On any given warm weekend evening, you can hear the roar of an engine coming from an Iowa race track. Iowa leads the nation in the number of race tracks per capita. The state's 79 tracks are in almost every county. From behind the steering wheels of the race cars to the fans in the stands, auto racing is driving money into the economy.
Sponsors shell out millions to help drivers keep cars running and, not incidentally, so they can carry sponsors' logos. From modest rural venues to big time high profile tracks, the ticket sales, concessions, car sponsorships, and more recently television, have built an enviable revenue stream.
"There's nothing like it."
"Its just something I grew up with."
Dianna Anderson: "When you were little and that's where your parents take you on weekends and you marry somebody who loves dirt you just hop on for the ride. There's lots of fun at the racetrack. Not just watching the racing the cars, but the people and the food and the entertainment that goes on before the event, so there's just a lot you can do."
Both statements fit almost anyone behind the wheel of a car on a dirt track in Iowa any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday night. The same goes for the fans who each week sit track side to see their neighbor or friend race around the track.
In the far northwest corner of Iowa at the Rapid Speedway in Rock Rapids, the story is like any track in the state.
Teams break from work in time to get to the track, this night at the Lyon County Fairgrounds, to race. They arrive with thoughts of winning each night. But just getting to the track is a challenge for drivers.
Drivers need to keep cars in running shape, which requires constant time with a wrench. One man in the infield who's known that commitment for the last 4 decades is Doug Wolfgang.
He’s won the top prize for sprint cars at Knoxville Nationals 5 times. He retired after a career-ending crash.
Doug Wolfgang: "I realized at 5 feet 7 150 pounds I realized I wasn't going to be an NBA player, or an NFL player so I wanted to be a race driver and the 2nd reason is at that time in 1970 when I graduated high school, the cream of the crop job was working in the local packing plant and it was a great job and people made great livings there and they stayed there for 40 years and they retired and it was everything you wanted as a non-educated person, except for I wasn't interested. So the biggest reason I wanted to be a racer I was scared to death i was going to have to get a real job."
He's now working with his youngest son, who's showing an interest in racing.
Tracks like the Rapid Speedway are the entry points for dream chasers. Wolfgang's career took him all over the country to race and at many levels. Following World War two the sport took off. Many of the drivers who've made the major leagues of racing, NASCAR and Indy Racing League, started on the dirt track circuit. But, today few advance past this level.
Doug Wolfgang: "This ain't 1945 no more, it takes megabucks to race. Even small time late model cars cost $25-30,000. These cars here are expensive. The dirt track, hometown dirt track, late model cars in Iowa 25-30-35 thousand, and some places they run for pretty big money, so the competition is good."
The competition helps to fuel enthusiasm for racing at the local level and that provides a foundation for an Iowa racing industry. The economic impact of Iowa racing extends from the concession stands to an array of businesses that provide product and engineering support to racing teams across the country and the activity is growing the state’s stature as a racing destination. In the wake of record-setting attendance for the Indy Racing League’s Iowa corn 250, Newton’s Iowa speedway wants to double its capacity from 40 thousand seats to 80 thousand. Iowa fans have embraced the new track with high expectations.
Dianna Anderson: “We want it to be successful. We want bigger things and more things here at the speedway, so we buy season tickets, every year because we want to support it.”
The IRL race also attracts corporate sponsors who bring in clients to large tents trackside or even the infield to view the race. Fans are allowed to walk the garages before the race to get up close and maybe personal with a team. And that may be the key to the success of racing in Iowa – the same access to the drivers that is expected at small town venues is enjoyed by fans at big time tracks.
Roger Merth: "The more personal you make it, the more attached you get to a driver, the better the racing is. It’s the same thing at local tracks, all the way to the big track.If you've got friends and family who know the guy behind the wheel, behind the helmet, it’s a lot easier for them to really keep an eye on them, the attachment about every lap, every move you make.”
Roger Merth’s attachment is visible in the form of a tattoo of his favorite driver, Rick Mears. Such passion is not uncommon in racing circles.
Bailey Mendenhall too was once a racer, but time and cost put her in the stands where she is an enthusiastic supporter of racing.
Bailey Mendenahall: “When the fans get excited, you hear it when they start up, get you pumped up, especially if they cheer for you. It gets you real excited.”
With a fan base that is so committed from the backwaters to televised ovals, it’s hard to bet against the future of the industry.