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

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).