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King of dirt: a day with Sammy Swindell

2 January 2016


Closing the deal — it’s the Swindell way

It seems a simple enough assignment, right? Head out to the workshop of arguably the best and most professional Sprintcars team in New Zealand, and do an interview with a World of Outlaws legend, a man with over 200 feature wins to his name and 40-plus years of turning dirt into his playground. Easy right? Wrong … 

I arrive to find driver and car owner hard at work. It’s Friday evening, and the following evening is the conclusion of the Porter Group Sprintcars series, which is the reason that ‘Slammin’ Sammy Swindell is in town. Contested over two rounds, it’s effectively the pinnacle of the New Zealand Sprintcars calendar for this season, with Americans Swindell, Donny Schatz, and Jonathan Allard going head-to-head with New Zealand’s best.

“Sammy is not here to drive … he’s here to win,” says team principal Ron Salter, as he welcomes me into the workshop / man cave that is home to a vast array of trophies, car parts, and pretty much everything else you require to run an operation needed to attract a driver like Swindell. Ron himself is no slouch behind the wheel, having won multiple New Zealand and Australian Truck racing championships, but he is the first to admit that the science of dirt-track racing is very different and that he never enjoyed the success as a driver on dirt that he did on sealed surfaces. As I look over the crammed shelves, the most interesting of the trophies are quite special in nature — the custom-built race seats of the professional drivers the team has played host to over the years. 

I continue looking around, and Sammy Swindell is courteous and polite to a point, but I have arrived when he is on the job and in business mode, and the race car he needs to drive tomorrow night is his focus. He remains constantly busy and in motion in the background while Ron and I begin to chat about a sport within which the Salter Motorsport team has certainly seen its ups and downs. At one point, I am told that when the operation peaked at four cars, it was the largest Sprintcars team in the world, although these days one car is enough. While one car might well be enough, there are at least two of every part required for the car held as spares, and when the team travel to an event, they have at least one spare of everything in their transporter. When the team went to contest a New Zealand title with the aim of winning, which Swindell did, they actually took an entire spare car with them ready to go.

“Winning in Sammy’s eyes starts with preparation. He is hands-on mechanically with the car and wants to be a part of the team and to teach you the right way to do things,” Ron tells me. As photographer [Adam] Croy and I both make the most of the opportunity to go over all the finer details of the brand-new Maxim ‘raised-rail’ sprintcar sitting in front of us, Sammy sets about firing up the lathe and drill press to hone another component of the car to his exacting preferences. “Sammy does the little things like re-making and shortening all the bolts,” we’re told — another little gem that emerges as we watch the goings-on with interest. With a power-to-weight ratio equal to that of a Formula 1 car, the combination of 900hp and 600kg is something that is a precise art to get right, with the wrong set-up or a simple part failure quickly turning a sprintcar into an airborne missile, hurtling towards a concrete wall at over 100kph. 

I ask Ron how exactly it came to be that Sammy Swindell could be behind the wheel of his race car, and the response is not quite the ‘handshake over a beer’ reply that I expect. Sammy, he repeats, is a man who likes to win, so when an initial approach was made, there was a large amount of research done and reference checking via mutual suppliers, acquaintances, and trusted sources before direct contact was even made. 

“You don’t just ask these guys to drive and expect they’ll come; they want a package that can win,” says Ron. He looks with pride at the car they call ‘Elvis’ and tells me that everything I am looking at is brand new, apart from the seat. There had been an incident the week before during a race that had bent a rim, so specific replacements were flown in from overseas without too much thought to the cost, and the engine was specifically specced for our tracks by engine-builder Kriners, who came down to New Zealand to see the tracks it was building for and adjust the combinations accordingly. The focus on success and winning never seems to be far from conversation, although it’s clear that there is an element of stirring the pot and a certain enjoyment that is taken from some of the notoriety Salter Motorsport has achieved. “It’s all about distracting focuses and getting people worried about what you are doing off the track, rather than worrying about beating you on it,” Ron explains, and when we start to talk about fuels, in particular, the use of nitromethane, and various other accusations of ‘cheating’ that generally follow those who succeed, he laughs and says it’s all part of the game. As a man who has succeeded in both the business and racing worlds, you can’t help but feel there is perhaps a little method to his madness. 

I remember that I am here to try to talk to Sammy, and when he does eventually take a break, I get a few words, but it’s clear he is very private, and, let’s be honest, in 40-plus years, he’s probably been asked every question under the sun 100 or even 1000 times. Ron jumps in again and mentions an ‘invisible-cloak race-night mode’, where Swindell prefers to sit alone in the trailer thinking. “At the track, he’s at his job. He’s looking at how he closes the transaction and gets the deal done. He has to calculate where the track is going, and who is coming up, where to pass and who might be behind him. On race night, I don’t talk to him other than to ask if he wants a drink of water; he’ll tell us if he wants something done,” Ron says.

I ask about fitness and keeping ready to race, and Sammy laughs and smiles. He’s race fit, I learn, with over 200 shows a year and doesn’t do anything specific when he’s on a working holiday like this, although back home in the US, if there is a bit of a break in the schedule, he’ll do a little gym work. He watches his water intake, in particular, and Ron jokingly says with a big laugh, “He drinks more water than I do beer … and anyone who knows me, knows that’s a lot!” I start to ponder what it must be like to wrestle 900hp around a dirt track for about 15 solid minutes a night with your heart rate through the roof, and I work out pretty quickly that this is pretty much mechanical CrossFit, and a race meet is an ever-changing workout. Imagine running wheel-to-wheel with 40 others, largely unable to see, just millimetres from firing airborne if you happen to run over a tyre or hit a rut. 

At this point, I learn a bit more about shadows and noises, and the role they play in Sprintcars racing. With the drivers’ movements so restricted, they have to develop an understanding of the role the light plays, with the very best able to gauge track positions off engine sound and where a particular shadow falls on the racing surface.

By this time, it’s clear that Sammy’s thoughts have already returned to the race car, and a I fire one last question at him from long-time speedway fan Shane Van Gisbergen. Shane had wanted to know what it was like to have a long-term rivalry with someone like Steve Kinser, the man they call ‘The King’. So I put this to Sammy and ask, “What’s it like to have a rivalry with someone for 20-plus years?” He turns, looks, and me and says, “Well … It’s more like 40,” in his southern drawl and smiles. “He wants to win, I want to win … I guess he’s all right,” and with that, he’s gone … mind back on the job, 100 per cent focused on getting the deal done.

The Salter team members and their commitment to bringing in the best drivers and the best gear is a big part of the increase in the quality of sprintcars, driving, and parts available in New Zealand. You don’t have to like them — in fact, I’m not even that sure that they want you to — but their effort and dedication certainly do deserve some respect and appreciation. 

I thank Ron for his time and try to extract my one-year-old from Elvis, where he has made himself at home swinging on the steering wheel. I can’t help but feel a little envy and that I wouldn’t mind a car of my own. I take one last look at Elvis and our transaction is closed. 

The following night, Swindell would go on to win the Porter Group series, before flying out of New Zealand on the Monday and back home to race his own car.


This article was originally published in NZV8 Issue No. 106. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: