I assume when most people get time off at this time of the year, they plan their trips to be around the Battlefords or elsewhere around Saskatchewan and other Western provinces.
As you can probably guess, my plans aren’t like most people.
Nearly two weeks ago, I drove out from North Battleford at four in the morning and set out on an 18-hour drive back to my old stomping grounds of Fort Frances, Ont., which is where I got my start in sports reporting from 2011 to 2013.
After a great couple of days on my first trip to the Fort in nearly four years, I spent 16 more hours in a car driving around Lake Superior to return home to Sault Ste. Marie.
I spent a couple of days there before heading down south with my parents and my younger brother to Greenville, Ohio, where we based camp for four days as we had the chance to attend the Kings Royal World of Outlaws sprint car event at the Eldora Speedway in nearby New Weston.
Now I’m sure most of you reading this have no idea what I was talking about in that last sentence, so let me explain a little bit.
I’m sure I mentioned this in my first column in the News Optimist about a year ago now, but I’ve been a diehard auto racing fan since I was two years old, though my parents claim I watched the Daytona 500 back in 1990 a couple of weeks before my second birthday.
Over the last few years though, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the direction that NASCAR has been going with a horrific format to determine their champion and numerous other problems the sanctioning body has yet to tackle. In fact, if it wasn’t for the rapid rise this season of the uber-talented young star Kyle Larson, I probably would have tuned out for good.
As my interest there waned, my passion for sprint car racing has picked up rapidly. For those that haven’t seen a sprint car, they are lightweight open wheel racecars that weigh around 1,400 pounds and generate over 900 horsepower when the drivers put their foot on the gas. With giant wings on top of the car to generate downforce, it’s not uncommon for laps around 130 miles per hour as they fly around dirt tracks.
The World of Outlaws is the biggest series for sprint cars and sees the best drivers in the country racing on a regular basis. The schedule is daunting as they race over 90 nights a year and criss-cross the United States from February to November. There are no easy nights and every feature race is an all-out war that ranges anywhere from 25 to 50 laps, but it you can win a feature event you’ve made it as a driver.
One of those big races that everyone wants to have on their resume is the Kings Royal. It’s a 40-lap event that concludes three days of racing and sees $50,000 go to the winner. The track that they compete on at Eldora is one of the most intimidating on the circuit, as well, as it’s a half-mile track with 24 degrees of banking around the turns and little room for error.
From a fan’s perspective, being around the facilities is staggering as Eldora really has something for everyone. The track, which is owned by former NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, has super cheap concession stand prices, room for over 20,000 fans and features a number of events throughout the weekend for fans to meet their favourite drivers.
I should note that the track is located pretty much in the middle of nowhere. New Weston, to which the track is closest, has just 136 people living in it and the community of Rossburg, just south of the track, is home to 200 people. It’s pretty amazing to see a place so small increase in size so dramatically.
The first night of racing took place Thursday with the Jokers Wild event, which ended up becoming a marathon event. A fairly heavy rain shower came through the speedway about a half hour before practice was to begin, which delayed the action until about 10 p.m.
The night of racing didn’t end until 1:30 a.m., but the track was lightning fast and made for a good start to the weekend. Australian Kerry Madsen ended up dominating the race, but he had to get stiches in his right hand after the 30-lap feature as he suffered a major cut to his right hand near the end of the race.
Friday was a pretty eventful day before the racing got underway. I got the chance to meet one of my favourite drivers, Rico Abreu, who is just 4’4” tall but doesn’t let that stand in his way as he’s become one of the few racers that drives all out in whatever car he gets to and can win from anywhere in the field. I’ve wanted to see him race in person for a number of years and it was worth the wait.
At the same time, my younger brother Brett had the chance to meet his favourite driver, eight-time World of Outlaws champion Donny Schatz. In my opinion, Schatz is the best racer in the world at the moment. He’s pretty much dominated sprint car racing for the last decade and is nearing the 250-win mark in his career.
Schatz had a chance to win Friday’s Knight Before the Kings Royal race, but he ended up being beat by his teammate Christopher Bell in a dandy of a feature event. Bell, who runs a sprint car when he has an off weekend from his regular duties as a competitor in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, was dominant running the high side of the track just inches from the wall and was able to hold off Schatz in a great battle in the final laps that brought the fans to their feet.
By the time Saturday’s main event rolled around to determine the Kings Royal champion, the atmosphere was at a fever pitch. The heat races that helped set the starting lineup were outstanding and there were a number of drivers that had a legit chance to win the event.
Then Donny Schatz did his thing. He took the lead about 12 laps into the race and then over half a track ahead of the rest of the field when he took the checkered flag, which made him a four-time winner of the Kings Royal and the first driver in the 34-year history of the event to win the race in consecutive years.
The real star of the race though was Bell, who turned in one of the most impressive drives I’ve ever seen live. After blowing his motor during a heat race and having to start the feature in 20th spot, Bell was on the ragged edge of control as he flew around the high side of the speedway to eventually take the second spot with a couple of laps to go, all without the aid of a caution flag that would have brought him closer to the track. It was a performance worthy of a standing ovation, which many fans gave him after the race.
All in all, as I type this from my parents’ house back home in Sault Ste. Marie, this was a memorable weekend that I’ll remember for a long time to come.
If you are a racing fan of any kind, you need to get to Eldora for the Kings Royal, as the atmosphere and competition is second to none.