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Discussion: Auto Racing in Iowa

posted on September 19, 2008 at 4:08 PM

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In the studio to discuss Auto Racing in Iowa will be Ralph Capitani, long-time director of racing at the Knoxville Speedway, and Iowa racing historian Bill Haglund.

Paul Yeager: So, here are a few of the questions we're going to talk about tonight.  How much bigger can Iowa's racing industry become?  As it grows will there be casualties?  Will the small town tracks decline in the wake of the more big time racing in the state?  And are there public policies that could help grow this industry?  Our discussion will include long-time director of racing at the Knoxville Speedway, that's Ralph Capitani and also on our couch tonight is Iowa racing historian Bill Haglund.  Gentlemen, I welcome you both.  Bill, you just retired from the Dallas County newspaper, you've covered all levels of racing, even worked for a couple of NASCAR tracks.  So, from your perspective how does the sport grow in Iowa?

Bill Haglund: Well, weekly racing is always going to be around Iowa and one of the things you mentioned can big time racing help it.  I believe it can because the more people going to the bigger races such as the ones at Iowa Speedway or at Knoxville, which is one of the very successful tracks in the state, is going to feed back to the other smaller communities, which obviously don't draw the crowds that the bigger tracks do but still get enough fans every week to support that local racing and keep the racers enthused.

Paul Yeager: We had Doug Wolfgang in the piece there and you're very familiar with Doug and his time at your track.  He had mentioned that he thought the sport was a little bit being hurt by the advent of television and the Internet and helping spread the word about the tracks.  Is that a statement that you would agree with?

Ralph Capitani: Not necessarily.  I really don't know the affect of television for sure.  It helps because people see the facility and see the event and maybe they make up their mind they're going to visit it.  It hurts because some people, if it's live television some people will stay home rather than spend the money and take the effort to be there.  So, it's kind of a Catch 22 situation, you don't know which is most important.  

Paul Yeager: But I would imagine you would not want to see your national TV contract go away with Knoxville because you are, you're on Speed?

Ralph Capitani: We're on Speed.  I would strongly consider the live content going away and being tape delayed, that's better for sprint car racing.

Paul Yeager: Because it would drive people to the track more to see the live event and not try to catch it live on TV?

Ralph Capitani: Well, I think that too and the sprint car doesn't lend itself real well to live television because there are delays that occur in there that are TV caused which my fans sitting in the stands get a little impatient.  And so I'm for tape delayed television.

Paul Yeager: Edited down a little bit, those crazy TV timeouts that you always hear about in any sport and it hits your sport.  And Bill, you also do work with the Iowa Speedway in the public relations sense.  That's been a big boom for that track has been its national TV contract.  Has that legitimized the track in its first couple of years in existence?

Bill Haglund: Oh, I think it's certainly helped.  I think what has legitimized that track was just the way it was built.  Everything there is first class and I only work there part-time, I work race weekends but the drivers who come in to race that track or practice at that track they think it's one of the finest that they're on and, in fact, I'm sure that is one of the reasons because of the driver feedback that Iowa Speedway will have that NASCAR Nationwide Series race next year and in the first three years that's just pretty much unheard of.

Paul Yeager: There's an airport right next to that facility in Newton and there's a lot of big jets that come in and out of there with those high name drivers that come and go and they help spread the word.  Rusty Wallace has certainly helped spread its word.  The Nationwide Series, where are these extra fans going to come from that are going to be in these stands next year?

Bill Haglund: Oh, they'll come from all over the Midwest, there's no doubt about that, they're not just going to be Iowa people.  You're going to have people from all the neighboring states coming in for that and I would not be surprised to see 70,000 to 80,000, maybe even more thousands of fans there for that event.  It's really a big event.

Paul Yeager: So, you're going to be drawing some nationals, you already have people, Ralph, at your track coming from a national standpoint, it's the nationals.  Talk about your economic impact.  I think there was a study that you had done a few years ago.  Describe that finding.

Ralph Capitani: Our last economic impact was done in 1990, quite a while ago, and it said $50 million within a 75 mile radius of the track is what racing at Knoxville was worth.  I would say that has tripled by now.  We have people at the nationals who stay in Cedar Rapids and drive back and forth every day.

Paul Yeager: That's a long drive.

Ralph Capitani: Yes it is.

Paul Yeager: So, you're talking about lodging, you're talking about meals.  Are there other impacts that that reaches to, gas stations, where else?

Ralph Capitani: State fair, our nationals is always in the state fair and we have hundreds of people who come from Pennsylvania, the state fair is on their agenda during the day and then they race at night.

Paul Yeager: What about the impact -- I believe the PR director at the Speedway thought it was about $100 million already for the track -- same type of economic impact?  

Bill Haglund: There is no question about that.  And to go back to something that Cappie just said right now, every time that I'm at Iowa Speedway when there's a race I have fans, I have drivers, I have crews come up and say, how far is it to Knoxville?  So, I know a lot of those people are going down and going through the Sprint Car Hall of Fame down there and taking in a Saturday night race if they're in the area.  So, it helps statewide and there's thousands of fans.  When you figure 40 tracks, roughly, racing weekly shows in Iowa even if they're drawing 1000 people that is 800,000 people in a year attending a weekly show and probably another 500,000 or more attending these special events like the nationals or the World of Outlaws or this Lucas Oil Late Model show that Cappie has coming up at Knoxville and certainly the five races at Iowa Speedway, you figure 1.5 million people attending a race in the state of Iowa in a year you can only imagine the economic impact that they generate.

Paul Yeager: And the track in Newton was built with some tax incentives.  Is there going to be more incentives needed to grow?  Is there going to be any incentives used?  I don't know if you know the answer to that?  Has that helped grow the sport?  We hear about the Microsoft and the Google large companies getting tax breaks, does an industry that you're talking about, racing, need incentives to continue to grow?

Bill Haglund: Well, I think Iowa Speedway is unique in that because I don't see much incentives for most of the tracks in Iowa and I think Cappie would agree.  What Iowa is blessed with is agriculture and all the county fairs and they built these tracks a decade or more, 100 years ago to race horses on and they're perfect, the dirt in Iowa is perfect for racing cars.  So, I don't see anything hurting it, I see the sport growing if anything.

Paul Yeager: What if your lawmakers said, well, we'll help get you some money.  What would that do?  You didn't have tax incentive money when you built the tracks back in the 50s.

Ralph Capitani: No, we'd love to hear them say that but obviously it's not necessary to be right honest.  It might have been with Iowa Speedway but that's a unique situation also.  Knoxville Raceway was a community project that they started because they needed to operate a county fair and it costs money and that's how it started in 1954.  And they've done it all without technically any help, governmental help and that's great.

Paul Yeager: What about roads, infrastructure, things like that?  You've got a nice four land road that comes pretty much to the front door of the city on the north.

Ralph Capitani: That's a state highway and I don't think they did it for us.

Paul Yeager: But it's helped.

Ralph Capitani: Certainly, it's great.

Paul Yeager: Is there anything growing wise, you have full stands especially on your big weekends, are there infrastructure needs that your facility would like to have?

Ralph Capitani: Not really, they've pretty well taken care of those things as they went along.  Knoxville always has put any earnings that they had back into the facility so it's a pretty state-of-the-art facility.  In fact, I don't think anybody would argue that it's the number one dirt track in the United States.

Paul Yeager: There's been good stewards at the track.

Ralph Capitani: I think the Marion County Fair Board has done a whale of a job.

Paul Yeager: Bill, let's talk a little bit about some of the economies -- you and I had a couple of conversations about some of the impact, we showed it in the piece there before about all these companies.  Talk a little bit about this does not just extend behind these two tracks that we're talking about.  There's a lot of companies out there that primarily racing is their business.

Bill Haglund: There are several in this state that deal strictly with automobile racing and a couple right here in this area that I can think of, of course, would be Harris Auto Racing in Boone and JR Motor Sports in Ankeny.  Their entire business revolves around automobile racing and there are so many -- the largest builder of racecar aluminum bodies is in Cedar Falls, Performance Bodies.  That has just grown and grown and grown until they're in just a huge building up there and they ship racecar bodies all over the United States and into Canada I'm sure.

Paul Yeager: Same thing, Ralph?  You're a little different car but is there the same industries that support sprint cars?

Ralph Capitani: Very definitely although the chassis builders there are a couple in Iowa but most of them are outside the Midwest.

Paul Yeager: But there are Iowa companies or companies in the Midwest that have Iowa ties.  I believe there is one that goes back to a track based in Grinnell.  Tell me that story.

Bill Haglund: The Doosenberg story.  You're going back a long, long ways.  The Doosenberg brothers had their motor company in Iowa.  It was started I believe in Grinnell and in the early part of the 1900s they built some of the luxury automobiles.  They came on some pretty hard financial times and the interesting story there, I believe it was July 4, 1914 there was a race at a mile track at Sioux City that paid $7000 to win which for 1914 that's a pretty incredible amount of money and Eddie Rickenbacker, actually the World War I flying ace who later owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway by the way, Eddie Rickenbacker drove one of the Doosenberg cars to a victory in that I believe it was 100 mile race and that $7000, at least the story goes, saved the Doosenberg Motor Company from financial ruin and subsequently, of course, that company was moved to Indiana.

Paul Yeager: So, there's roots for the entire industry in this state.

Bill Haglund: Oh, absolutely.

Paul Yeager: Here in our final couple of minutes, Ralph, I just want to ask you again, what do you anticipate, not your track specifically, but others around there -- we say 79, a lot of those are temporary, about 56 are every week or 40 as Bill has said that race on a weekly basis -- do we think we'll see that number shrink a little bit?

Ralph Capitani: I don't really think so.  Most of these began with the fair circuit, of course, a long time ago and it's still a good money raiser for these people.  They're not going to get rich, they're not going to be wealthy because of this track but it helps a lot of people out in the communities and I think it's going to keep going.  If the economy is a little bit depressed, which it obviously is at this moment, people don't have disposable income they had a few years ago, it just means you've got to tighten the belt a little bit in what you do.

Paul Yeager: I think you told me you did a quick comparison on your nationals from year-to-year last year to this year, you were only down about 700?

Ralph Capitani: Yeah.

Paul Yeager: And over how many people come to that weekend?

Ralph Capitani: Over 20,000 people were there.

Paul Yeager: So, not a big impact to the economy this year for your track?

Ralph Capitani: No.

Bill Haglund: If I can interject something, I think what Cappie is finding too but he's a unique situation being the only really sprint car track but the other tracks you're finding people who maybe don't go two or three times a week, maybe will go a Friday night or a Saturday or a Sunday but not all three.  So, it impacts a little bit in that respect.  But people are still going to want to watch their racing.

Paul Yeager: In the last ten seconds, what is the race this weekend?  You both have races coming up so what's your next race?

Bill Haglund: The Iowa Speedway is hosting the USAR Hooters Cup, their last race of the season at Iowa Speedway on Saturday.

Ralph Capitani: Lucas Oil Late Models next week but Tony Stewart racing and it's going to be a great week.

Paul Yeager: I appreciate it.  That's Ralph Capitani, he's from Knoxville Speedway and Bill Haglund, an Iowa racing historian. Gentlemen, thank you so much for that discussion.  

Tags: cars Iowa racing

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