Every once in a while, I have one of those experiences where I need to forcibly remind myself that I enjoy something. You know, when you try to do something you normally love, but along the way everything seems to go wrong to the point where you’re a little miserable?
I had that exact experience a month ago. Every year Indycar goes to Iowa Speedway outside of Des Moines, Iowa to race on the 7/8 mile oval track. Since it’s so close to home, we figured it would be worth making the trip down there to catch the race, and had planned it out well in advance.
Iowa Speedway is a relatively new track, built in 2006, that has dubbed itself as “the fastest short track on the planet.” Being a short track that hosts major Indycar and NASCAR races every year, it brings a refreshing mix of exciting racing and a local hometown track vibe to otherwise high and mighty racing series. That grassroots-racing mentality appeals to the hardcore racing fans, but our experience showed us it’s also the biggest thing holding Iowa Speedway back.
The week before the race had been extra demanding for us, so come Friday we were really looking forward to an easy, relaxing weekend. The weather, on the other hand, had different plans and was ready to spoil our fun.
Not only were we exhausted from a long week, but we had also spent most of it outside, roasting like peanuts in the excessive heat that the rest of the country was also experiencing. That same heat continued into the weekend.
Bracing ourselves for the melting temperatures forecasted during the race on Saturday, we made a point not to arrive at the track especially earlier to minimize our exposure. We got there around 5:30 PM, which was about an hour before the race was scheduled to start.
But if there’s anything that people from the Midwest understand, it’s that consistent hot and humid weather becomes a breeding ground for storms. And sure enough, a storm popped up in the late afternoon and was hot on our heels as we arrived at the track.
As it turns out it was a pretty severe storm, with reported winds over 60 mph. As such, the parking attendant informed us that all spectator gates were closed due to the storms. They asked that we seek shelter in our cars until the lightning cleared the area – because nothing says “safe” like sitting in a car in a totally open field during a severe thunderstorm.
View this post on Instagram
So we’re at Iowa Speedway for the Indycar Iowa Corn 300, and a storm is blowing through. We were told to seek shelter in our cars due to lightning and 60+ mph winds. ⛈ 💨 ⛈ 🏎 . . . #indycar #indycarseries #iowacorn300 #iowacorn #iowa #racing #racingcars #storm #thunderstorm #severeweather #rain #stormchaser #stormchasers #raceday #rainraingoaway #motorsport #motorsports #iowaspeedway #cars #driving #weather #stormwatch #storms #wind #penskeracing #teampenske #andrettiautosport #downpour #hondaracing
Fortunately the worst of the storm came through rather quickly, and beyond a few overturned portable toilets and garbage cans, everything was just fine. But the lightning continued, even as the rain stopped, so we were still stuck outside.
Finally, around 8:30 – three hours after we arrived – they opened the spectator gates up and we were allowed in. The waiting didn’t stop there, though.
In order for the race to start, they needed to dry the track by blowing every last drop of water off of it. Believe it or not, even with the heavy-duty blowers mounted on the backs of the service trucks it still takes quite a long time to remove all of the water. At least the further delays gave us plenty of time to explore the track.
As it turns out, Iowa Speedway doesn’t have a whole lot by way of amenities. With just two concourses and two main grandstand sections, there’s not too much to see as you go around the spectator area. A handful of basic concession stands, and a couple of vendor trucks selling Indycar and Iowa Speedway merchandise were all the more we found.
Our seats were in the “Newton Club,” which is a higher-tier seating section on the start/finish line that includes its own indoor seating space with a dedicated bar and food selection. We chose those seats because they were only a hair more expensive than standard seats and figured it would be worth it for the extra amenities.
While I think it was still worth the extra money, I will say that the perks of the Newton Club were a little underwhelming. The food and bar service were only marginally better than the standard concessions outside, and beyond a better location, the seats were ultimately the same as all the other seats. I think there’s an opportunity for the track to improve the quality of the Newton Club and for it to be a more prominent high-end feature at the track.
The lack of exciting amenities for fans is a fundamental problem for the track that was only accentuated by extensive weather delays. While watching the race itself is the most important part for fans, the features at the track are an important selling point to keep fans coming back (and especially for those that bring their family).
I probably wouldn’t have really noticed any of this if it weren’t for the rain delay. But there’s something about being stuck somewhere for hours with nothing to do that will make you notice the minute details.
The real problem for a smaller track is that without the glitz and glamour of the bigger tracks, it’s hard to convince fans to keep coming back. It’s always easier and more comfortable to watch a race on TV at home, so the fan experience at the track needs to bring compelling advantages in order to fill the seats.
Race attendance at Iowa Speedway has been declining in recent years, and I can’t help but think that the sub-par fan experience at the track is a contributing factor. The new president of the track, David Hyatt, seems to agree, citing it as an area of focus for the track going forward.
Regardless, the delays led to uncontrollable boredom as we waited through the night for the race to start. Finally, at almost 11:00 PM, the green flags came out and the race began.
The race itself generally went off without a hitch, with only a couple small racing incidents and a brief red flag period due to some short-lived drizzle. Josef Newgarden quickly gained a commanding lead, and with a nearly flawless performance ran away with the race.
I think I would have more insight into the racing itself if I hadn’t been quite so groggy. By the time all was said and done, it was pushing 2 AM; and as you could probably predict, the vast majority of fans didn’t stick around for the entire race.
I came away from the race with mixed feelings. Not about the race itself (it was just fine), but rather with the Indycar schedule and the issue with Iowa Speedway. I actually really enjoyed watching the race even more than I thought I would – the short track makes the race action-packed and much more exciting.
But in its current state, is this the right flagship track for Iowa? In one sense the track stays true to its roots with a uniquely local feel, but it seems inappropriate for a track with dwindling attendance to be representing a state that’s been so important to racing history in the United States as a whole. After all, Iowa has more race tracks per capita than any other state.
Even beyond that, the track is well positioned to be an attraction for the entire upper Midwest. Iowa Speedway is the only oval course Indycar races on in the Midwest (Indianapolis Motor Speedway notwithstanding), and is one of only a few major NASCAR tracks in the region. In fact, when we were waiting for the storm to pass we saw several people complaining on Twitter about the delay due to their impending long drives home to Saint Louis, Chicago, Sioux Falls, and other cities.
I think the key takeaway is that Iowa Speedway has some work to do. There’s so much potential for great racing there, but something must be done to rejuvenate the spirit of the track. I worry that if they can’t turn it around, then it poses itself as an ominous sign of what’s to come for other smaller-market tracks around the country. Those tracks are the lifeblood of racing culture, and they’re something we just can’t afford to lose.