The Friday night format was great and the after race festivities were just as much fun.
Saturday morning came early for some, for others, they wouldn’t see daylight until after lunchtime. Saturday of the nationals is bittersweet. You know that you are going to see the next Knoxville Nationals champion crowned which is great but the bad news is that the nationals will be over in one day and leaving friends you’ve spent so many fun times with will be over. After the fog cleared we proceeded to the midway as I had not had much time to see what was for sale or go to the trade show. The weather was great and it was nice to hang out for the day and eat some vendor food. The day turned to night and we made the half mile walk to the raceway past all the rigs that are parked on the side of the road.
The biggest question marks for the race event where whether or not Steve Kinser, Danny Lasoski, or Sammy Swindell could qualify for the A main. Danny was coming from the pole of the C main where Kinser and Swindell were at least in the B. In D main hot laps, TJ Petersen stuffed his car into the front stretch wall while under idle. Not sure if something was broke on his car but he was the first calamity of the night. After hot laps, presentations were given to the best dressed race team which was given to Randy Hammer’s #24h crew. The Rudeen Racing team won the best appearing car award for their #26 machine that is driven by Sam Hafertepe Jr
Ed Lynch had rough nationals and was in the E main where he finished 2nd to Bill Rose. The D feature was won by Tyler Walker who also had a nationals that wasn’t up to his standards. Even winning the D was difficult as Tyler made contact with Critter Malone while lapping him causing Malone to lose control and go over the berm in turn 1. Logan Schuchart was making his first appearance at Knoxville and finished 2nd. Logan is the grandson of Bobby Allen who won the 1990 Knoxville Nationals, in the greatest Sat. night Nationals racing ever in my opinion.
Casey Mack and Austin McCarl were the final B transfers. The C main had Lasoski and Aussie Jamie Veal on the front row. Rager Phillips blew his engine in hot laps and would not start. Veal took off to the lead with Lasoski behind him. The yellow flag few when debris was on the track setting up a restart with 12 laps left. Veal restarted first but eventually lost the lead to a Lasoski slide job in 2. This started a backwards movement for Veal who subsequently lost positions to Jac Haudenschild, Brad Sweet, and James McFadden. Haudenschild would dog Lasoski for the lead and take that position with 4 laps remaining. Lasoski held on for 2nd with Sweet and McFadden getting the last two transfers to the B.
The last chance to make the A main rolled on the track next and drama would start right after the green was dropped. Dusty Zomer hopped the right rear of Kerry Madsen going into one which sent his XXX chassis into a series of hard flips. A mud clod entered the cockpit sticking his throttle and causing the car to do a half twist upside-down flip when the wreck should have stopped. Zomer was able to kill the engine before more damage was done but it was a scary looking crash to say the least.
The Knoxville safety crew was right on top of him after he stopped and did a great job getting Zomer out of his car. He was able to walk away. The restart had Mark Dobmeier take off in the lead with Davey Heskin in hot pursuit. Behind those two it was a heated battle for 3rd – 6th between Greg Hodnett, Brian Paulus, Sammy, and Jason Sides. Paulus and Sammy exchanged the 4th position a couple times with Paulus being very aggressive and slamming the door on Sammy once during the exchange. Eventually Hodnett would fall off the pace while Jason Sides moved up to 3rd. While this was going on, Steve Kinser was struggling in 10th which is where he would eventually finish. Lasoski was unable to mount a change and finished up the race in 17th.
Sammy was the last of the group with a chance to make the A but his car’s stagger was not to his liking and he wasn’t able to drive the car how he wanted. Paulus was able to reclaim the 3rd spot back from Sides and Sides had his hands full keeping Sammy behind him but at the checkers he was able to do so. Dobmeier checked out for the win with Heskin solidly in 2nd. Paulus was the 3rd position car and Sides was the last to transfer. 1975 was the last year that a Knoxville Nationals A main did not have Steve or Sammy in it. Another remarkable streak that ended was Steve’s 35 year consecutive A main streak that came to an end. Also not transferring to the A were Tim Shaffer, the 50th anniversary Knoxville Nationals champ, Jason Johnson, Kerry Madsen, Brooke Tatnell, Terry McCarl, and Jac Haudenschild. James McFadden came home in 16th place.
The A main is always tension filled and Joey Saldana got two handfuls of that. He didn’t complete one hot lap when his engine let go, requiring a major thrash to get a new bullet installed so he could compete in the A. This pretty much did Joey in as he was not able to challenge and finished out of the top 10.
The cars rolled out on the track and we were unable to have some of the usual pre-race ceremonies with rain being a couple hours away. The fireworks went off and the 4 wide salute had the fans on their feet with hundreds of smart phones being raised to capture the moment. A couple extra laps were run while the smoke from the fireworks cleared and we were finally able to kick off the National Championship event!
At the drop of the green, Stevie Smith took the lead from his pole position with Donny Schatz quickly on the move from his 5th starting spot. Third starter Jonathan Allard was quickly drop kicked back to 5th as Brian Brown, Schatz, and Jason Meyers were quick to get by. Schatz and Dollansky battled for 2nd while Smith had a sizeable lead. Smith’s lead began to shrink as he got into traffic allowing Schatz and Dollansky to close. Schatz tried a slide job but failed, however a low side move in turn 4 netted him the lead with 36 to go. Dollansky was able to take the 2nd position and Smith lost 3rd to a fast moving Brian Brown.
The competition yellow was waved on lap 26 which allowed the cars to be pitted for 5 minutes. The crews swarmed over the cars and it looked like mass chaos while changes were made and refueling was completed. The horn sounded giving the crews one more minute before the push offs were made with the exception of Brian Paulus who exited the race with engine issues. The race resumed with the three leaders in their positions through lap 34. At this point, Yung Money Kyle Larson blew a left rear tire which also broke his left rear shock. Kyle was pushed to the work area where the crew replace the tire and sent him back out with the dysfunctional shock still attached.
At the drop of the green, Dollansky made a slide job attempt but was too far behind to make it work. Compounding the issue was that Dollansky did not get much momentum off of turn 2 which allowed Brian Brown to pass him through 3 and 4 to take the 2nd position. Dollansky was unable to make a run to get back to Brian or Schatz and the race boiled down to the front two cars.
Brown had slowly reeled in Schatz as the pair weaved their way through traffic. The crowd was standing in anticipation of an upset. Brown had issues getting through turn two on the high side two times getting over the cushion and killing his momentum. Schatz was clinging to the lead as the laps ticked off. Cody Darrah temporarily blocked Schatz as he was trying to pass him with a handful of laps to go. Brown however missed the cushion in turn 2 which gave Donny breathing room that he would ultimately need. Coming through 3 and 4 on the last lap, Donny’s car washed up the track while Brown was hammering the cushion on the high side in a last ditch attempt. Donny finally caught some moisture off of 4 and was able to barely hold off the hard charging Brown to take the closest win in Nationals history, a scant .017 seconds. Brown was a close runner up with Dollansky in third.
Schatz has now won 6 of the last 7 Nationals A mains and has a streak of his own going finishing 1st or 2nd for the last 10 years. The crowd voiced their displeasure for Donny as he took the mic. Their reaction was the exact opposite for the ecstatic Brown who had the biggest payday of his career with the 2nd place finish. Rounding out the podium was Craig Dollansky who again was close to the lead but unable to finish at the top of the event. Kraig Kinser and Jason Meyers finished up the top 5. Shane Stewart changed from 13th to 6th but was unable to advance after the red flag stop for fuel. The hard charger was Davey Heskin who finished 10th from his 22nd starting position.
After the races were over, we completed one final walkabout through the pits and headed back to the campground. I was alerted to the fact that the camera crew who is filming the Shane Stewart Knoxville Nationals documentary was coming back to the bus to shoot footage of it. I thought no big deal until they told us they wanted interviews so Seve, Bob, Dan Davis, Jody Connor, and I were put in front of the camera to give a brief history of the BHG (Bus House Gang) and how it relates to Shane and his race team. It was a fun and different way to cap off the nationals but I wished they would have been there earlier in the week when we still had a bit of energy left!
We woke up to grey skies and rain on Sunday morning. I guess that is a fitting way to end the nationals. The Sunday after is still the worst day of the year although it is not so bad now since we get to come home to our family. We bid farewell to Bruce and Graham as they were venturing off to Huset’s Speedway.
The rest of us gathered our things and packed up to go home. We did have a dinner meeting that night with most of our group and our remaining Aussie friends Jason and the Stock family. At that point though the good byes were said for the 2012 nationals and we all headed on our ways. It is always sad to say good bye but hopefully the time between meetings will be short! The nationals for 2012 is finished but we have a lot of good memories from it!
As I finish this up, it appears our race meeting tomorrow night is in jeopardy as we are expecting widespread rain in mass quantities. Unfortunately this may be my last article for a while as our local racing is reduced to stock cars and football is in full swing now which is occupying most of my time. I will look forward to reading the info and looking at photos that Torque Tube posts through the winter here.
HERE ARE A FEW MORE PHOTOS FROM DAN…………………………………………………..
Torque Tube Media would like to thank Dan for his detailed acount and photos of the 2012 Knoxville Nationals – Great Work Dan !!!!!!!