Tony Stewart-Curb/Agajanian Racing (TSR) driver Donny Schatz and the Textron Off Road/Arctic Cat/Ford Performance-backed team were looking to add the prestigious 55th annual Williams Grove National Open to their list of 2017 accomplishments this past weekend. Schatz, the winningest driver in the event’s history, came up one spot short of becoming a six-time National Open winner at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania Saturday night.
“Second is not bad, but you think about that $50,000 on the line, and you want to win the race,” Schatz said, after finishing .683 of a second behind David Gravel in the 40-lap A-Feature. “We did the best we could, second was it, and I’m happy with the Textron Ford Performance team. We will keep plugging away.”
Having already earned victories in the season’s biggest races, Schatz and his team of Rick Warner, Steve Swenson and Brad Mariscotti returned to historic Williams Grove with the goal of repeating the results of the TSR No. 15 Textron Off Road/Arctic Cat/Ford Performance/Curb J&J posted in the Kings Royal, Don Martin Memorial Silver Cup and the Knoxville Nationals. With the three-night format in place, the team knew consistency was going to be the key to positioning itself for a chance at the $50,000 winner’s share.
In Thursday’s opener, Schatz qualified 10th in qualifying Group A and was running fourth in heat two when his evening took a change in direction. A yellow flag provided an opportunity and Schatz took it. He raced his way past Brian Brown for second on the final lap and gained a coveted spot in the Craftsman Club dash, guaranteeing himself a starting position inside the top-eight. He started seventh and finished sixth in the dash and would start the 25-lap A-Feature on the outside of row three. Passing was at a premium during the A-Feature and Schatz battled Lance Dewease for fifth early in the race. He was running sixth when leaders Greg Hodnett and Shane Stewart made contact in turn three and came to a stop 10 laps into the race. Schatz restarted fourth and made a bid for second on the restart, but couldn’t hold the spot. He held onto fourth for the final 15 laps to earn his third top-four at “The Grove” in 2017.
Gravel won the A-Feature ahead of Daryn Pittman, Dewease and Schatz. At the conclusion of the night, Schatz had accumulated 517 points through qualifying, his heat and the A-Feature and ranked sixth overall.
Following the completion of the 25-lap A-Feature, the TSR crew prepared the No. 15 for the 30-lap Summer Nationals finale. The race was rained out July 22 and Schatz qualified to start the A-Feature ninth. The first 12 laps of the contest went nonstop and Schatz was in 10th on lap five and held ninth from laps six through 12 before the caution. The middle stage of the race is where Schatz made his move, finding the middle groove to his liking as he advanced from ninth to third in four laps. He trailed Hodnett and Lucas Wolfe during the final dozen laps around the low line as rubber began to come in on the surface. Late-race traffic for the leaders provided Schatz an opportunity, but he wasn’t able to get close enough to make bid for victory.
Hodnett earned $20,000 for winning the Summer Nationals A-Feature ahead of Wolfe, Schatz and Pittman.
With a pair of good finishes Thursday night, the team returned for the second night of action looking to continue to improve and gain enough points to lock itself into Saturday’s Craftsman Club dash. Schatz qualified fifth out of 23 cars in qualifying Group B and raced from third to second in heat three to qualify for the Craftsman Club dash. He advanced from sixth to fourth in the dash and improved his starting position by one row in Friday’s 25-lap A-Feature. After an early caution on lap three, the race went nonstop and Schatz followed James McFadden and Hodnett throughout. McFadden made a pair of impressive moves through lapped traffic to seal his first career WoO A-Feature victory and first at Williams Grove Speedway. The results of the night earned Schatz the most qualifying points after two nights of action with 1,048 and the pole position in Saturday’s Craftsman Club dash.
The goal of the weekend was to be in a position to battle for the win in Saturday night’s 40-lap A-Feature. Through two nights, Schatz and the Textron Off Road/Arctic Cat/Ford Performance/Curb team had put themselves in that position. Schatz and Gravel raced side-by-side during the opening lap of the dash before Gravel seized command. Schatz would finish second and start the National Open A-Feature on the outside of the front row. The 19-time Williams Grove winner took the lead on the start and held the top position during the opening five laps. Gravel was able to race by Schatz coming out of turn four on lap five to take the top spot. Schatz stayed close during the next 12 laps before a caution on lap 17. On the restart, Gravel continued to lead while McFadden made the bottom work in turns one and two and passed Schatz for second on lap 18 and took the lead from Gravel the following lap. Gravel regained the spot one lap later before another caution slowed the action. Schatz retook second from McFadden on lap 22 and kept pace with Gravel for the next six laps. An accident on lap 28 brought out a red flag and allowed the TSR team to make adjustments on the No. 15 for the final 12 laps. Schatz was right with Gravel during the final stages of the race as lapped traffic loomed with four laps remaining. Just as the leaders got into lapped traffic, a final caution flag opened the track up for a three-lap dash to the finish. Gravel held the top spot and Schatz wasn’t able to get close enough to make a move at the top spot.
“I tried, but you just couldn’t get off the bottom past the halfway point of the race,” Schatz said. “We kept trying to make something work a groove out like we did the other night, but it wasn’t happening tonight. We had 12 laps to go (when the red came out), and we were probably going to hit traffic. We hit it at the end of the race, and then we got another yellow. That was the only hope we had. He had to make a mistake and we had to capitalize on it. Traffic was coming to us and I was getting excited, but the yellow came out and wrecked that.”
Despite not coming out on top in the National Open, the weekend was a success in terms of the team’s run toward the 2017 WoO Championship. Schatz entered the weekend with a 94-point advantage over Brad Sweet and added 20 points to his lead. He leads all drivers with 10,332 points, 18 A-Feature victories, 59 top-fives and 67 top-10s.
The Textron Off Road/Arctic Cat/Ford Performance/Curb team returned to Indiana this week to prepare for the final 10 races of the season. It will be back in action Saturday at Fulton (N.Y.) Speedway for the first of three appearances in the Empire State over the next two weeks. Last October, Schatz led the final 23 laps of the 30-lap A-Feature at Fulton to capture his first career win at the 3/8-mile, dirt oval and 24th of the season.