Brad Sweet had just done something no California-born-and-raised sprint car driver had ever done.
Sweet won the Knoxville Nationals — the sport’s equivalent of the Super Bowl — and all the 32-year-old Grass Valley native and Placerville resident wanted to do is drink a few beers.
“I’ll celebrate it with my family and take it all in,” Sweet said in the post-race media interview. “It’s a night I’ll never forget, and I don’t want it to end anytime soon. There’s a lot of great race fans and support behind me. I’m just a beer-drinking, fun-loving guy who wants to go celebrate with everybody and enjoy the night. I’m supposed to catch a flight tomorrow, but if I miss it, oh, well.”
Sweet made his flight back to Sacramento from Knoxville, Iowa, on zero sleep, the buzz of his first Knoxville title still zinging through his body and not from the Sunday morning beers, he said.
Sweet held off World of Outlaws points leader Donny Schatz on a green-white checkered finish to grab the $150,000 winner’s purse. Schatz, who holds a 198-point lead over Sweet in the Outlaws points standings, finished just 0.113 seconds behind Sweet — the second-closest margin of victory since the sports started electronic timing and scoring three decades ago. Sweet’s brother-in-law, Elk Grove’s Kyle Larson, finished third and took the lead from Sweet at one point before Sweet wrestled it back by plying the low groove of the famed half-mile track. Larson is married to Sweet’s younger sister, Katelyn.
“I’ve been dreaming about this and working hard,” Sweet said after the race. “We’ve been close in years past. To hold off these two guys, the two best drivers in the country, wow! It took every ounce of my being to defeat them. Now my name will be etched in the Knoxville Nationals history books forever, and that’s what every sprint car driver dreams about.”
Sweet had the fastest car all week in qualifying races and held the pole for the A-Main on Saturday. He almost led from green to checkered, but Larson was able to ride the high cushion for two laps in the middle of the race for the lead until Sweet’s strategy of shortening the race distance on the bottom groove proved to be the right one.
“If I was going to win, I knew I’d have to be able to hit the bottom,” Sweet said. “I’ve studied this track hard for the last two or three years. It’s hard to be good down there and it takes a lot of practice. That’s why a lot of guys don’t go down there. It’s very technical and if you don’t hit it right, you can lose a second or more.”
Schatz won the Knoxville Nationals 10 of the last 12 years and was on Sweet’s rear right tire as the checkered flag flew Saturday night.
“I thought I had a good chance to get Brad, but he did a good job and got there first,” Schatz said.
Sweet sad it’s too early to say he and Schatz have a rivalry. He has to beat Schatz at big races like the Knoxville Nationals a few more times for there to be a rivalry, he said.
“This win could be the start, though, who knows?” Sweet said. “We’ve been the top two guys in the Outlaws the last couple of seasons, no doubt. But we’ve had a few (did not finishes), and that just doesn’t happen to Schatz.”
The Knoxville Nationals is the only sprint car race of note that Larson has not won. He received permission from NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi to race at Knoxville. Larson spent some time with Sweet and their combined families after the race before flying to Brooklyn, Mich., where he finished 17th in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway.
When it was pointed out that he had become the first California-born-and-raised driver to win at Knoxville, Sweet got a chuckle from his brother-in-law when he yelled, “I beat Kyle at something?” and then added, “I’ll take second at every race as long as I can win at the Knoxville Nationals.”
Sweet said Larson gave him a huge hug after the race and had a tear in his eye, happy that his brother-in-law won the race. Sweet said he and Larson have a healthy relationship as well as a rivalry on the dirt tracks, having raced against each other for two decades now.
“I’ve always admired Kyle’s talent and what he’s done in the sport,” he said. “He was genuinely happy for me Saturday night.”
The late Jan Opperman was officially the first California-born driver to win this race, having accomplished the feat in 1971. Opperman was born in Westwood in 1939, but his family moved to Washington state when he was an infant.
California had a strong contingent of drivers in the race. San Jose’s Tim Kaeding was fifth out of 25 drivers. Fresno-area drivers Carson Macedo and brothers Gio and Dominic Scelzi finished sixth, 14th and 16th respectively. World of Outlaws driver and Elk Grove native Paul McMahan finished 21st, and St. Helena’s Rico Abreu was 24th.
Sweet was born in Grass Valley, grew up in the unincorporated area between Grass Valley and Auburn and now lives in Placerville with his wife, Rachel, and their 8-month-old daughter, Savannah. The house he built is close enough to the Placerville Speedway that he can hear the race cars on rare Saturdays off from his demanding schedule. It’s sort of ironic that the nickname of the Placerville Speedway is “Knoxville on the Hill.”
“Sometimes I’m tempted to go down there and race,” said Sweet, who is the host promoter of the World of Outlaws 49er Gold Rush Classic on Sept. 12 at Placerville Speedway. “But then I hear Savannah and I know where I’m supposed to be.”