On The Run
The aggressive sprint-car racer Sammy Swindell keeps on going and going.
By Ron Martin
JUNE 26, 2000: Slammin' Sammy did it again.
The Pennzoil World of Outlaws held another groundbreaking sprint-car race, and Sammy Swindell of Cordova took home the big prize. He not only won the historic first sprint-car race at Bristol Motor Speedway, he dominated.
"When we go to a lot of the bigger tracks, a lot of the guys have excuses -- it's the speed, I guess, but we always seem to do well," reasons Swindell. Bristol is the latest of many conquests for the driver, whose first victory came just three races into his career, at the age of 15.
The concrete canyon of Bristol, which is the home of two NASCAR Winston Cup events each year, had been transformed into a high-bank half-mile dirt speedrome for the sprinters. Just the fact that the speedway's owners, Speedway Motorsports Inc., decided to cover their track with 1,000 truck loads of dirt for two weekends of racing is a story in itself. But this column is about Slammin' Sammy.
Early in Swindell's career, a public-address announcer at Rossburg, Ohio's Eldora Speedway coined the nickname because Sammy did something few before him had done -- run wide open around a half-mile track. Swindell literally threw his car into the turns, prompting the announcer to proclaim, "Slammin' Sammy's on a run." The moniker stuck as he collected trophy after trophy because of his aggressive style. And Swindell's okay that it's been used both as a positive and negative adjective.
"I'd rather be talked about than not," he says. "At least they know that I'm out there."
For Swindell, racing is nearly instinct. "The year I was born was my dad's first year to drive a race car. I guess it was something I was supposed to do," says Swindell.
Race fans in the Mid-South have known about him since 1971, when, in a car built by his dad, Sam, he won 11 B-Modified races at Riverside Speedway in West Memphis. It was his rookie season. He wasn't even old enough to drive to the racetrack.
His sprint-car career began in 1974 while still driving and winning in the modified division. Swindell won 11 sprint-car races and 12 modified events, earning him the Riverside Speedway points championships in both divisions. This meant he sometimes had to climb out of one type of car into the other while the checkered flag was still unfurling from his previous run.
Bobby Unser has called Swindell one of the great drivers of our time, putting him on a list that includes Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt because no matter the type of car or surface, each had the ability to win. "The skill to drive in a variety of racing disciplines is lost on most drivers of today," Unser said.
In 1986, Swindell went to Indy with the Pat Patrick Team. It was a year of transition for the speedway. The stock-block engines were making way for the turbo-charged forerunners of today's cars. But there he was, with a nearly out-of-date power plant being used by a team that was, compared to other teams, underfinanced. Trying to qualify, he lived up to his nickname, driving Patrick's car with force. His lap times seemed good enough to get him into the Memorial Day show, but with five minutes left in qualifying he was "bumped out" by just four-tenths of a mile per hour.
"We were in the top 10 in corner speeds, but lost it on the straights," Swindell says, recalling the day when he was the 34th fastest in a field that would only hold 33 cars.
This is Swindell's 28th year of racing. The World of Outlaws schedule is grueling, even for the youngest of drivers. Since his victory June 10th at Bristol, Swindell and his wife Amy have raced six times in four cities, in four different states. They have driven their motor home from Tennessee to Illinois to Oklahoma to Nebraska. On June 29th they will race in Joliet, Illinois, then pack up and make the trek to Knoxville, Iowa, for a race the next night. Sammy estimates he'll drive 80,000 to 90,000 miles this year, racing in over 150 events from California to North Carolina.
Swindell finds comfort on the road by bringing his wife and 10-year-old son along. And it's clear he's not yet done with racing. The flips and spins and miles traveled, which are so common on the sprint-car circuit, have not satisfied Swindell's need for speed.
Slammin' Sammy's on a run.
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