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

MRTI: Barber Motorsports Park Preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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After a month break, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is back in action this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, with two of its series tacking the 2.38-mile road course in Birmingham, Alabama.

Both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires have double-headers this weekend, with Pro Mazda returning to Barber after not running there last year.

The season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg was a tale of two completely different stories, with two different winners – Pato O’Ward and Santi Urrutia – and more than a fair bit of chaos for Indy Lights, while Pro Mazda saw Rinus Veekay sweep the weekend.

Talking points for both series heading into Barber are below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia heads to Barber leading the Indy Lights championship on the strength of finishes of second and first in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia displayed great patience at St. Petersburg, finishing second in Race 1 and winning Race 2 after rivals like O’Ward and Colton Herta faltered. However, Barber has not been one of his better tracks, with finishes of 11th, 15th, and 13th in three of his four Indy Lights starts. Yet, he did win Race 2 at Barber 2016, so he has had success there before, and he will be one of the favorites heading into the weekend.
  • Pato O’Ward looks poised to be a title contender in 2018 and will look to avenge a somewhat disappointing outing at St. Petersburg. O’Ward had the speed to sweep the weekend, winning Race 1 handily and dominating Race 2, but a mistake late in the race saw him overshoot Turn 4 and briefly stall before he could rejoin, relegating him to seventh. If O’Ward can show the pace he showed at St. Pete, he might end up being the man to beat.
  • Colton Herta will look to rebound from a St. Pete weekend in which he flashed the speed that caught everyone’s attention last year, but also committed the same mistakes that ultimately prevented him from taking a championship. After finishing third in Race 1, Herta crashed while chasing then leader O’Ward in Race 2. Herta won Race 2 at Barber last year, and getting another win this weekend, along with staying mistake free, would go a long way to erasing his problems from St. Pete.
  • Aaron Telitz is also looking to rebound after a down weekend, as his St. Petersburg weekend lasted all of two corners across both races – he won the Pole for Race 1, but crashed in Race 2 qualifying, and the Belardi Auto Racing team could not repair the car to allow him to race. After the team borrowed a chassis from Carlin for Race 2, Telitz get collected with Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni right off the start, and he crashed again, this time in Turn 2. Telitz finished on the podium at Barber in 2016, the year he won the Pro Mazda championship, and he’ll look for more of the same this weekend.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay swept the Pro Mazda weekend in St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Rinus Veekay had a perfect weekend to open the Pro Mazda season. The Juncos Racing driver outdueled Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson for the Race 1 victory, and then ran away with Race 2 to complete the weekend sweep. Veekay was expected to be a title contender after moving up to Pro Mazda in 2018, and if he can repeat his St. Pete performance, then he may leave Barber as the heavy favorite in the championship.
  • Not to be forgotten, Parker Thompson sits second in the Pro Mazda title chase, and looks to avenge losing out to Veekay in St. Pete Race 1, and then fading somewhat to finish fifth in Race 2. Thompson was the only driver to regularly challenge Veekay and Oliver Askew in the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season, and he and Exclusive Autosport have adapted nicely to the new Tatuus PM-18. If they can show the same form at Barber, and then finish the job with at least one trip to Victory Lane, then it could set the stage for another titanic Pro Mazda championship fight.
  • Last year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew had a quiet weekend in St. Pete, finishing fifth and sixth in the two races. He swept the Barber races in USF2000 last year, and will need a similar performance to vault himself forward from his current place of sixth in the standings.
  • Carlos Cunha and David Malukas head to Barber third and fourth in the championship after solid St. Pete weekends – Cunha had finishes of fourth and third, while Malukas had finishes of seventh and second. Neither was necessarily looked at as a title combatant entering 2018, but repeat performances in Barber could vault them into title contention.

A full weekend schedule, including the Mazda Road to Indy sessions, can be viewed here.

**Note: NBCSN will broadcast Sunday’s Indy Lights race (Race 2 from the weekend) on Monday, April 23.**

Follow@KyleMLavigne