Sprint car champion Donny Schatz never would consider himself a historian, but the accomplishments he’s earned during the past decade have etched his name in the history books as one of short-track racing’s best.
Schatz, the driver of the No. 15 STP/ Armor All/Chevrolet Performance J&J for Tony Stewart Racing (TSR), continues to build his legacy while competing in the World of Outlaws (WoO) STP Sprint Car Series. The WoO, which started in 1978 to organize the most talented sprint car racers, has tested many competitors through the years. Schatz worked tirelessly to reach champion status, earning his stripes as a young rookie and climbing the mountain in a sport dominated by iconic figures. After following four straight championships with a pair of second-place finishes, Schatz, 35, reclaimed the top position in 2012 by picking up his fifth WoO crown. So he again finds himself in the category of “hunted” in his quest to claim a sixth WoO championship, and the fierce competitor is motivated to work as hard as he can to continue setting the pace in his 17th season with “The Greatest Show on Dirt.”
Having the ability to meet challenges head-on has been a true asset for five-time WoO champion Schatz. After capturing a pair of titles driving a sprint car owned by his family, Schatz made a seamless transition to driving for TSR. He has thrived under the spotlight of racing for three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart and continues to prove his thirst for success is far from quenched.
The 2012 campaign, which saw Schatz out-duel Sammy Swindell, Steve Kinser, Joey Saldana and Craig Dollansky to capture his fifth WoO title, included many more memorable nights on dirt tracks across America. His August triumph in the sport’s signature event, The Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals, was his sixth win in the last seven years and fueled a surge to the championship. He closed September with a thrilling victory in the 50th annual Morgan Hughes National Open at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pa. The historic win moved Schatz ahead of sprint car icon Steve Kinser as the only driver to win the prestigious event five times. Those wins were part of his 30-race stretch to end the year that saw him finish outside of the top five only four times. That consistency added more to the legend Schatz continues to build.
Fargo, N.D., resident Schatz knows it wasn’t easy getting to this point in his career. His job is to sit behind the wheel of a 1,250-pound, 800-plus-horsepower, open-wheel winged sprint car close to 80 nights a year and perform at his best every night. He learned the fundamentals of becoming a WoO champion by spending many grueling years chasing sprint car legends Steve Kinser, Swindell and Mark Kinser around dirt tracks all across America. Those lessons not only allowed Schatz to reach the sport’s pinnacle after the 2006 season, but they helped him continue to be a driver to beat at every WoO event.
“I’m really proud to be able to continue to race at the level we do,” Schatz said. “In 2008, we didn’t change our path to the championship. We simply changed the way we got there. When Tony Stewart and Jimmy Carr talked to me a few years ago about driving for TSR, I’m pretty sure the results of those championship seasons are what they had in mind. I know I wanted to keep winning races and, ultimately, championships. Each year, we try to set the bar a little higher. After coming up short in the championship battle, we continued the course and focused on things that would help us be at or near the top of the board every time we got on the track. With a lot of work, we were able to get back on top, and now we’re working to stay here for a long time.”
The journey from being a teenage weekend racer to making sprint car racing history for Schatz has been filled with lots of laps, miles, hours and effort perfecting his craft over the last 18 years.
As the oldest child of Danny and Diane Schatz, Donny was always the go-getter no matter what the game. Whether it was riding next to his dad behind mammoth Belgian draft horses at competitions around country as a 5-year-old, or jumping onto the ice and playing youth hockey like most young kids from the frigid north, Schatz wasn’t afraid to take a chance. His chance at racing began thanks in part to a special gift on his 10th birthday.
Racing is in the Schatz genes. Three generations have steered the wheel of a No. 15 racecar. Danny drove sprint cars in the upper Midwest during the early 1970s, and he supported his son trying his hand at it. Four years of competitive go-kart racing followed that memorable 10th birthday gift before Schatz got the chance of a lifetime as a 14-year-old at River Cities Speedway in Grand Forks, N.D. He was allowed to “hot-lap” a 360 Sprint car and, from that day on, driving a sprint car was all he could think about.
His first race in his family-owned sprint car came in 1993 at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia. For the rest of the summer, the family tried to find tracks that would allow a 15-year-old kid to compete. Once he turned 16, Schatz started racing at weekly events in Fargo, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D., and in events throughout the upper Midwest.
Schatz gained national attention in the summer of 1996 when he qualified for his first Kings Royal and finished an impressive eighth on national television. Later that season, he claimed the WISSOTA National Sprint Car championship.
In January 1997, Schatz began what now has become a 12-year odyssey with the World of Outlaws. He had a spirited duel with Paul McMahan to capture the coveted rookie award at the end of his first season. In August 1998, he joined the exclusive list of WoO winners by scoring his first triumph in Cottage Grove, Ore. Each of the next two seasons, Schatz would score major wins, first in 1999 when he won the prestigious Western World at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix, and in 2000 when he scored his first National Open at Williams Grove.
Double-digit victories in 2001 proved Schatz was up to the challenge of finishing inside the top five of the WoO standings. Adding another major-event triumph to his list of accomplishments – the $100,000-to-win Historical Big One at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio – and his breakthrough victory at the hometown Duel in the Dakotas were the highlights from an inconsistent 2002 campaign.
After posting 13 wins in 2003 and claiming his first Gold Cup Race of Champions in Chico, Calif., and a second National Open win during the 2004 season, Schatz again was positioned to challenge for the WoO title the next season.
Following a difficult beginning to the 2005 season, veteran crew chief Ricky Warner joined the Schatz Motorsports team at the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals, and Schatz finished second in the season’s biggest race. The duo clicked and reeled off seven wins, including a third National Open triumph, to finish the year on a roll looking toward 2006.
After nine seasons on the road with the Outlaws, Schatz finally overcame the greatest challenge of his career by winning his first WoO championship in 2006. He won 17 WoO A-Features, a pair of preliminary features, and his first Knoxville Nationals crown after finishing second four times.
The challenge in 2007 was to back up a championship campaign that some critics claimed only came because of a power struggle within the sport that sent a number of drivers, including 20-time WoO champion Steve Kinser, off to start a rival series.
Schatz loved the challenge of proving 2006 was just the beginning as he dominated the 2007 season, winning the opening-night feature and never looking back. He totaled 19 WoO A-Feature wins and repeated his Knoxville Nationals victory. He became the first driver to win the Knoxville Nationals, Kings Royal, Silver Cup, Summer Nationals and National Open in the same season.
For 15 seasons, Schatz drove a family-owned car for his parents, Danny and Diane. Two championships and 88 victories in World of Outlaws action were just part of their success as a team. The foundation they built continued in 2008 as Schatz again proved the doubters wrong, this time driving for TSR.
“My parents gave me a great opportunity for most of my career, and we really enjoyed this past year,” Schatz said at the time. “It was always a family effort, and even though their roles have changed, it’s been great having them around. We spent a lot of time together on the road last year that maybe we couldn’t in the past. We’re looking forward to that continuing this year and beyond.”
History shows that each WoO championship has provided Schatz a new challenge. After successfully making the transition to TSR in 2008, Schatz followed his season-ending World Finals victory in November 2008 with a thrilling last-to-first run in the 2009 season-opening race in February. The win was his first of four triumphs during the first six nights of competition and, after another victory in Las Vegas to close February, it was clear the champion wasn’t going to be satisfied with three titles.
Success also came in 2009 at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway and Eldora, the sport’s signature dirt tracks. On consecutive weekends in May, Schatz won WoO features at Knoxville and Eldora to regain the Outlaws championship standings lead after briefly dropping to third. Those wins provided a bit of foreshadowing for the competition. In July, Schatz captured his second career $50,000-to-win Kings Royal at Eldora and one month later drove a Mario Andretti/STP-themed No. 15 to victory at the Knoxville Nationals.
His performance on the track resulted in championship seasons and earned Schatz special recognition, including five times being named a First team All-American by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association. He earned the 2007 Economaki Champion of Champions Award, and the National Sprint Car Poll voted Schatz its “Driver of the Year” following each of his five WoO championship seasons.
Since 1999, Schatz has spent time during the winter months in the U.S. racing sprint cars in Australia. His success “Down Under” has been remarkable as he’s won a number of major events both in the World Series Sprintcar tour and major events at Sydney Speedway, Supercheap Auto Archerfield Speedway in Brisbane and at Premier Speedway in Warrnambool. As a result, he’s created quite a following in Australia.
Schatz and his wife, Erica, reside in Fargo, N.D., with their daughter, Savanna. Schatz is a licensed pilot and spends a great deal of time working with his parents in their family truck stop businesses in Fargo and Minot. He is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys hunting and snowmobiling.