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A Champion Speaks: Donny Schatz discusses what keeps him hungry to win, Ted Johnson, the G.O.A.T debate, and more

Brent Smith Photography

CONCORD, N.C.: Just when you think Donny Schatz can’t be any more impressive as a Sprint Car driver, he does something else to make you go, “Wow.”

Schatz did it again in 2018. For the sixth straight year, he reached the 20-win plateau, and he just polished off his fifth straight World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car championship and 10th overall.

The World of Outlaws honored Schatz again on Sunday night at the series’ year-end banquet. The North Dakota driver was emotional in his speech, and afterward, he participated in a question and answer session with SprintCarUnlimited.com.

You had 20 wins for the sixth straight years, a fifth straight World of Outlaws title, and your 10th championships overall. Has all of this sunk in yet?

DS: I don’t think it will until you step away, and you probably have some bragging rights at that point. While you’re in the midst of things trying to stay on top, you don’t think of those things. You don’t think about the numbers. You are trying to reach other levels, and it doesn’t resonate. Maybe there is something wrong with me, but it’s who I am, I guess.

Your statistics are beyond impressive, and there have been comparisons to the greats like Steve Kinser, Doug Wolfgang, and Sammy Swindell. The sport is different now, but there is so much parity. Do you look at that stuff or compare yourself to those legends?

DS: I don’t, not at all. It’s flattering to hear people say it, but I’m not the greatest of all time. Maybe people who say that haven’t gotten to experience the days when Steve Kinser was around or Doug Wolfgang was around in their prime. It’s a different day, but I look at it as the younger guys that you see now don’t get to race against those guys. Those guys helped me become what I am today … Just racing against them and getting beat by them day in and day out. Hopefully, you get to do some similar things, like how they helped me get to this level and raise the bar high. I hope I can do that for the younger guys and the next generation coming in, but I don’t think you can compare me to those guys, at least not in my eyes. Those guys are still my heroes, and I don’t know how you can live up to your heroes.

You’ve accomplished so much in this sport and are the guy everyone is chasing. Do you ever pick apart yourself as a driver and look to improve on what you are already doing?

DS: I pick apart a lot of things I do. I know there are nights I win races that I don’t have the best car. There are nights we win races where I make too many mistakes. A lot of things happen, and you’ve got to learn from your mistakes, and you have to be realistic how you analyze things at the end of the night. As you heard Ricky [Warner] say, we get in some heated battles on what we are looking for. He doesn’t want to get too tight, I want it tight, and that’s just two competitive people trying to get to the same result. You have to pick apart what the other was doing to see what feels correct. They [the team] aren’t shy about letting me know when I need to do something different, and I let them know likewise. It’s part of trying to get where you want to.

Do you and Ricky, the team, push each other a lot?

DS: Oh, we do more than push each other a lot, we push each other hard. And sometimes, we push each over the edge. But don’t kid yourself, there are times everyone needs that. Everyone needs to be pushed, everyone needs to be put in their place from time to time, including me. I don’t do everything perfect by no means. There are times I need to change what it is I do in the mode of racing I’m in, and there are times you need to be more aggressive with the setup. That’s all part of the game.

I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a driver who references Ted Johnson as much as you do. It seems like you have a strong affection for him and what he meant to the sport. What did he mean to you?

DS: People don’t understand. Going back to Ted, he was the guy who would come and pick me up on the golf cart to go have a talk. He would take me back in the woods at Lernerville and say, ‘You know, you have a string of top 10s, you are doing so good, then got this girlfriend and now you can’t sniff the top 10.’ He was that guy. He wanted you to excel. He wanted you to be one of his best guys. He knew how to push you. He had faith in you. He did those sorts of things and had a personal interaction with you, whether you liked him or didn’t like him. I felt it was like having a father figure around. It was like having someone around you looked up to more than your father, because no one listens to their dad when they are young. He was that guy. I got to know him well. I got to know him through some of the bad times in the sport, like when the split happened. He knew I was one who supported the Outlaw brand and had been around for 10 years and wanted to be a part of that. I didn’t want to waste 10 years of my life and go a different direction. I wanted to be a World of Outlaw winner and a World of Outlaws champion and do all of those things. I just feel like he had passion for the sport at the right time. Most guys never see that. At the end, we had a lot of phone conversations. One of the things that stuck out about him had nothing to do with me, it had to do with Steve Kinser. When they had the split, I remember Ted calling and saying, ‘It’s over, Kinser is back.’ Ted had so much pride and so much faith in Steve Kinser to help build his brand. Steve, finally, came back, and it was like Ted is Okay, ‘my life is fulfilled, we got to the King back, and I can go on now.’ That is damn near what happened. That just says how he believed in his racers, and he put so much faith in them, and he took up for them. You don’t see that today. It’s just a different time, it’s every man for his own. He wanted to have a direction, he wanted his guys to have direction, and he helped them with that. So, I got to see that sort of stuff most people didn’t. I got to see it, Steve got to see it … it’s very humbling. I miss him. We are still here 40 years later honoring his ideas and his legacy. Hopefully, he is proud of what we have done.

It’s so hard for teams in individuals, regardless of the sport to stay on top and to stay hungry to do what it takes to stay on top. With everything you have accomplished, how do you stay hungry to win?

DS: It’s about not getting caught up in the 10 championships and 10 Knoxville Nationals. It’s not thinking about those things. If that’s what you do, it’s like you are doing it for the wrong reasons. I love racing. Since I was a kid, this is all I’ve wanted to do. So, here I am. I’ve got a great opportunity, I got the best opportunity in the world to race with these guys day in and day out. My focus and my view on it hasn’t changed. I still look at it the same today after doing those things as I did before I ever won a race. You remember those moments when you just wish you can win a race and you know how hard it is. Same with the championship, you know how hard it is, and you’ve got to push yourself, and you’ve got to be humble. I’ve always been that way. I’ve never been one to be a bragger or anything, and that’s what I think keeps me in check with it.

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