Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Dirty: 2021 Knoxville Nationals

The Headline(s)

Kyle Larson won the 2021 Knoxville Nationals, cementing his status as America’s hottest racecar driver and joining elite company in dirt racing history.

How it Happened

“Hot Sauce’ Giovanni Scelzi, coming off a 360 Nationals win a week ago and one of the youngest polesitters in Nationals history, proved adept at the front of the field, leading the opening 10 laps with both veterans Kyle Larson and Donny Schatz nipping at his heels. Scelzi’s block exiting turn 2 on lap 8 completely stymied Larson, and come lap 11 it was Schatz that finally managed to get underneath Scelzi for the race lead.

Larson finally cleared Scelzi for second on lap 14, and for the next 10-plus laps it was two of the best in the business going at it. Larson finally got the momentum he needed on lap 25, using the high side on turn 2 exit to clear Schatz for the race lead. Schatz wasted no time returning the favor, taking a nearly identical line on lap 26, only for the yellow for the “break” in the feature to fly inches before he completed the pass.

Once the equivalent of the competition caution had completely sucked the momentum out of the feature (more on that later), the competition sputtered with several incidents. Lap 28 saw Rico Abreu, who qualified for the A-main after winning Friday night’s “Hard Knox” feature, spin across the frontstretch. Two laps later, the only red flag of the feature flew for an ugly wreck that saw Brian Brown trigger a melee that collected contenders Tyler Courtney and Cory Eliason.

Following the lap 30 restart, the race went incident-free sans defending Nationals champion David Gravel blowing an engine on lap 32 (the race stayed green as Gravel quickly got his crippled machine onto the berm and off the racing surface). Larson ran away with much of the second half of the event, though Schatz made it interesting, closing a three-second gap in the final five laps. Schatz appeared to have enough momentum to pass Larson exiting turn 4 on lap 48, but got too high sliding through the corner and lost too much momentum for his final-lap hail mary to have any prayer of working.

The win was the first in sprint car racing’s crown jewel event for Larson, who in scoring the win became just the third driver in history to have won the Chili Bowl Nationals, King’s Royal and Knoxville Nationals, alongside Sammy Swindell and Dave Blaney.

The preliminary features on Wednesday and Thursday nights were memorable for entirely different reasons. Wednesday night proved to be the Battle of Huset’s Speedway, with Gravel and his Huset’s-sponsored No. 2 able to run down current Huset’s points leader Justin Henderson inside of five laps to go. Thursday’s feature proved a reverse of Monday’s Front Row Challenge, this time with Knoxville regular Brown able to keep hard charger Larson at bay (Larson stormed from outside the top 20 to the runner-up spot in 25 laps).

Having said that, Larson’s charge was in part aided by the sprint car equivalent of the Big One, which mangled the field on lap 2 of Thursday’s feature.

Success Stories

I’m not ready to call Larson the GOAT yet, as AJ Foyt is a hell of a name to have to topple. Having said that, there’s no disputing that Larson is head and shoulders above any driver NASCAR or dirt racing has to offer at this point in 2021. The stats speak for themselves.

The younger of sprint car racing’s Scelzis finished fourth after starting on the pole of Saturday’s A-main. To do that despite being under pressure from Larson and drivers in Schatz and Brad Sweet who have 12 World of Outlaws titles between them was an accomplishment. Scelzi fell short of becoming the first driver to sweep the 360 Nationals and 410 Nationals in consecutive weeks, but his career prospects will certainly benefit from this showing.

Speaking of Schatz, it’s a damn shame he got out of shape on lap 48 and couldn’t finish his charge on Larson for the race win. Larson ran away from the field with clean air in front of him… it’d have been a better show to see whether he’d have been able to go tit-for-tat up front if necessary.

It’s hard to choose which of the Haudenschilds provided the more memorable moment Saturday night in Knoxville. Longtime veteran Jac Haudenschild earned a much-deserved salute from the crowd after failing to transfer from the B-main in his final Knoxville Nationals start.

But in that same B-main, Jac’s son Sheldon Haudenschild pulled off a stunning piece of driving, transferring into the A-main in a literal photo finish over Spencer Bayston.

Vexed, Villains & Victims

It’s hard to feel bad for Gravel given that he won both the Capitani Classic and a prelim feature this week, but blowing an engine while running top five is a hard way to lose out on a title defense.

Sadly, all the momentum Kokomo, Ind.’s Parker Price-Miller garnered in his early-week start driving the No. 83 at Southern Iowa went out the window Thursday, when a violent crash in turn 1 during his heat race left PPM looking dazed as he made his way to the ambulance. 

PPM and team withdrew from the remainder of the week’s competition after the wreck.

WoO regular Jacob Allen has had a miserable 2021 season, and his Knoxville run proved very much the same. Cutting a tire with two laps to go while leading Friday’s last chance qualifier, Allen was forced to start Saturday from the E-main. He transferred to the D, but never came close to threatening to advance further in the same event that his father Bobby Allen won 31 years ago.

Fellow WoO regular Wayne Johnson had even harsher luck, blowing a tire with four laps to while leading the C-main on Saturday. 

Fanning the Flames

Call it open red, call it a break, call it a competition caution. Throwing the yellow flag to interrupt a 26-lap green-flag run that had already seen three race leaders and had Schatz in position to take the lead back from Larson was the equivalent of a NASCAR stage break. Ridiculous. If the cars/tires/track surface can’t handle a 50-lap feature, dial the length back. Competition cautions and “pit stops” should have no place in dirt racing. And had the Nationals feature been the first 25 laps run, there isn’t a fan in the stands that would have left unsatisfied.

I touched on this last week given the absurdity of the USA Nationals being singled out as a PPV-only race, even for those of us that have a yearly DirtVision subscription. It does a massive disservice to both the WoO and dirt racing at large to have the Knoxville Nationals, the literal Daytona 500 of sprint car racing, behind a paywall that requires either a $300 lump payment on an annual subscription or over $100 in PPV charges. 

Given the overhead that DirtVision continues to require (that “virtual” media center they’ve created is a totally unnecessary extravagance), I get the outlet not wanting to have a flood of viewers spend $39 for the month of August only to peace out as soon as Knoxville is done. But there does need to be a means for those that can’t afford to put down $300 at once to pay monthly for an annual subscription. There’s no reason that DirtVision can’t come up with a payment contract of sorts that locks viewers into the stable annual subscriptions they want while providing a payment plan for said fans.

In the interest of fairness to DirtVision, while I still can’t stand the site redesign, THANK YOU for making replays available the morning after features. That is a HUGE improvement that makes the annual subscription go way up in value. THANK YOU!

So I’m torn on this one. On the one hand, it reeks of rigid corporate victory lane choreography that Rico Abreu was told not to wear his Rowdy Energy hat in victory lane after winning the Hard Knox feature on Friday night.

On the other hand, the WoO did not set out to make an example of Abreu or change something specifically because he was sponsored by a rival energy drink company… drivers all season long have been provided a NOS-sponsored hat to wear in victory lane. If a driver sponsored by American Racer tires won an event, they’d still end up having a Hoosier neck band draped over them. Given just how much NOS as a brand puts into dirt racing between its title sponsorships and the number of racecars it puts decals on, I’m not ready to scream hardship when there was no effort made to hide the Rowdy decals on Abreu’s car. Besides, how does the primary sponsor of a team like that only have a contingency decal on their driver’s firesuit?

Having said that, the “break” in Saturday’s feature sure could have had Rowdy Energy fans donning tinfoil hats. In the first four laps after the break in the feature, Abreu spun out and Brian Brown’s car was destroyed in a crash. Did NOS Energy Drink format the Knoxville Nationals to ensure a Rowdy Energy-sponsored ride wouldn’t win? 

Anyone else disappointed that Kasey Kahne got the No. 83 ride? Kahne’s as experienced a sprint car driver as they come, but he was never going to be a Cinderella story that turned Knoxville into a career-changer. Would have liked to see Roth Motorsports take a chance instead.

Brian Brown just said what every dirt race fan in America already knows. Besides, who gives a flip about the Indy road course, whose most distinctive history is putting on arguably the worst Grand Prix in the history of F1 racing?

I’ll come out and say it, I’m not a fan at all of how the Knoxville format essentially inverts its heat races after qualifying is complete. Given that qualifying with a field this large, even with two cars on track at once, meant that heat races didn’t even start until over two hours into the program, why not just do a random draw for heat races if the results are going to get chucked out anyhow? I know it’s comparing sprint cars to late models, but the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series doesn’t play any tricks with heat race lineups and their product has not suffered for it.

This one sadly hits close to the racing community at home. Earlier this week we lost longtime super late model competitor DJ Troutman (and father of rising modified prospect Drake Troutman) to COVID-19 pneumonia. The elder Troutman was a fixture in our local area, and I was fortunate enough to see him turn laps at the Greater Cumberland Raceway in my time. Sending condolences to the entire Troutman family for their loss.

Numbers Game

0.008 – margin in seconds that Haudenschild transferred into the A-main over Bayston.

9 – tear-offs Larson claimed to have gone through in the first lap of his heat race Thursday.

98 – total car count for the 2021 Knoxville Nationals.

$1,000 – per lap pay to lead the Knoxville Nationals A-main.

$176,000 – winner’s purse for Larson favoring in per-lap winnings.

Where it Rated (on a scale of one to six cans with one a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): The first half of Saturday’s feature scored a perfect six-pack. By comparison, the second half was the equivalent of eating beer-soaked dirt from under the bleachers. Had Schatz not done Schatz things in the final five laps, I may well have been asleep when Larson took the checkers. Scheduled breaks have NO place in racing. Period.

Up Next: With the sprint car world taking a breather, there will be still be races every night of the coming midweek, highlighted by Tuesday night’s Demon 100 Super DIRTcar Series race at the Brewerton Speedway in New York. Coverage will be available on DirtVision.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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If your a race fan of any type this is a bucket list event,

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