Brad Sweet looks to protect his place in World of Outlaws Sprint Car history

Sweet Outlaws Sprint history
World of Outlaws

Over the course of the 46-year history of the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series, there have only been 10 champions and with one night of the World Finals completed, defending three-time champion Brad Sweet wants to keep it that way. David Gravel looks to become number 11.

The World of Outlaws enter the World Finals with a championship battle for the first time since 2019, when Sweet won his first title by overcoming defending 10-time champion Donny Schatz. Sweet took the championship that year by four points, the smallest margin of victory in Outlaws history. In doing so, he ended Schatz’s five-season winning streak.

Three years later, Sweet sits in a similar position to Schatz – defending his spot at the top of the proverbial hill and trying to secure his legacy. Sweet stands to take the sole position of third most championships if he can maintain his season-long lead through World Finals. He’s currently tied with Sammy Swindell and only behind Schatz and 20-time Champion Steve Kinser.

MORE: Tight championship battle underway at The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway

“It’s just something that you don’t really think about while you’re in the moment,” Sweet told NBC Sports before Race 1 of the World Finals. “You’re always setting goals and trying to accomplish the task in front of you.

“Obviously, getting that first championship was a huge hurdle for us and luckily we have a great team and great sponsors. We were able to string this together. Once you win you don’t want to get knocked off the top. This year is no different. Even though we have three we’re taking this very seriously. There’s a lot of intensity in the building and you can tell that everybody’s mind is on trying to win the championship.”

Entering World Finals weekend, Sweet was 16 points ahead of Gravel. With 150 points going to first place, 146 to second, and two more points separating each position below that, Sweet stands on a tightrope. Every night and every position matters.

“Everything is on the table,” Sweet said. “You race all year in order to try and win the championship. For it to come down to the last weekend makes the weekend feel like a much bigger race. Maybe like a Knoxville Nationals or a Kings Royal, [there’s] just a lot more on the line for David and me than the rest of the field.

“We know that we have to be on our game; we’re just taking it one night at a time. Go to the race track each night and try to have the best result that we possibly can. Just like we have all season. Don’t want to overdo it or change too much. There’s definitely more on the line for David and me. I think it should be a pretty good battle to finish the season here.”

This year the World Finals adjusted their weekend structure to give each division three full nights of racing.

Wednesday, November 2nd was the first night of action for the Sprints and Late Models.

Sweet Outlaws Sprint history
Brad Sweet finished ahead of David Gravel in Night 1 of the World Finals. Now he needs to keep the momentum rolling. World of Outlaws

Sweet and Gravel both made the Fast Dash, which secured a starting spot on one of the first four rows. Gravel started two spots ahead of Sweet with the opportunity to leverage that position into an advantage. Two bad starts in the eight-lap dash dropped Gravel to eighth, while Sweet capitalized and advanced from seventh to second. That secured a starting position on the front row.

At each point during the Night 1’s event, neither team got a chance to breathe. One strong performance was not enough of a difference maker. Each race, like each season, and each champion quest brings a new set of challenges and challengers.

“[In] 2019, trying to win my first championship, [there was a] four-point differential with Donny Schatz, the 10-time champion,” Sweet describes the situation, “It’s not easy to win these championships. Every year something new arises, or there’s another challenger, or you have to overcome some adversity. This year is no different, obviously, we’d like to have it clinched or have a bigger lead, but this is the situation in front of us and we’re going to go out and give it our all.”

On Wednesday night, Nov. 2, the points differential grew from 16 to 22 after. Neither driver can or will let up.

To win a championship, Gravel needs to hold his momentum from his end-of-season run and bounce back. A race in which he finished sixth and ran behind Sweet through the feature is the definition of a bad night when things are this close.

Sweet needs to hang on, push past consistency and pull a championship-caliber move.

Now, it all comes down to the Friday and Saturday features. It’s a battle between the hunger for a first championship and the chance to secure a legacy.

Sweet Outlaws Sprint history
Brad Sweet ended Donny Schatz’s streak of five championships in 2019 and now has an eye on his fourth straight. World of Outlaws

“No matter what, you always want the opportunity to win a championship when you come to the last weekend of the year so if you’re in that conversation it’s good,” Sweet said. “It’s a lot of pressure for it to come down to one weekend. Even though we’ve been here before, you still feel it, you still know the moments are bigger than just a standard race.

“David, I’m sure, is hungry. Wants to be a Champion. His team has done a good job all season, especially towards the end here, they were able to capitalize on some of our mistakes and put themselves in a good spot.

“They’re going to go out there and throw everything they have at it. Because five or six races ago it didn’t look like it was possible. The fact that they have a chance is probably gratifying to them. I’m sure that they’re going to give it all they’ve got just like we are.’

With an average finish of 1.8 to Sweet’s fifth, Gravel is a master at The Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway. World Finals has always been a place for him to potentially grab a win and remind fans, competitors, and sponsors where he stands in the series. Sweet has yet to secure a win. Gravel will have to race the track with the pressure of a potential championship for the first time, we don’t know how that will affect performance.

Gravel and the Big Game Motorsports team made up 80 points in just six races heading into World Finals. With three to go in last night’s feature Robbie Price’s crash set it up for Gravel and Sweet to line up nose to tail for a single-wide restart in third and fourth position. A pass would make up two more of his 16 points any position loss would increase the valley between him and Sweet. The three-time champion maintained position while the contender was plagued with another bad restart falling from fourth to sixth.

“He had a good run to end the season,” Sweet said about Gravel, “It all comes down to Charlotte. I think if you go out there and are thinking that you’re going to coast and collect, I don’t think you’re going to win. Racing for wins each night and trying to be up towards the front of the field if you want to win the championship.”

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Hannah Grisham at the Heart of Racing shootout (Mike Levitt/LAT)

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

Hannah Grisham reviews data with Heart of Racing sports car driver Gray Newell during the team’s shootout last November (Mike Levitt/LAT).

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

The Heart of Racing’s female driver shootout drew interested candidates from around the world (Mike Levitt/LAT).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.

“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Rianna O’Meara-Hunt was one of two women selected by the Heart of Racing to drive in the SRO SprintX Championship this year (Mike Levitt/LAT).

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”