Those who know about such things know that Iowa has always been considered the racing-est state in the country.
For most of a century, Iowa has had more automobile race tracks operating, per capita, on a weekly basis than any other of the 49 states. Of course, there were a couple of states with far greater population that had more operational tracks during that time, but none with as many based on tracks per 1,000 inhabitants.
I suppose to many readers, that’s not surprising. To others it may come as a surprise. And, to others it could get a “big deal” response.
In many respects that No. 1 status goes back directly to the early rural inhabitants of Iowa. Before the advent of motorized farming, those involved in Iowa’s No. 1 industry — agriculture — led secluded lives. It became great fun for the early Iowa farm families to get together at county fairs at those fairgrounds that dotted the landscape in each county.
Virtually every such fairgrounds in Iowa included a ribbon of dirt cut into the landscape, usually a half-mile in length — some as large as a mile in circumference, where farmers brought their best horses and raced them against their neighbors. Those county fair “races” provided certain bragging rights which lasted a full year until the next county fair rolled around during the time between planting and harvest.
As motorized farming became the norm across the state, those ribbons of black dirt in fairgrounds across Iowa became used for motorized competition, far more often than for horse racing. Many older readers will remember, however, the white picket fencing that circled those tracks on the inside. In fact, much of the early confrontations for use of those fairgrounds facilities came between those who favored automobile racing and those who favored to continue the horse racing.
In fact, I recall certain facilities — as late as the 1980s — that had stipulations calling for replacement of those white picket fences should they be damaged by out-of-control race cars.
No other state in the union could claim as many fairground tracks as Iowa. Integration of automobile racing onto those facilities came gradually after World War II when young men who’d seen battle in Europe or across the Pacific returned home. A restless bunch of heroic fighters had a new sense of adventure after seeing a half-decade of battle. In droves, those young men returning from war sought new adventure. Fast cars and fast motorcycles provided some sense of relief for those battled veterans who could not adapt to their same serene pre-war lives.
New racing facilities — many of them carved into farm fields — sprang up all across Iowa as the farm community held firm and prohibited using fairground ovals for car racing. That slowly changed by the 1960s, however. Just as quickly as those tracks sprang up after World War II, they disappeared in the 1960s as race cars began sharing fairgrounds tracks with race horses. It was an edgy situation, for sure.
At its height, automobile racing occurred at more than 40 locations across Iowa on a weekly basis.
With racing occurring weekly at 43 tracks in Iowa by 1972, it was no surprise that Iowa was named the nation’s racing-est state when the first national survey results were released in that year. Iowa held that top spot for two decades before the annual survey finally ended.
Those of us who have always enjoyed games of speed played out in so many areas and on so many nights each summer find it hard to see a decline in racing’s popularity. Sure, there are plenty of die-hard racers and race fans (oh, yes, I still consider myself to be among those Iowans), but popularity of the sport has shown a decline in the past few years.
There are plenty of reasons for that, I suppose. You can point to any number of factors — increased internet use, increased cost of racing, increased areas that have diluted fans’ interest — have all been listed as factors.
Still, there are those of us who won’t let go of the love we have for brightly colored cars being driven as rapidly as possible around those ribbons of dirt dotting Iowa’s landscape.
States all around Iowa — with far less history in the sport — have halls of fame that house famous race cars, helmets of historic drivers and racing uniforms from different eras. Iowa has none.
But, that’s about to change. I’m proud to have been involved in helping a group of Iowans organize a Hall of Fame for Iowa’s automobile racers. For more than a quarter-of-a-century, of course, Iowa has been home for the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum in Knoxville. This new one, though, is strictly for Iowans and includes all forms of automobile racing.
As such, nearly 40 Iowa greats — from drivers to car owners to sponsors to those involved in the support of racing — will be inducted into the Iowa Racing Museum & Hall of Fame. The ceremony will be held in Webster City on March 20.
I’m excited and I’m one of a group of Iowans who feel it’s about time.