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BUFFENBARGER: The Morning After

The morning after Donny Schatz captured his 11th Knoxville Nationals title there was a flood of congratulatory tweets to Schatz and his Tony Stewart Racing team.

The most noteworthy of those notes posted online might have been from Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Farley.

Having the CEO of a Fortune 500 global company mention the biggest sprint car event in the world is huge. That message along with Schatz’s victory was another milestone in a journey that started in 2016 when the announcement was made that Stewart/Haas Racing would switch to Ford engines.

Along with that change, many of Tony Stewart’s various business interests also made the transition, including Tony Stewart Racing.

Ford has had moments of success in sprint car racing that include a Kings Royal victory and World of Outlaws title in 1989 with Bobby Davis Jr., World of Outlaws victories and a Kings Royal win in 1995 with Dave Blaney, some success with Jeff Swindell in various capacities and success with the American Sprint Car Series with 360 cubic-inch engines.

Sustained success beyond that from a Ford engine at the World of Outlaws level, though, had not been achieved in a considerable
amount of time.

From that announcement and countless hours of work behind the scenes the first Tony Stewart Racing winged sprint car with a Ford engine pushed off in competition Aug. 16, 2019, at Michigan’s I-96 Speedway.

Various engineers and executives from Ford were in plain clothes around the facility anxiously watching what would take place. Two weeks later, things seemed to be gaining momentum when Stewart won with the Interstate Racing Ass’n at the Plymouth (Wis.) Dirt Track. Schatz picked up a World of Outlaws victory with the engine in October of 2019, the first time a Ford sat in a victory lane with the series since 1998.

While things appeared to be on a good trajectory during the early stages of development of the Ford sprint car engine, there was still a lot of work to be done.

When the COVID-19 pandemic came along in 2020, things got more difficult. Supply-chain issues that impacted everyone were also having effects on the development of parts for the engines, suppliers had to be changed, and there was the task of trying to do engine development during a shutdown.

Fourteen victories for the Ford engine in 2019 turned into five wins the following year and five again in 2021.

Throw in personnel changes within Tony Stewart Racing, Schatz’s father Danny fighting cancer and passing in June of this year, added to the challenges. All of this while approaching the age of 45, some wondered if Schatz would ever win again at the Nationals.

Leading into the Nationals, there were signs that Schatz might be a serious contender. Charging to second from seventh starting position at the Kings Royal, Schatz admitted post-race that his team had hit on something. A a victory at Weedsport (N.Y.) Speedway two weeks later and a second-place finish at the Capitani Classic at Knoxville Raceway, had many believing Schatz was saving his best for the biggest race of the season.

Maybe it was all the small gains over the past year coming together that week, it could have been motivation from being at his first Nationals since his father’s passing, or it more likely was a combination of all those things gave all of us another look at Schatz racing in dominant fashion.

Even when the race looked in doubt for Schatz with his engine smoking, dropping back through the first half of the race, the final 25 laps saw Schatz drive with surgical precision all over the Knoxville Raceway, in particular driving through the middle of the track as we have seen so many times before, to take the lead with four laps to go.

The celebration was emotional as we all got to witness all those personal and professional frustrations led to a moment of greatness for a man that will be looked upon as one of the greatest drivers in history.

After the race, Schatz was different. Often in these winning moments, Schatz has been happy to win but already focused on the next task in front of him. Giving off almost a closed, guarded aura as if he was still strapped in the car with a helmet on. This time, Schatz was more vulnerable, thoughtful and reflective on his journey to that moment.

Also sitting in that victory lane was an engine with valve covers dawning the Ford emblem in the Nationals victory lane on Saturday night for the first time in a modern-day sprint car.

It was a scene that many naysayers thought we would never see happen. Thankfully, for all of us that appreciate the great in sprint car racing and the people that produce them we got to see Schatz, TSR and Ford have at least one more at the Sprint Car Capital of the World.End Bug

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