Around and Around They Go
And where they stop, everyone knows. The finish line, of course. Well, except those unfortunate ones who suffer mechanical issues or, worse, decide to test out how strong the wall is by wrecking their cars into it.
Yes, I’m talking about racing. This past Saturday I ventured off to Newton and the Iowa Speedway for an ARCA race.
Some will be surprised to learn I’m a racing fan but I come by it honestly. Two of my uncles ran stock cars back when I was in grade school. One of those cars, the great orange pumpkin, number 222, can still be seen down in a ravine on the timber land near my grandparents’ farm.
My parents and I regularly made the half hour drive from our then-home in Boone, Iowa, to the fairgrounds in Dayton for the weekly races. That lasted until a fancy new one-third mile track was built on the south side of Boone. The Dayton track couldn’t compete and closed down soon after.
My biggest memory of the Boone races was the night they ran their Grand Nationals. Now, I don’t think there was much “national” about it, though it was certainly grand. They upped the prize money so more drivers showed up and then started the race with cars three wide, instead of the normal two abreast.
It doesn’t take a great amount of imagination to see where this one was headed. For reference, a typical high school track, the one running around the football field is just a smidge under one-quarter mile. A one-third mile race track, then, is just 150 yards longer. That’s pretty small to be putting cars three across at the start of a race.
For some reason, when they built the new track they decided they didn’t need fencing around the corners. Sure enough, the green flag went down, the drivers went roaring into the first curve, and a couple of the outside cars went up and over the edge of the track and down the outside. There just wasn’t enough room for everyone going around that turn.
I’ve no idea if they’ve started cars three-wide since, or if they’ve decided maybe a fence was a good idea after all. Or for that matter if their nationals are still grand.
My family moved to Oskaloosa when I was in junior high and went to the fairgrounds track there for a couple of years. At a full half-mile, it seemed huge in comparison. Going to the races lasted for a couple more years before things changed for us. A combination of not really knowing any of the drivers and my starting my high school years and all of the other activities that go along with that drew us away from the track.
While my avid fandom for races may have waned then, my interest has always continued and never fully let go. With friends who are very much into it, I’ve been pulled back more and more the past decade or so.
I’d been to the Iowa Speedway once before, 10 years ago, for what is now called the Xfinity Series, the level directly below NASCAR, the big guys you see usually racing on Sunday afternoons. I’d wanted to go back since then, even checked for tickets a couple of times, but something always seemed to get in the way.
For those not up on all the racing nomenclature, ARCA is a lower minor league level of NASCAR, a step or two below Xfinity.
Don’t be fooled though, the Iowa Speedway is a big-time track. Prior to the pandemic the speedway hosted both XFinity as well as Indy Car races with all of that sport’s big names. This is not one of your local dirt tracks like those in Boone and Oskaloosa. There’s nothing wrong with those, I think the dirt tracks are great, but it’s kind of like comparing amateur sports with the professional level, there really is no comparison.
Unfortunately, the pandemic wiped out racing at the track last year and this year it has struggled to get back on those circuits’ calendars. No one seems to know what’s going to happen as far as races there next year, so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get to a race now.
Partly not knowing what to expect from the pandemic, and partly because ARCA is a lower level of the sport, things were not as big at this year’s event as they were in the XFinity/Indy Car days, but there’s still plenty to do and see prior to the race.
My favorite thing is the Fan Walk. I sprang for a club seat so the Fan Walk was included in the price, but was only $5 additional for those who were in general seating.
The Fan Walk shuttles you to the track infield where you get up close to the cars. If you get there before they push the cars out to the track, you can stand by the gate and watch them roll out along with the drivers walking beside them. I saw Danica Patrick and a couple of the other big names when I was there for the Xfinity race previously.
Fans are also free to walk (it is a Fan Walk after all) up and down the infield area just a few feet from where the cars pit during the race.
Another fun part is the perspective it gives you of watching the cars race around the track, from the center of the track. It's a totally different view from sitting on the outside, in the stands. I timed it so I was there during the time trials, (get it, “timed it”, “time trials”? ok, moving along) when cars take two laps of the track and are timed to determine the starting order for the night’s race, fastest time at the front, slowest at the back.
In addition to the Fan Walk, the track always has live music and a number of displays in the main concourse area. It even included a chance to get autographs from the drivers prior to the race.
You can even go down on the track for pre-track announcements and autograph the start/finish line yourself. It’s really amazing how fine tuned they have the timing down of things leading up to race start. Fans were on the track up until just 15 minutes or so before the call went out for “Drivers, start your engines!”
The club section is the top, center part of the track and includes a huge air conditioned lounge, with two bars. It was 90 degrees outside when I arrived at the track, about two hours before race time so a lot of people were taking advantage of the air conditioning, I like hot weather, and after being outside at the Fan Walk, the lounge seemed way too cold. I quickly grabbed a beer and headed back outside.
The club section also provided me a seat in the middle of the action - fifth row, center. That’s both good and bad. The good is you’re so close to the track the sound of the cars rumbles right through your body, and you feel the wind, and sometimes the dirt, of the cars as they fly by.
The bad is the flag stand, where the official is located who waives the green, yellow, checkered flags, can block your view and because your seat is so low to the track, seeing the cars along the backstretch can be a little challenging. This is one of those times where having the “nosebleed” seats can be a good thing. A lot of diehard race fans intentionally choose seats near the top of the stands.
It’s really a matter of choice. I intentionally wanted to be close to the track this time but when I went to the Daytona 500 a few years ago, I chose a seat near the top because I really wanted to be able to see all the way around such a large track as that.
Whichever you choose, pack your earplugs, those cars are even louder than they sound on television. As for me, I think it’s time to plan a trip to my local dirt track for the Friday night races.
To get a feel for just how loud the action can get, turn up your speakers and listen to this.
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