Donny Schatz wins 11th Knoxville Nationals, Kyle Larson finishes sixth

Schatz Knoxville Nationals
Trent Gower / World of Outlaws

Donny Schatz has always had a special relationship with the Knoxville Nationals and on Saturday night, he won that race for the 11th time, bringing him to within one of tying Steve Kinser’s all time record of 12. At 2:15 a.m., after Schatz completed his media obligations, Kinser was waiting for him at his hauler with congratulations.

Recently, the wins aren’t coming as quickly as Schatz might like. After posting double-digit World of Outlaws Series wins in eight seasons from 2012 through 2019, he earned just five in 2020, ranking him sixth on that chart. He won three times in 2021 and so far this season, that is where Schatz finds himself again. He won the season opener at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Fla. and then had to wait through 43 disappointments before winning again four races ago at Weedsport (N.Y.) Speedway.

This win might be the most gratifying and it was certainly one of the hardest fought of his career.

“There are no words for this,” Schatz said in a press release. “I could hear my dad telling me to gather it up and settle down and it worked.”

Measuring 50 laps, the Knoxville Nationals is one of the longest races for the World of Outlaws series. To achieve this, they need a halftime break to refuel. While they are in the pits, they have an opportunity to work on the car.

In the first half of the race, Schatz fell back to sixth from his third-place starting position. Disappointed in how his car was performing and seeing the race slip away for what would have been the fourth consecutive time, Schatz fell silent. And that was the signal to his crew that there was too much wrong with the car to put into words.

“[Steve Swenson] could read me like a book and knew when I didn’t say anything that he should throw the 911 at it,” Schatz said. “These guys did an incredible job. It was do or die on the bottom. I kept getting better and better there at the end. This one feels like the first time, really.”

MORE: Brad Sweet snaps 31-race Outlaws winless streak at Williams Grove

And then they sent Schatz back out to do what he could.

It took another 20 laps for Schatz to catch leader David Gravel. With five remaining, Schatz led his first laps of the race and saw traffic forming ahead. After a few dicey moments through that traffic, Schatz scored his first win in five years at Knoxville. His 11th win of this prestigious race gives him a winning percentage of 45.8%, but that tells only part of the story.

Since qualifying for his first Knoxville Nationals in 1998 – a race in which he finished fourth – Schatz has finished either first or second 19 times in 24 start. He won four consecutive races from 2006 through 2009 and five straight from 2011 through 2015. Since 2005, he finished worse than second only once in 17 starts.

Gravel held onto his second-place finish to score his 26th top-five of the season.

Logan Schuchart rounded out the podium after charging up from his 17th-place starting position.

“I’m thrilled with what this team has accomplished,” Schuchart said. “I’m proud of every single person at Shark Racing and it starts with what my grandfather started. We’re just a family-owned team competing for wins on the biggest stage in the world. I honestly felt like I was gaining on them through the last five laps, but we just didn’t start far enough forward. Starting 17th and finishing third is pretty amazing.”

After winning the pole for Sunday’s NASCAR race in Richmond, Va., last year’s Knoxville Nationals winner Kyle Larson finished sixth after rebounding from a shredded tire.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”