By Shawn Wood
For The Daily Item
MECHANICSBURG -- For the first time in a couple of years, Mother Nature is going to let the racers decide the outcome of the National Open.
The 51st annual event takes place tonight and Saturday with a rain date of Sunday, if necessary.
Going into the weekend, Daryn Pittman leads five-time Open winner Donny Schatz by 52 points in the World of Outlaws points battle while Greg Hodnett leads Fred Rahmer by 35 points in the Williams Grove Speedway 410 standings.
Saturday's 40-lap, $50,000 to win feature is the richest paying sprint car race on the east coast. Tonight's 25-lap preliminary race pays $8,000 to win.
Qualifying for both nights gets underway at 7:30 p.m.
The first driver to win the $50,000 National Open was Doug Esh in 2006. The race was rained shortened to 26 laps.
The only other rain-shortened National Open took place in 1976.
Unseasonably warm temperatures will have race fans in t-shirts and shorts for the first weekend in October.
"It looks like the first weekend that I can remember in the last couple of years that we haven't had to fight with mother nature to race two days in a row," five-time National Open winner Donny Schatz said.
The weekend's racing is the third and final two-day show at Williams Grove in 2013 that is sanctioned by the World of Outlaws.
Schatz has won both WoO events at the speedway this year. There are six races left in the WoO points battle.
"It wasn't that long ago that I really didn't care to go out to Williams Grove," Schatz said. "I was so bad there that I didn't feel like I really wanted to go back, but that changes when you learn how to respect things and that's part of growing up."
Schatz won his first WoO title in 2006, a year after he had won his third National Open.
Statistically, Schatz and Pittman are quite close this year.
Both drivers have 53 top-10s while Pittman, who has eight wins, holds the edge in fast time, 13-3.
"Even when you win a race there is room for improvement, there's ways to find things to make you better," Schatz said. "We thrive in being the fastest car all night and if not, we're scratching out heads and digging deeper to find out what it is we have to do to be faster."
Since July, Schatz has won 14 races, the Knoxville Nationals and he's won two of the last three WoO features.
His win total for the year stands at 21, which is a career and single-season high for him. He is the sixth WoO drive in series' history to win 20 races in a season.
Pittman has led the WoO points since the opening race in Florida.
"My guys are excited for the weekend and my crew chief, Rick Warner, is from Carlisle," Schatz added.
Hodnett, a former WoO Rookie of the Year, took over the Grove points lead last week in the Open tune-up race.
Both drivers have two wins at the track this season, but Hodnett lost a month of racing due to a broken hand.
Rahmer has never won the National Open while Hodnett scored his win lone win in 2009.
"Fred has had a couple of issues lately and we've run good, but folks forget that we missed a month of racing with the broken hand and we lost points, but, we've been consistent enough to get back in it," Hodnett said.
Hodnett and the team were out at Knoxville to participate in the Knoxville National back in August and as luck would have it, the Grove was rained out that Friday night.
"It is very rare to go through a season without any problems," Hodnett said. "We had ours at the beginning of the season and Fred has had his as of late, it all evens outs in the end and we'll see what we can do in the final point races. If we get beat, we get beat. If we win, that will be great too. We just have to try and win some races."
Hodnett is looking for a ride for the 2014 season as car owner Joe Trone is scaling back due to health issues. As of now, Hodnett does not have any plans for 2014.
The first National Open, a 100-lap race held in 1963 was won by eventual two-time Indy 500 winner (1973, 1982) Gordon Johncock.