Underdog Knapp Comes Full Circle At Indy

INDIANAPOLIS -- If you’re a fan of underdog stories, you can’t help but love Steve Knapp.

Ten months after being pulled out of his race car with a fractured vertebra in his neck, Knapp slid back into the cockpit for the first time and put an untested, unpainted car into the Indianapolis 500 field on the final day of time trials.

This is the same man, you may remember, who, while playing third banana to Jeff Ward and Jim Guthrie on the ISM Racing team, won rookie of the year honors in the 1998 Indianapolis 500 while finishing third in his first Indy-car start.

He’s not afraid to stand on the gas, and he doesn’t mind sneaking up on people.

"I must be the luckiest guy in the world," said Knapp, who put an Indy deal together late last week with his former team manager, Mitch Davis, and the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series-leading Dreyer & Reinbold team.

Certainly Knapp was fortunate to get to Indy for the first time in 1998, much less this time.

Knapp, a Sports Car Club of America amateur national champion, is not a flashy man. A tall and gangly blond from Minnesota, he resembles Indiana basketball legend Larry Bird. He is 36 and a successful entrepreneur who owns a Northern Illinois company that builds racing engines.

Business sense has helped Knapp put together the financing to race, and three years’ experience with Mario and Michael Andretti on the Newman/Haas CART test team have given him a special insight into race-car technology.

But business, and the business of helping others race, all but took Knapp out of driving himself. It was only after his business began to prosper that he returned to racing.

After working with Newman/Haas from 1988 through 1990, Knapp spent the first half of the 1990s building his business. When he returned to the seat in 1996, he won the U.S. F2000 title, collecting four victories. The next year he ran consistently near the front in Toyota Atlantics and took his Indy Racing League rookie test.

Knapp’s first Indy-car race was the 500 in 1998, and he upstaged his higher profile teammates at ISM Racing by moving up 20 positions to finish behind only Eddie Cheever and Buddy Lazier. He performed the feat while holding onto a piece of bodywork that had come loose on his car.

The drive went a long way to securing a full-time ride with ISM for 1998. His Indy performance lagged; Knapp finished 26th, 96 laps down with handling problems. Then Knapp crashed at Atlanta in July, and the team fell out of sight while he recovered.

"Trammell did such a great job on my neck," Knapp said of Terry Trammel, doctor to the racers. "They grafted a (piece of) ankle bone into my neck because the front of one of my vertebrae kind of exploded.

"When Trammell put that bone in there, it healed a month early. It was supposed to be three months and it was only two. So I took my brace off, and we started physical therapy."

There were unseen complications, though.

"I had this problem where I’d lower my head in front of my body like this and my body would fill full of electricity, just as if you’d plugged yourself into a wall," Knapp said. "I couldn’t even eat dinner without jumping out of my chair."

The problem was that dried blood had caused the sac around Knapp’s spinal cord to stick to the cord itself. When he’d move the wrong way, the pulling of the spinal cord would cause nerve impulses to course through his body.

"They got it broke free, and that made me feel better," Knapp said. "I got back to working out and getting in shape to do this deal."

Shortly after that, however, Sam Schmidt was injured in testing in Orlando, Fla. Schmidt’s accident didn’t seem any worse than a lot of other drivers’ -- Knapp’s included -- but he was left paralyzed from the shoulders down.

The accident led Knapp to do some soul searching. But after thinking and talking with his family, he decided he’d race again . . . under the right conditions.

He demanded a properly funded team with cars that were put together well. And he wanted to return only with one of the two engineers he trusted most – his cousin, Team Menard manager Thomas Knapp, or his former ISM team manager, Mitch Davis.

"I came down here (on opening day)," Knapp said. "My best friend that actually raced Formula Fords, he lived over in Plainfield, he had a heart attack and died. So I went to his funeral on Saturday morning and came out here to walk through the garage to see what was happening.

"I was in such a bummer state about Bruce passing away that the only person I talked to was Mitch and my cousin and I went home. I went back to work for three days, and Wednesday I called Mitch to see what was going on. He told maybe there was a chance here, and he told me what was going to have to take place in order for it to come together."

One of the team’s owners, Dennis Reinbold, is an Infiniti dealer, and he naturally wanted to put an Infiniti in the race. So after Robbie Buhl qualified his own Oldsmobile-powered car on Saturday, he began preparing the Infiniti-powered machine.

Within 30 laps, Knapp was ready to go. He qualified at 220.290, good for the 27th starting position come Sunday.

Pressure? What pressure?

"My business that I have, my race-engine business, is so pressure-packed every day because you’re meeting deadlines that this is almost relaxing," Knapp said. "I don’t mean it in a lay-down kind of mode. But when you are out there it’s just a totally different universe. It’s like you penetrate out of this world and go somewhere else.

"It’s hard to describe. I remember when I was doing the qualifying run how calm I was breathing. Not gripping the wheel very hard. I was just having a nice Sunday drive."

Knapp considers the Indy 500 a bit of unfinished business.

But it’s not the only unfinished business he’s taking care of this month. Knapp hadn't talked to Schmidt, a former rival who hasn’t been as fortunate as he has, since Schmidt's accident, in part because the injury hit so close to home. He finally approached Schmidt on Monday.

"I was scared of how the conversation with Sam would have affected me, whether it would have made me not want to get back in a car," Knapp said.

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