Joey Saldana is what those of us in this biz call a “good news” story.
A front-running sprint car star with the World of Outlaws (they took a swing through Canada earlier this summer, touching down at Ohsweken Speedway on the Six Nations Reserve as well as race tracks in eastern Ontario and Quebec), Saldana has been knocking on the door of the series championship for several years now.
The son of “Little” Joe Saldana, who won the Knoxville Nationals in 1970 and who made two starts in the Indianapolis 500, Saldana Jr. was running particularly well this year before disaster struck when he flipped during the Kings Royal race at Eldora Speedway in Ohio and really did a number on his right arm and some ribs. He also suffered a punctured lung.
Out of action for several months, Saldana returned to action Wednesday night at Hartford Motor Speedway in Michigan to go up against all the regular Outlaw runners once again — the Kinsers, the Dolanskys, the Schatzes and the rest of those guys — and promptly won his first race back.
According to a release from the Outlaws, many people told him it was too soon. His family and friends cautioned him against it. Joey Saldana, though, knew Wednesday night at Hartford Motor Speedway was his time to strap himself back into harness.
With support from his car owner, NASCAR star Kasey Kahne, he got aboard the No. 9 Red Bull Maxim sprint car for the first time in nine weeks. He won the pole position and dominated the 25-lap feature.
“This was way more than I expected tonight,” said Saldana, of Brownsburg, Ind. “My family thought it was too soon but I kept telling them I was ready.
“I wanted to come back and be competitive and build something for next year. That’s why I came back for these races. I know and respect racing. Several drivers have been in accidents like mine and will never crawl back into a car. I’m very lucky and blessed to be here tonight and to come away with a win is huge.”
(Watch Saldana's post-race interview video here)
Saldana is an intelligent and philosophical race driver, as those quotes above showed, and in things he said when I interviewed him several years ago for a Toronto Star Wheels column.
On children racing: "My dad didn't push me (into racing). I have a 5-year-old son and I won't push him either. There are too many kids who really don't want to do it; their fathers make them. I was in my middle teens before I decided to try racing and my first race was in a go-kart. That's when I started to get interested.”
On rainouts when the tour is in Canada: "To go all that way, to go through the trouble of clearing customs and then not get to race can be very frustrating. Yes, we race a lot (about 80 races a year) so we're on the road a lot. But a night off really isn't welcome. We'd rather be home if we're not doing our job, which is to drive in and win sprint car races."
On making it to Indy: "I'm in my late 30s and a professional sprint car driver with the World of Outlaws. I think they're looking for young guys who can bring money. That doesn't mean I wouldn't jump at the opportunity, but at this time of my life, I'm real happy to just be where I am."
And where he is, is at the front of the pack. Where he belongs.