Conner Donelson races his No. 42 Bailey and Donelson Racing sprint car at the Kokomo Speedway. The IU Kokomo student is a third-generation dirt track racer. (Photo provided)
Conner Donelson races his No. 42 Bailey and Donelson Racing sprint car at the Kokomo Speedway. The IU Kokomo student is a third-generation dirt track racer. (Photo provided)
He wants a new nickname.

While sitting in the offices of the Kokomo Herald, Indiana University Kokomo freshman Conner Donelson, a local sprint car driver, said he was tired of his current racing nickname of “Con Man.” He said every racer has a cool nickname – like Smoke, Six-Time, The King, Intimidator or Rowdy – and he wants in on the action. He just thinks Con Man does not fit the bill any longer.

Donelson, a 2013 Kokomo High School graduate, is on the fast track, both as a business major at IU Kokomo and on the dirt ovals of central Indiana – the latter of which runs in his blood.

“My uncle raced. My dad raced. And they tell me they used to sit me in the car when I was little and I would just smile,” said Donselson, who ran 600 sprints before joining the full-blown sprint car circuit. “My dad raced for 15 years and my uncle raced in the 1980s through 1990s. Everyone knew when my Dad came to the race track, he was there to win and compete.”

Uncle Jeff was the 1984 Lincoln Park Speedway track champion, defeating the likes of John Andretti and future Kokomo Speedway legends Bob Kinser and Tony Elliott. And dad Randy was a sprint car rookie of the year at the Gas City I-69 Speedway.

“I got started racing at a young age driving quarter midget cars,” said the current racing Donelson. “I have had that racing bug ever since. I did what a lot of race kids do – you run young, watch relatives and then step-ladder up.” 

Moving up through the ranks, he now races a 410-cubic inch sprint car on the same tracks of his dad and uncle – Gas City, Lincoln Park in Putnamville and the renowned Sunday night races at the Kokomo Speedway. He drives for a pair of teams – the No. 42 of Bailey and Donelson Racing and the No. 3 of Jim Sweat’s Wee 3 Racing. The Bailey’s are his grandparents.

“I love this sport; it’s in my blood,” said Donelson, who some may recognize for his years in the KHS Drum Line, firing up the Wildkat crowd before boys basketball games in Memorial Gymnasium. “Those two teams are my focus, but obviously I want to go further. It is nice driving two cars, because we can share ideas. It helps with running gear ratios and suspensions.”

He said driving for different owners – one being his own family – has positive benefits and allows him to constantly learn. For instance, he said the Wee 3 car used a torsion bar setup while his B&D Racing machine used a coil over shock suspension.

“We don’t keep anything from each other because we don’t race against each other,” said Donelson, who will begin his fourth year of driving sprint cars next month. “I ran a coil over shock suspension on my car and didn’t know the biggest difference between torsion and coil setup. When I got in the coil car, it opened my mind to how good it was. So we went out and bought a Maxim chassis with a torsion system (for the No. 42).”

Donelson, while driving alone around the short tracks of Indiana, knows the sport is really about teams. That is why his conversations always revolve around what happens in the pits and not what happens on the track.

“An interview with (two-time USAC Silver Crown Series champion) Jack Hewitt will stick out to me forever,” Donelson said. “He would always say, ‘We passed someone in turn one. Or we did this. Or we blew the tire in turn one.’ What is the key to that? The key is the word ‘we.’ Hewitt referred to everyone in the company. It is a team sport. Yes, I have to drive it around the track, but I wouldn’t have a car if it weren’t for the guys in the pits. That is my motto, just like any other team – it takes a team to get that far.

“If it weren’t for the people who go with me each week, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do because you can’t do it by yourself. My dad. My uncle. Scotty Harrington, my best friend, goes with me every week and gives 110 percent. And I can’t leave my stepmom out. Stacey does not get enough credit and she is an important part of this team.”

While the racing season runs from April through October, the rest of the year is spent in the college classroom. 

“An IU degree is respected no matter where you go or what you do,” Donelson said. “I want to make sure I take care of myself after racing, and that is why I am at IU Kokomo.”

As classes wind down for the year, the local tracks are gearing up for annual test and tune days. After that, the roar of engines will be heard in local communities throughout Indiana – and Kokomo’s Conner “Con Man” Donelson will be in the thick of the dirt track dust clouds.

“This is something that I am going to do for a very long time,” said Donelson. “I think I have a bright future, but where it’s going, I have no clue. I have the talent. I love racing. I want to do this until I am physically unable.”

But Donelson still wants a new nickname. Being that he is a former Wildkat and now studies as a Cougar at IUK, maybe something like “Fast Cat”  or “The Mad Catter” would work. But if he never gets an official nickname, there is one word he would like to be known as – champion. As Donelson burns up the Indiana dirt, that title could come sooner than later.