Fans race (and try to wreck) Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson

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KNOXVILLE, Iowa — How many NASCAR fans have said to themselves or friends, “Man, if I only had the chance, I’d love to bang fenders with my favorite driver?”

Or, “Man, I’d love to take (fill in driver’s name) out in a race.”

Well, on Wednesday at Slideways Karting Center in Knoxville, Iowa, nearly 60 lucky fans had the chance to do one of the rarest things in pro sports: to race with their heroes, four of the biggest names in NASCAR.

Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson took on the lucky fans in the second annual Kick-It/Weld Racing Go-Kart Spectacular to benefit pediatric cancer.

“This is really going to change the lives for children out there with pediatric cancer, so thank you, thank you, thank you,” Gordon told the crowd of about 2,500 fans that turned out to watch. “When I looked at the parking lot today and saw the line of cars down the road, I knew it was going to be a good day.

“I don’t know of anywhere in the world where you’re going to go to a go-kart track and see Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and myself together – or have as much fun.”

Each of the nearly 60 fans that raced paid at least $300 for the chance to do some rubbin’ and racin’ on the slippery oval, a track that was made even more slick with periodic rain sprinkles throughout the afternoon.

“We’re all passionate about this week, this event and we’re all passionate about Jeff’s efforts,” Stewart said. “We do it because of Jeff and because of the kids that he supports. That’s what racers do. It’s not about being a stock car driver. That’s the breed of drivers we are and the background we come from.”

There even was a special guest in the house, Gordon’s former crew chief and NASCAR team owner and broadcaster, Ray Evernham.

Evernham and the four drivers were all in town for the Daytona 500 of the sprint car world, the Knoxville Nationals, which began later Wednesday evening.

Before one of the heats, Evernham looked like he was trying to improve Gordon’s go-kart, prompting Tony Stewart to quip with a laugh, “No fair, no working on the car. You’re cheating just like you used to.”

“It’s great to see Jeff, Tony, Kasey and Kyle supporting what they’ve got going on out here,” Evernham said. “To me, (sprint car) is really grassroots racing. It’s where a lot of us grew up and it’s really neat to see a lot of people doing it and all the support that they have.”

When I asked Evernham why he wasn’t in the go-kart race, he replied with a laugh, “My problem is I’ve always been a much better mechanic than driver.”

The event raised nearly $25,000 for charity, including Jeff Gordon’s Children’s Foundation.

“Oh my gosh, it was so much fun,” Gordon said. “This place is so much fun to go out there in (simulated) sprint cars and slide ’em around. A little bit of sprinkle making for a lot of fun conditions. And there’s some guys out there with some real skills. We all have big smiles on our face, having a lot of fun.”

“Those of us with Kick-It, for kids cancer, this is a real treat for us to be able to come here, be a part of this event, raise money for a great cause – pediatric cancer – have a go-kart event like this and to have the fans come out and support the way they did this year is amazing. It’s a huge crowd. When you get this kind of a driver lineup out here in Knoxville, the fans are going to come. I hope they enjoyed it, because we certainly did.”

Added Kahne, “It’s neat to see, all the money goes to a great cause, and we get to race a lot of people that are out here having fun like we are. It’s a cool, cool event.”

There were eight heat races leading up to the main event. The winners of each heat advanced to race all four pro drivers, who understood and took it good-naturedly that some of their fellow drivers were looking for bragging rights that they spun out a NASCAR star.

“It’s fun racing with the fans because this is like the biggest thing they’ve ever done, racing with us,” Larson said. “They take it really serious, you can see it on their faces. It makes it fun for us to see how focused they are. And when we beat them, they grip the steering wheel even harder.

“You can see it happen, too. You see them like focus on your rear bumper and just turn toward you. We understand it, though, and it’s funny.”

Not surprisingly, much like the way Sprint Cup drivers typically dominate when they race in the Nationwide Series, the Cup drivers were the stars in Wednesday’s main event.

Gordon won the race, Kahne was a close second, and Anthony Corini, a 20-year-old college student from Rockville, Md., was the top-finishing fan, taking home a trophy and the experience of a lifetime.

“That was pretty fun,” Corini said. “The rain made it real interesting. It was a lot of fun. I’ll never forget it. It was a great moment. There was a lot of money raised for a good cause.

“I did it last year, but I ran around the back in the main. I made it, but I didn’t do as well as I did this year. I finished behind Jeff and Kasey, but not too bad of company, I guess. I think I was flying under the radar.”

Stewart and Larson finished further back in the 12-driver pack.

“I think (sprint car driver) Brad Doty put it best when he said, ‘Think about what this means to people and being able to do this,'” Stewart said. “But at the same time, think about how much it means to us to be able to do it. It’s fun for us. Nobody’s out there trying to wreck you and put you in the wall. Everybody’s racing and having fun. It makes stuff like this a lot of fun.

“Look at everybody that’s out here, and in the rain, no less. That’s the kind of fans you see at sprint car races. Everybody’s having fun and enjoying it.”

As for a certain MotorSportsTalk writer who also competed in the event, well … let’s just say he finished and leave it at that.

And we won’t get into that he got spun twice by a certain NASCAR star whose last name rhymes with “pain,” or about the flat tire – his third in five days – said writer had on the way to Iowa.

But that’s another story for another time.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

2017 PRI Show post-weekend notebook

Rahal and Bell's Chris Wheeler. Photo: IndyCar
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The 2017 edition of the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade show is in the books for another year. Here’s some notes we gathered from the event at the Indiana Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis.

While INDYCAR did not have a booth at this year’s show, there were still some interesting Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires nuggets to emerge.

RAHAL RUNNING REV

On Thursday, Graham Rahal was named as honorary chair of the Rev Indy charity event, held before the month of May’s on-track activity at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway really gets going. The event is sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, which grew its relationship with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this past year.

The kickoff event was held at legendary St. Elmo’s, at its 1933 Lounge upstairs, with some samples of the food that will be served. Particularly noteworthy was St. Elmo’s trademark shrimp cocktail, which even caught out some local reporters on its heat…

PAGENAUD IN FINE FORM

Pagenaud meets the media. Photo: IndyCar

Further breakouts from him will come in the following days, but Simon Pagenaud was in very good spirits when meeting a small group of reporters on Thursday. The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion mentioned a small relief that he didn’t have to go through the ringer of the champion’s postseason media tour in the days after Sonoma, as he won the season finale. That can be draining, he said, but it allowed him to get refreshed. Since Sonoma, he raced at Petit Le Mans, where he drove with Team Penske’s one-off Oreca 07 Gibson LMP2 car, he went back home to France before coming back to the U.S. for a mix of testing and other year-end commitments.

Of the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit, Pagenaud said it’s close to the initial Dallara DW12 chassis at its outset, although hailed the better and more balanced weight distribution of the new kit.

He also said it will be a different team dynamic without having Helio Castroneves there full-time. Castroneves, he said, kept all three of Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and Will Power grounded and all in good temperament at the same time. Pagenaud made an interesting point that with each of the three full-time drivers all at the same point in their careers – they all have one championship and none has an Indianapolis 500 victory yet – none has the upper hand, and there isn’t the “aura” of Castroneves’ three ‘500 wins hanging over their head.

On top of that, Pagenaud cracked several jokes and hailed his involvement as part of the “Penske Games” social media competition the team created. In some respects, Pagenaud hailed his own lack of success there to generate more notoriety!

SPM’S SMASH, RETURN, THEN PRE-SEBRING SCRAMBLE

The 2018 Dallara UAK got its first crash test – particularly inadvertently – by James Hinchcliffe during testing last week at Phoenix International Raceway (soon to be ISM Raceway). The team was still in the process of diagnosing what caused a crash at Turn 3 of the 1-mile oval, an odd place to have an impact.

What it’s meant was the car, which is short on spare parts at the moment, had to make it back to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Indianapolis shop and get rebuilt over a 48-hour period in advance of this week’s final round of 2017 testing at Sebring International Raceway’s short course. Testing can run through December 14 before the holiday blackout, and before testing shifts from manufacturer testing to team testing after the new year.

SCHMIDT’S SHANK SYNC-UP FURTHER DETAILS

Schmidt, Steve Eriksen (HPD), Harvey and Shank. Photo: IndyCar

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt was present at Michael Shank’s combination IndyCar and sports car announcements on Friday, which confirmed further details of Jack Harvey’s program for next season. It’s meant to be a three-year deal, and will begin with the six races Harvey will run in 2018. Will Anderson, who has been an assistant engineer with SPM for several years after joining from Dale Coyne Racing, will be Harvey’s race engineer.

SPM will loan a chassis to Shank for testing in January before Shank’s team receives its chassis in February, and that’s an interesting point to note. Schmidt said SPM, which saw its proposed deal with Calmels Sport for next year’s Indianapolis 500 fall through, could still run a third in-house SPM car for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 beyond the two full-time entries and the MSR/Shank car for Harvey.

But Schmidt’s long-term belief and relationship with Harvey helped make the move a reality, as Harvey drove two really strong years with the team in Indy Lights.

“His timeline is our timeline; we were not going to do it for only one year,” Schmidt told NBC Sports. “Jack has been a part of this team for several years and our job is to help him and Mike continue to grow in their IndyCar careers.”

FURTHER TBA’S GETTING REVEALED SOON?

Gathered around the Bell booth in Indy. Photo: IndyCar

If the rumor mill is to be believed, next week could see at least one if not both of the two known outstanding TBA slots at Dale Coyne Racing (No. 19 Honda) and Ed Carpenter Racing (No. 20 Chevrolet for road and street courses) get revealed.

We spoke to Carpenter at the PRI Show who confirmed the No. 20 car’s road and street course car is “close” to being filled, and is down to just two potential candidates. Asked when he wanted to announce, Carpenter deadpanned, “Last week!”

If you know the names of the free agents that are already out there, you pretty much know who’s in the frame for these two seats.

Carpenter has one more round of testing this week at Sebring. The team has been busy with testing at multiple tracks, and has moved into its new shop on Georgetown Rd. from its previous location near IMS in Speedway, Ind.

BUSY TIMES AT BELL BOOTH WITH INDY, MRTI DRIVERS

Both Carpenter and Spencer Pigot were among a bevy of IndyCar and Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires drivers on the Bell Racing U.S.A. stage during the weekend. Others included Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Conor Daly, Zach Veach, Jack Harvey and Pippa Mann, and MRTI veterans Aaron Telitz, Ayla Agren, Juan Piedrahita and Colton Herta.

Additionally, Bell announced it will be opening a pro shop in Speedway. It’s busy times for the helmet manufacturer but one that is held in high regard in the open-wheel and sports car communities.

GOOD TIMES FOR DUSICK’S CHARITY EVENT

Another of the quickly-becoming-a-PRI-staple type events is the “Racers Know Dave Dusick” charity fundraiser, supported by Cooper Tires, which this year supported the Riley Children’s Foundation. That foundation supports Riley Hospital for Children, Indiana’s only comprehensive hospital dedicated exclusively to the care of kids.

A further recap can be found via Dusick’s @IKnowDaveDusick Twitter account; Dusick is a veteran behind-the-scenes member of the racing community, primarily known for his Race Track Engineering business and a member of race control groups in various series. A tweet from Alexander Rossi is below.

CALLAWAY CONFIRMATION GIVES PWC NEEDED SHOT IN THE ARM

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC

Pirelli World Challenge got three good pieces of news in a two-day period last week, with first the pair of Wednesday announcements that K-PAX Racing would switch to Bentley’s Continental GT3 models and Robinson Racing would run a pair of Mercedes-AMG GT4s in the GTS class.

Confirmation of Callaway’s team program for GT in 2018, with Michael Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz the two drivers revealed there, was an added bonus. The striking Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R was unveiled in full, with comments from Reeves Callaway and WC Vision head Greg Gill, with other series insiders present. Aided by the addition of Erin Gahagan as team manager, who has recent PWC experience with EFFORT Racing, that should help Callaway in its entry into the championship. She will continue as team manager for the Tequila Patron ESM team with its Nissan Onroak DPi in IMSA for another season as well.

Cooper’s confirmation keeps him in another GM model after developing into a top-line GT driver the last couple seasons in one of the factory Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.Rs, and after winning a GTS championship in a Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R prior to that. Keilwitz, an ADAC GT Masters veteran, will be new to the U.S. but should learn quickly as other European converts tend to do.

“In a word, hallelujah,” was Gill’s immediate take at the presentation of the new car.

PWC also held its annual “State of the Series” meeting for competitors on Friday afternoon. A combination of the usual marketing, competition and communication updates were revealed to competitors. Some more intriguing elements from that should be revealed at a later date.