Time off isn’t something sprint car racers ever really have to endure.
During the winter, there is always some place to race: Arizona, Florida or indoor venues such as the Chili Bowl. If they find an ambitious sponsor, there is always Australia or New Zealand.
But for Donny Schatz and the other stars of the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series, the choice about whether to race has been made for them.
Until racing resumes in the United States, and with fans in the stands, it will be difficult to re-create a comprehensive schedule.
And given the still shifting sands of local and state regulations, plus the uncertain trajectory of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, that could take a while.
“(The World of Outlaws) have definitely thrown every idea and scenario out there to get back going,” Schatz told NBCSports.com. “I think right now, it’s day by day to see what happens. At the end of the day, the World of Outlaws is a series that travels nationally just like NASCAR.
“But NASCAR could function, possibly, without fans in the stands because of television. We cannot. Our pay and everything is based on putting people in the stands. They’ve reached out to me and thrown a lot of ideas, some that are about as crazy as you can imagine. They’re putting forth the effort to try to get things going as soon and safe as possible.”
The volume of their calendar, the size of the markets they visit and the time of day they race can make dirt track racing challenging for a national network. Currently, the best way to watch the entire schedule is through the series’ online streaming service, DIRTVision.
And there are plenty of races in a typical season, which creates a critical mass. More than 85 races were scheduled before the COVID-19 outbreak pushed the pause button on racing.
Teams were on their way to Cotton Bowl Speedway, near Austin, Texas, when the dominoes began to fall. Since that first event was postponed, 19 races have been canceled or postponed, including the entire spring West Coast schedule.
Donny Schatz and Logan Schuchart battled for the win at Volusia Speedway Park in February (Tony Stewart Racing).
At the time, series director Carlton Reimers described the chaos involved with trying to continue racing with conflicting information from tracks, as well as from local and state authorities.
It has not gotten much better as states struggle to implement orders that will allow businesses to return while balancing the need for social distancing.
The next scheduled events are a three-race swing May 13-16 through Pennsylvania that includes one of the series’ most prestigious races, the Morgan Cup at Williams Grove Speedway. The current stay-at-home order for Pennsylvania is set to expire on May 8.
While NASCAR has attempted to stay resolute in its desire to race the entire schedule of 36 races, the Outlaws won’t be able to do that. There are simply too many races, and too many pieces of the puzzle already have fallen off the table with cancellations.
“It’s an unfortunate thing obviously,” Schatz said. “We have zero control over when it’s up. It’s just something that nobody ever looked at. … I hope that we get back going, and things get back to normal, and obviously there will be some build-up to that just like anything else. It puts everyone in a position where they appreciate all the freedoms that we have and forces a different perspective. As far as it affecting us, yeah we’re going to have less races.
“What does that do to our whole season? It’s yet to be determined so I can’t put too much emphasis on it one way or another.”
The break in action will change the arc of the season. The schedule always has been crowded. That won’t change. Dirt track sprint car racing will continue to be grueling. And winter weather provides a natural end point that can’t be pushed much further.
But there also will be fewer races to overcome a deficit. Or conversely, there will be less time to lose a lead.
Schatz doesn’t believe that will make much of a difference for a team with the resources of Tony Stewart Racing.
“I don’t know if it puts any more pressure on us,” Schatz said. “I race with a great organization that has nothing to prove. We love being competitive. It makes us appreciate some of the things that we take for granted some days. There’s really no pressure there. We have great partners.
“The people at Ford Advance put their money on us, and they expect results, and we know we will give them to them. It’s just unfortunate that we can’t be racing right now, but I think it is definitely going to set the tone for everyone. Everyone is rested up, they’re itching to get going, and hopefully, we can do that sooner rather than later.”
Of far greater concern for Schatz has been an increase in parity among the top five contenders.
The 10-time champion is accustomed to leading the points. Since he won his first title in 2006, only three other drivers have scored championships. Jason Meyers won in 2010 and 2011 before retiring in 2012. Daryn Pittman won in 2013 while running for Kasey Kahne Racing.
Schatz won five consecutive championships from 2014-18.
In 2019, Brad Sweet earned another title for Kahne, denying Schatz the opportunity to tie Steve Kinser’s record of six consecutive championships from 1983-88.
“There’s no question that it’s been more competitive in the top five,” Schatz said. “Why is that? I don’t know. Is it because we’ve slipped a little bit or because everyone else has gotten better? I don’t know the answer to that. I know that we haven’t had the stats the last couple of years that we would like to have had.
“If you take last season, for instance, I feel like it was one of our worst years in the last 10, and we missed out on a championship by four points. Two positions on the racetrack on one night. Is it really that bad? No.
“There’s a lot of guys that have stepped up their game a little bit, and I think some of that comes off of feeding off some of the things that we’ve done. Some of the precedence that Tony Stewart Racing has set. There’s been a lot more parity in the top five, and all we can do is keep working like those guys always have and try to be on the better spectrum of it.”
Currently, five of the top seven teams in the points have a NASCAR affiliation.
And while it would seem those teams have a distinct advantage, Logan Schuchart’s win for Shark Racing at Volusia and Pittman’s third-place standing with Roth Motorsports underscore the strength of the field.
“We don’t operate any differently than the other teams,” Schatz said. “Sometimes there’s a lot more pressure that goes on the NASCAR owner and the NASCAR-affiliated teams because they have more requirements, more commitments and more events that they have to be a part of. It has to be a shiny bus 24/7/365, and I think that wears on the crew guys a little bit instead of it just being simple and homegrown. But it’s great to have the involvement.
“It brings different fans to the sport, and it’s grown the popularity of dirt racing on their platform as well as ours.”
There have been three winners in the first three Outlaws races. Schatz got off to a great start by winning the opening night of a three-race stand at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida. But a sixth-place finish in Night 2 and a seventh in Night 3 has him 14 points out of the lead.
Is that bad? Certainly not, and whenever the series gets back to action, there is still a lot of racing to be done.