Ken Schrader is a racer’s racer. Throughout his career, he’s done a little bit of everything. He’s been behind the wheel of a plethora of vehicles, including Late Models, Modifieds, Sports Cars, Sprint Cars, Indy Cars, and Stock Cars.
As one of the sport’s legendary drivers, he has served in many other roles, including car owner, racetrack promoter, spotter, radio and TV commentator, and author. Schrader spent roughly 30 seasons behind the wheel in NASCAR’s elite Cup Series, before retiring in 2013.
While he doesn’t do much on pavement anymore, he races almost weekly on dirt tracks across North America. Ken is always a great interview. We caught up with him recently to get his thoughts on a host of questions.
OneDirt: Do you prefer bullrings or bigger racetracks?
Ken Schrader: I honestly don’t have an absolute preference. I prefer a track with multiple grooves, which has a top and a bottom where you aren’t fighting over one area. If I had to say though, I prefer the bullrings. I got to run enough big tracks in my NASCAR days. Nowadays I really enjoy the smaller tracks.
OD: While you still make occasional Sprint Car and Pavement Late Model starts, you mainly just race Modifieds these days. What led to that choice?
KS: We ran Late Models for a number of years, and then we added the Modified. We found the Modified was easier to deal with. You could put two Modifieds in the trailer and three different types of tires and go race about anywhere in the country. The Late Model tire rule wasn’t so simple and was really specific to certain areas of the country. As a result, we started gravitating more to the Modified.
Another bonus was the Modifieds themselves take less room in the trailer, so you can take more stuff with you.
The Late Model world has changed dramatically, and all of that info has filtered down to the Modifieds with springs and shocks and the attitude of the cars.
OD: After their NASCAR careers end, you see a lot of guys like yourself, Kenny Wallace, David Reutimann, David Stremme, and others returning to their dirt track roots. Why do you think that is?
KS: It’s just fun. Plain and simple, it’s fun. I run a handful of asphalt races a year, but I like the dirt deal, because you buy a pit pass at 5:00 p.m., hot lap at 6:30 p.m. and then race at 7:30 p.m. In the pavement Late Model world, they think you need to practice at 10 a.m., then qualify at 7:00 p.m. so you can race at 10:00 p.m. It can get pretty exhausting.
I think the bottom line is that we all just enjoy the way the dirt world does it that much more.
OD: Once you enter your 30’s, your days are numbered in a lot of sports. In dirt track racing you see some guys racing into their 80’s. Do you think part of the reason is the thrill of competition keeps you young at heart?
KS: I do. Not that it’s the most physical job in the world, but when you get in that car and do it enough days a year, it keeps you in shape. I think it’s worth mentioning that we ran at Batesville Motor Speedway back in March and finished Fourth. The winner was two years older than me, so I think that maybe with more practice, we have better days ahead of us.
OD: Does it make you proud to see young guys with dirt roots like Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, and Tyler Reddick doing so well in NASCAR?
KS: Most definitely, it does. I’m always a big fan of the dirt and what it teaches the young drivers. I don’t think it’s a huge benefit anymore whether you come from an asphalt or dirt background. Starting a career in dirt racing, you learn a little more car control for when the car gets loose. The NASCAR Cup cars are not near as stable as they appear on TV. They wiggle a bunch, and it takes great car control to maintain them.
Dirt guys are born and bred into dealing with a loose car.
OD: What frustrates you most about the state of dirt track racing right now?
KS: I think we currently have more good things that are making me happy than what makes me frustrated. If I had to choose one thing though, I’d say the tire prep and the treating of tires, and the guys who are – or aren’t – getting getting caught. It’s frustrating to see, and it’s a pretty vicious circle right now.
OD: What’s the biggest positive you currently see in dirt track racing?
KS: Special events for all divisions seem like they are doing better and better with car counts and crowds. Weekly shows are still a challenge, but it seems like they are gaining ground over the past few years. I remind people, though, that just because you have a dirt track doesn’t mean there’s supposed to automatically be people at it.
You have to run a dirt track like a good restaurant. You’ve got to provide a good product. You need to run an efficient show, have nice restrooms, good light, good P.A. system, and good track preparation. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean they’ll come.
OD: With tenure under your belt, has it gotten any easier to own a racetrack? What’s the hardest part?
KS: No, it’s gotten harder. I think I could set anybody up with an exceptional opportunity to own a racetrack at any of the three that I currently own. It’s tougher than ever. I’m on the phone with the guys that run my tracks every day to keep tabs on the state of things.
It’s a struggle to be successful with the tracks, but there’s nothing more rewarding than having a good show on any given night. Good weather, good crowd, good car count and a good race, and a happy crowd at the end of the night means everything. It’s an addictive adrenaline rush, but you need to get over it quick, because it will drive you nuts trying to achieve that same scenario every week.
OD: How tough is it to bounce between the different Modified sanctions? Do you find one more challenging than another?
KS: From the driving standpoint, there really isn’t a ton of difference. There’s small tweaks in driving styles for different tires and different cars. The cars are either working or they’re not. We actually have separate cars that we run for IMCA, UMP, and USMTS. That makes it easier, because you don’t have to make wholesale changes from week-to-week.
OD: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in Modified technology over the past four or five years?
KS: The Late Model world has changed dramatically, and all of that info has filtered down to the Modified with springs and shocks and the attitude of the cars. I don’t always know that these are truly advances, because sometimes the new stuff is great. Other times, you get to a certain track and you have to go back to your 1990’s stuff to be fast.
OD: Who do you see as some of the most talented drivers in dirt track racing these days?
KS: When you go to a Modified race, and Nick Hoffman or Kyle Strickler are there, you know those are the guys to beat. I haven’t run with the USMTS crew as much as I used to, but they’ve got a ton of talented guys. Ricky Thornton Jr. is tough everywhere, and is an unbelievable talent, especially since he got into that Lethal Chassis this year.
It seems like no matter where you go anymore, there is no lack of talent.
I’ve run that damn Little 500 the past few years, and have just had so much fun that I’m going back to do it again this year.
OD: Have you gotten to drive every type of race car that you’ve ever wanted to, or is there something still out there you’d like to try.
KS: No, I’m lucky enough to have gotten to drive everything at least once. I’ve technically never raced an Indy Car, but I have practiced one. I’ve run that damn Little 500 the past few years. I’ve just had so much fun that I’m going back to do it again this year. I’ve only got two Pavement Sprint Car starts in my career, and they are both in the Little 500.
OD: Any end in sight for Ken Schrader’s racing career, or is it still full-speed ahead for years to come?
KS: My professional racing career might’ve ended several years ago, but my playing hasn’t. I always tell people that some of my racing buddies are getting older too, so we’ll just have to take some younger guys to the track to help us get in and out of the car. Other than that, I have no timetable on my days of racing coming to an end. I can tell you that it definitely won’t be anytime soon.