A look at A main row at the 2003 Knoxville Nationals
(Bill W) The Knoxville Nationals oozes of history. The legends that have won this event are forever etched in our memories. But they are only a small part of what makes the Nationals the event that it is. It’s about a driver from Australia piecing together equipment in the US to be a part of it all, like Marty Perovich. It’s Dr. Robert Altmeyer, a veterinarian, who has towed his machine from Western Pennsylvania since 1999 just because it’s the Super Bowl of sprint car racing. It’s Steve Cushman, who does the same from Arizona. None of the three made it out of the E main Saturday night, but they are just as important as the winner and his Home Depot, JD Byrider, etc. yada yada yada (congratulations to him).
But other stories abounded last week. None can deny that the most monumental was probably Erin Crocker. She became the first female (and the first from Massachusetts in my memory) to qualify for the A main on Saturday night. In just her third race in a 410, using a two-year-old J&J that she usually straps a 360 into, she powered a new Kriner 410 into the main event on Saturday night.
For the locals, however, Wayne Johnson was a damn close second. Anyone who was there on Thursday night, even most of those in Steve Kinser apparel were rooting for the underdog. The night started bleak for Johnson when he timed in a less than impressive 25th quick in the Bob Vielhauer #12x. The 12x has been driven by the likes of Shane Carson, Lealand McSpadden, Steve Seigel, Danny Smith, Stevie Smith, Bob’s son Billy (who is now the crew chief), and more recently visited victory lane in 2002 with Illinois hot shoe Blake Feese. For years Bob towed the Beaver Drill and Tool #12x 220 miles from his Shawnee, KS home to Knoxville, where the car became a weekly fixture at the raceway in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Bob had a desire to return to Knoxville on a weekly basis in 2003. A deal was struck with Johnson to drive at Knoxville for points just before the season was to begin. Johnson spent 2002 on the Gumout tour placing fourth with Fred and Jo Threatt in their #29 car. It was a ride he had also taken to a 2000 360 Nationals victory. After a deal fell through to run Guy Webb’s #51 car on the All Star tour, the two hooked up. Johnson was one accustomed to traveling series having competed not only on the Gumout tour, but also with the World of Outlaws, All Stars, NCRA (he was 1991 Rookie of the Year), ASCS (2000 champ) and USCS. The weekly decision has paid off as Wayne has been lurking in the top five in the Knoxville race the majority of 2003. He captured the July 12 race celebrating 50 years of Knoxville in which Sammy Swindell, Shane Stewart and Mark Kinser were in the field.
Johnson explained his bad qualifying run on Thursday night this way, “We put the wrong gear in the car, that was all. The only thing we did different for the heat race was change the gear.” And that was all it took. Despite “the Wild Child” Jac Haudenschild, Aaron Berryhill, Fred Rahmer and Travis Rilat starting in front of him, and Tim Shaffer and Travis Cram lurking behind, he jetted towards the front and grabbed the lead from Haud on lap seven to secure 100 points for the heat race win. “We needed to do that,” was an understatement heard from Johnson.
Out of his control was some luck that he received by qualifying on Thursday. Wednesday night saw nine of the top ten qualifiers make the A through their heats. Racing on Wednesday with a similar time would have put Wayne deep in the pack. Thursday was different as seven out of the top 24 timers were relegated to the B and C. With an invert of eight this put Johnson…you guessed it...on the pole.
It was a race that would bring the locals (and visitors as well) on their feet for him. He shot out to a comfortable lead over Josh Higday who was running well. A lap three incident involving Kerry Madsen and Jeff Mitrisin closed the gap and another stoppage on lap five for Dennis Moore Jr. saw Wayne leading Tim Shaffer, Higday, Steve Kinser and Daryn Pittman back to the green flag. Two more incidents brought things to a crawl, a lap seven incident involving Travis Cram and a lap nine red for Lynton Jeffrey. The red was an open one, and Wayne saw who was behind him on the scoreboard…The King of the Outlaws. With an open red, any sprint car fan who had seen Steve Kinser race over the years knew he would be making adjustments to the Quaker State machine and he would soon take command and pull away from the so called “weaker field” of Thursday.
Indeed the restart saw a slide job by the King in turn one. Unphased, Johnson ducked back under Kinser coming out of turn two and led through turns three and four. The two exchanged positions again, when the exact same turn of events played out as the lap before. This time Johnson held his lead and pulled away for the next thirteen laps. The locals can remember the last time one of their own pulled off a feature win on qualifying night….Terry McCarl’s thrilling win over Dave Blaney in 1996. Since then a few have come home second, but none have finished it off. Johnson was riding the cushion to perfection and no one would catch him…until a lap 22 caution slowed things down again when Don Droud Jr. suffered a flat tire in his Batmobile. Undeterred, Johnson had the restart of his life starting low in turn one to block the King and sliding high to ride the cushion and pull away. Another lap was complete before Stevie Smith came to a stop, out of fuel.
Just two laps remained as Johnson led Kinser, Shaffer, Pittman and Shepard back to Doug Clark’s green flag. Drivers are instructed to restart nose to tail at the cone. This one was not nose to tail. Kinser pulled inside Johnson at the cone, getting a run that would win him the feature. In unison, 20,000 fans were on their feet pointing at the cone, booing the decision (including some in Kinser gear), and watching Kinser craftily steal another win at the famous half-mile. Johnson would later admit that he saw Kinser out of the corner of his eye at the cone, but he would not let it get him down as boos rained down for the decision aiding Kinser on the restart. Despite also being passed by Shaffer for second in the last lap, praise was heaped on the crew of the #12x as you would have thought Johnson had just won the race. “The car couldn’t have been better,” said Johnson after the feature on Thursday.
On Friday night, he was treated as a celebrity, doing color commentary with SprintCarNetwork hosts Wayne Harper, “Hot” Rod Pattison and Lanny Nichols over the internet airwaves. They would joke back and forth, he in his lovable southern drawl that could cheer up your mother-in-law. They would joke about where the cone was being placed and much more. “That was a lot of fun,” he said about the opportunity. Harper said of the questionable restart, “I didn’t say anything for a lap because I was sure it would come back.” So were thousands of others in attendance.
Unphased, Johnson had put himself in his first Nationals A main. Pretty good for someone who hadn’t been higher than the D before. “Our goal coming up here was to make the show and we did that,” he would say with joy before Saturday’s race. Who knows what next year, or next month, holds for the Vielhauer team and Wayne but he says it has been fun running in Knoxville. “Everyone has just opened up their arms and welcomed me here. Even the other racers.”
On Saturday night, he would finish where he started, 19th, amongst the greatest sprint car drivers in the world on national television. His 19th place finish will come and go in our memories, but his story will endure and add to a lifetime of Nationals memories.