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Spare The Corny Jokes; Iowa Speedway Is Becoming Rural Legend

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 20 2009
Filling the grandstands has not been a problem for Rusty Wallace and Iowa Speedway.

Filling the grandstands has not been a problem for Rusty Wallace and Iowa Speedway.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

The reasoning of the day sounded unassailable: Build giant, mother-ship race tracks as close as possible to the major population centers of America. That is, bring the racing to the people, open the gates and be careful not to get an arm or a leg caught as the turnstiles spun like a helicopter blade.

Afterall, during the day when that plan took root, auto racing was huge and looking to expand. With rural America already under racing’s spell, the natural place to expand was to the cities.

It all seemed so can’t-miss.

But now, many people are rethinking that reasoning.

People like Rusty Wallace.

A couple of years ago, Wallace was approached about getting involved with a group of people who where thinking about building a track in the middle of Iowa. In Newton, to be exact, which is 30 miles east of Des Moines, which is the country’s 90th-ranked population center and 71st-ranked television market.

The former Sprint Cup champion and current ESPN commentator gave it some thought and decided to jump in and swim upstream.

The decision is looking better and better. Iowa Speedway has become a success at a time when most mega speedways are trying to figure out what the heck hit them.

“It is exceeding our dreams, that’s what it is,” Wallace said Friday.

Iowa Speedway opened in 2006. It features a seven-eights-mile oval with intermediate banking of 12-14 degrees in the corners.

Seating capacity is listed at 40,000 and Wallace said that this weekend’s IndyCar event should sell that number tickets.

But Wallace said the crowd for the upcoming Nationwide Series race , scheduled for Aug. 1, will attract 55,000 fans and that temporary grandstands will need to be brought in to accommodate the demand.

The secret to the success, Wallace said, is the secret to the success of most businesses – location.

He said when he first started telling people that he was thinking about designing a track in the middle of corn country, he was ridiculed.

“I took a lot of grief from some writers,” Wallace said. “A lot of them were just being smart alecs saying, ‘Why that’s stupid. Why build out there in the middle of a corn field and why would you go to Iowa of all places.’ They were actually talking down on Iowa. It really ticked me off and hurt people’s feelings.”

But Wallace kind of figured that what others perceived as a problem with building in Iowa, could actually be an advantage.

He figured that Iowa had race fans in abundance and potential race fans in even more abundance. What it didn’t have was a professional sports franchise which the state could rally around and support.

“Guess what, all these big, big markets are not putting people in the grandstands,” Wallace said. “That’s because in my opinion, there is just too much already to do. Those people (in urban areas) already have so much to do. In Iowa, there’s not just that many choices. They are passionate about it. Man when you go to Iowa Speedway, you are going to see people who are so dang jubilant that it’s unreal. It’s a huge party from the beginning to the end and they get doggone excited about it.”

Terry Angstadt, president of the commercial division of the IRL, said you cannot help but notice that when the IRL pulls into Newton.

“Absolutely you notice (the fans). From people at the airport to the hotels to the people at the track,” Angstadt said. “You go to a smaller market and there aren’t a lot of other entertainment options and this is the big show for the weekend. And it’s great. To see that, to be able to bring that and see the reaction the fans have. This is the Midwest and that’s our roots and there is just a lot of following of our sport.”

Iowa Speedway, Wallace said, is appropriately named.

“Their attitude is you screw with my race track, I’ll punch you in the nose,” he said. “They got that attitude. They just don’t want to hear your smart alec, big city comments. ‘Talk us down, we’re going to show you wrong. We’re going to fill those grandstands every time.’ And that’s good. They got that attitude about the track and they’re passionate about it.”

There is no Four Seasons hotel convenient to the track. Nor is there an Intercontinental. And downtown Newton doesn’t have an ESPNZone or a Mezzaluna a Planet Hollywood.

But popping up on Interstate 80 at the track are a couple of new motels, and downtown in Newton, there is the Midtown cafe (“My father’s favorite restaurant and the best breakfast there is,” Wallace claims.) and that is what racing was and, if Wallace is right, will be again someday.

“It’s easy,” Wallace said. “Everything is very easy” when it comes to attending an event at Iowa Speedway. “It’s old school and it’s fun.”

The place stays busy. In addition to IndyCar and Nationwide races, it hosts the Camping World Trucks, ASA, ARCA, USAC Silver Crown and several other touring series. It also hosts concerts and driving schools and car shows.

Wallace said the place is paying its bills.

The future? Wallace said of course he would like to get a Sprint Cup race there.

“But, I don’t want to get greedy. Our goal is to treat people really good and keep building our base,” Wallace said.

And that base is one which seemed for many years to have escaped the notice of some of the bigger track-builders in this country.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, June 20 2009
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