AULD: The Year Without A Nationals

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Doug Auld
Doug Auld

For the first year since 1961, there will be no NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals presented by Casey’s General Stores at Knoxville Raceway in 2020.

The Knoxville Nationals was just one of many events canceled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with the announcement released just one day after the cancellation of the 2020 Kings Royal by Eldora Speedway.

This year was to have been the 60th running of the Nationals. Instead, that milestone will take place Aug. 11-14, 2021.

The Nationals was the brainchild of promoter Marion Robinson. Originally a supermodified event, the first annual Super-Modified National Championship saw Roy Robbins take the checkers and collect $1,000 for his efforts. The total purse amounted to just over $5,000.

While the inaugural running was a success, it was not without a measure of controversy. Robbins drove to victory with a wing against a wingless field. While legal, it was an obvious advantage, and the track banned the use of wings at the conclusion of the season.

Robinson had taken over as promoter in 1956, and immediately began transitioning the track’s program from stock cars to a form of modified, then to supermodifieds, and by 1968 to sprint cars.

Believing that a special event would boost attendance and notoriety, the Nationals was created as a two-day event, with qualifying on Friday and racing on Saturday.

Jerry Richert Sr. won the second running. Greg Weld took the next win, before brother Kenny took victories the following two years (1964 & ‘65), then again in 1972, and in 1973 (with a wing, as they were made legal for ‘73 to try to help attract more eastern teams before being outlawed for a second time at end of the season).

By the time Robinson stepped down in May of 1974 and P. Ray Grimes took over as promoter, the Nationals had grown to a three-day event, and Grimes added a fourth.

P. Ray’s tenure lasted just four years, as he was sidelined by a snowmobiling accident.

Enter Ralph Capitani. “Cappy,” as he was referred to by almost everyone, had moved to Knoxville in the ‘60s to coach the high school’s football team, and had served in the position of Secretary on the Marion County Fair Association board since 1967.

Tabbed to replace Grimes, he became the Director of Racing for the 1978 season.

That year, a relatively unknown Ted Johnson was launching a new concept: the World of Outlaws. Sanctioning every race that paid $2,000 or more to win, Johnson hoped to unify the “outlaw” sprint car drivers, and increase purses and visibility of events.

Cappy was onboard, and for 1978 the Knoxville Nationals became World of Outlaws-sanctioned. Driven by Cappy, the Nationals grew to new heights, as did the Knoxville Raceway facilities (literally).

Car counts and fan attendance were already high for the Nationals (126 drivers qualified in Cappy’s first year), but Ralph’s vision for Knoxville Raceway to truly be “the sprint car capital of the world” included growing the Nationals to become sprint car racing’s Indy 500.

Cappy pushed to keep increasing the Nationals purse, and in 1982 wings returned (this time with the intention of making cars safer).

By the 25th running, in 1985, the winner was collecting a $25,000 check. The Nashville Network began airing the event in 1987 on tape-delay, and went live for the first time in 1995, the 35th running, with a record 167 cars in the pits.

By the early ‘90s, the winner earned $50,000 with a total purse of over $300,000. In 1993, $100,000 was paid to the winner, with a total purse of half-a-million dollars. And by the time Cappy retired in 2011, the Nationals winner was cashing a $150,000 check.

Marshalltown Speedway Promoter Toby Kruse became General Manager and Promoter for 2012, while John McCoy officially took over the Race Director duties.

Kruse resigned toward the end of the season, and Marketing Director Brian Stickel was promoted to General Manager. Stickel stepped down following the conclusion of the 2015 season, and management and consulting company Spire Sports & Entertainment was signed on to manage revenue, sales, marketing and public relations.

Spire’s Kendra Jacobs (whose National Sprint Car Hall of Fame father Kenny Jacobs landed on the Nationals podium twice, in 1991 & ‘03) became Marketing Manager at that point.

Meanwhile, Cappy remained a regular attendee and unofficial ambassador of the track until losing a battle with cancer in February of 2017.

Today, the Knoxville Nationals is simply the world’s biggest event in sprint car racing.

The storylines are legendary: Bobby Allen’s underdog win in 1990, the same year that Doug Wolfgang ran the alphabet and charged from the D-Main to a top-five finish in the A.

There were the multiple wins by Doug Wolfgang and Steve Kinser before “The King” went on to dominate, accumulating 12 victories and prompting some fans hoping to see a new winner to don shirts, and even a plane flying overhead with a banner, calling for “Anybody but Kinser.”

There have been the multiple disappointments of Sammy Swindell, who has only been able to top the Nationals once, in 1983, despite being poised to take the checkers on multiple occasions.

After four runner-up finishes, young Donny Schatz picked up the domination reigns from Kinser and began accumulating 10 wins, with his first in 1996. There was the 50th anniversary upset when Tim Shaffer topped Schatz in 2010, and the late Jason Johnson’s upset over Schatz in 2016.

The last two winners, Brad Sweet and David Gravel, were undoubtedly chomping at the bit to try to top the 60th running.

But, alas, that will have to wait until next year.

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