Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Week In Knoxville

Knoxville Raceway, final night of the 2015 Knoxville Nationals
A look at the backstretch guardrail, wearing "Knoxville Raceway" proudly

If you ask the average person about Knoxville, they usually respond with "Tennessee?"  They are wrong.  As most Dirt Racing fans know, Knoxville is a small town in Iowa, about 30 miles Southeast of Des Moines, with a population of a little more than 7,000 people.  It is also the Sprint Car Capital of the world, as it is home to the Sprint Car Hall of Fame Museum, along with hosting the most prestigious Sprint Car race in the world, the Knoxville Nationals!  2017 marks the 57th annual edition of the Knoxville Nationals, which pays a staggering $150,000 to the winner.  Hundreds of the best Sprint Car drivers in the world, along with thousands of the biggest Dirt Racing fans in the world, will congregate to Knoxville next week.

A Knoxville Raceway sign greets visitors in the Des Moines airport, just as you exit your plane


I feel like this is the part of the story where I tell you what else happens in Knoxville, other than racing.  But, that's just it, EVERYTHING in Knoxville involves racing, which makes it one of the coolest places to visit!  When landing at the airport in Des Moines, a Knoxville Raceway sign is the first thing that greets you, when beginning the walk to the baggage claim.  Once in Knoxville, checkered-flag livery lines the streets, while local businesses usually have race flags, or other race-inspired decorations.  When driving to your camping spot, hundreds of race fans are outside, each wearing their favorite driver's apparel.  People are being loud, partying and just generally having a good time.  You get this sudden feeling of excitement and you can feel the electricity of the event, even though you haven't even seen the racetrack, yet.  Hundreds of campers, RV's and fifth-wheels line the narrow dirt roads of the campsites, many with race-inspired flags and decorations.  You arrive to your campsite and have sudden feeling of pride.  This will be your home for the next several days, your "race home"!

Hundreds of RV's and campers fill the camp grounds, some with Sprint Car art
Did we mention that some of the artwork and decorations are really cool, on the RV's and campers?!
A "Welcome to the City of Knoxville" sign greets race fans, followed by a Sprint Car on a stick
Race Haulers line the streets of Knoxville, as teams prepare for a night of racing!

I feel like it would be difficult to get anyone excited about the walk to the track, especially when reading this story.  But, as a race fan, it's one of my best memories from Knoxville!  Several race teams use the parking lots of the local businesses as their pits, which is just a cool sight.  You can walk right up to their "pit" to watch what they're doing, take a picture, buy a t-shirt, or maybe get an autograph.  On a "normal" night at Knoxville, when weather cooperates, the teams leave their rigs in the parking lots and only push their cars into the infield, along with their tools and some spare parts.  Not only does this provide improved vision for fans in the stands, but it provides one of the coolest sights that I have ever seen: Sprint Cars being pushed to the track, on a local city street!  Imagine seeing a minivan stopped at a red light, followed by a sedan, then a completely race-ready Sprint Car right behind them, adhering to the local traffic laws.  Only in Knoxville!

Tony Bruce Jr serviced his Sprint Cars in front of the local Godfather's Pizza, a few years ago
Godfather's Pizza is a popular pit stop for many teams, during the Knoxville Nationals weekend
The local Goodwill parking lot is also a popular hangout for many of the top Sprint Car teams!
Brad Sweet and his KKR Team wait for traffic to clear, so they can push his Sprint Car across the city street

As you get closer to the track, the lines of merchandise trailers become visible.  Nearly every well-known driver has their own merchandise trailer and I'm confident that sales reach the thousands of dollars, during the week of the Nationals.  The Sprint Car Hall of Fame Museum is located just outside of turn 2 of the famed half-mile oval and it also greets you, as you approach from the campsite.  The Hall of Fame Museum is an extremely cool sight and a "must visit" for any Dirt Racing fan!  They always have several cars on display, along with tons of memorabilia and historical items.  The Hall of Fame Museum has multiple floors and offers a very unique view of the track.  With multiple extremely personal Fan Forums being held daily during Nationals week, it's difficult not to spend several hours there, each day!  I highly recommend purchasing a membership, as it pays for itself after a couple of visits and it helps support the Museum.

A look at the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum, just outside turn 2 at Knoxville Raceway
The Hall of Fame Museum always has several cars on display, usually featuring the best Sprint Car drivers in the world!
The Hall of Fame Museum offers a very unique view of Knoxville Raceway, just outside turn 2 of the famed half-mile


There are a ton of events and happenings in Knoxville, during the week of the Nationals!  In addition to camping/partying and visiting the Hall of Fame Museum, Knoxville has one of the coolest go kart tracks nearby, called Slideways.  I'm extremely pleased to see the addition of a Dirt Track at Slideways, though the high-banked asphalt track provides a lot of fun, especially in the rain.  Slideways also recently added miniature golf and a full menu, for patrons wanting to spend the day there.  What better way to "gear up" or "wind down" from a night of racing, than to race go karts against your friends and family?!  Wednesday, August 9th features the Go-Kart Spectacular at Slideways, featuring famous racecar drivers such as Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.  Past year's events saw drivers like Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne race on the small paved oval, at Slideways.  Not only is it a cool event to attend, especially to see stars of the sport up-close and personal, but it is for a great cause!

Kyle Larson walking on the small paved oval at Slideways, in 2014
Jeff Gordon waves to some fans at Slideways in 2015, as he walks across the track
Kasey Kahne took the checkered flag at Slideways, in 2015!

Unfortunately, Mother Nature won the Wednesday Night show in 2014.  Many people say that Dingus "wins" when there is a rain-out, but Slideways was the place to be.  Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Brady Bacon and Kyle Larson continually took laps around the small paved oval at Slideways, even in the rain.  It's hard to put into words how much fun it was to trade sliders with Jeff Gordon, during the week of the Knoxville Nationals!

Slideways is always a great time, especially if Mother Nature gets involved

One event that I am sad to see off the list for 2017, is the Kick It For Cancer Kickball game.  Past year's events featured many drivers playing kickball in-front of hundreds of fans.  Each kickball team consisted of several drivers, but also included children whose parents had offered the highest bid.  Essentially, there was a very large auction at the event, which benefited the Kick It For Caner program.  Not only were there many cool racing-related items up for auction, but parents could "bid" for their child to participate in the Kickball game, playing against their favorite drivers.  The event remained mostly fun, but occasionally competitive spirits would get the better of a few drivers.  The game always featured Knoxville Raceway's flagman, Doug Clark, who was the "guest referee" and announcer, along with Tony Bokhoven.  Though the event was usually held late in the morning/early afternoon, Doug could be seen with his red solo cup.  We could never confirm what "mysterious beverage" was in his red solo cup, but Clark's comments were enough to entertain any crowd.  Overall, it was a great event that featured a fun-filled time for everyone and, again, benefited a great cause!

Rico Abreu (orange) approaches home plate where Doug Clark serves as the game's free-talking "referee"
2014 featured an Outlaw Kart that was auctioned off, along with the right side of Kyle Larson's Truck, from Eldora
A closer view of the right side of Kyle Larson's 2014 Truck, raced at Eldora

As I mentioned earlier, it is difficult to visit Knoxville, without visiting the famed bar just outside of turn 1, Dingus.  Some say that "only Dingus wins when there's a rain-out" and it's hard to argue.  However, that place is always packed on any night, especially during Nationals week.  Live music, cornhole and dancing are some of Dingus' more well-known activities.  The place is far from "charming", but you immediately get a sense of the history, as soon as you walk in.  Thousands of signatures line the walls of Dingus and if you look closely, you may find your favorite driver's name.  One of my favorite memories include being served drinks by Kyle Larson, as it was part of a promotion at Dingus.  I'll tell ya what, Larson sure knows how to pour a strong drink!  Another memory, which is a bit more sad, is from 2015, when Bryan Clauson won the Friday Night feature, locking himself into the "big show" on Saturday.  Story tells-it that BC enjoyed a rare "adult beverage" at Dingus that night, in celebration of his win!  Overall, the prices are very reasonable at Dingus and there is not a bad time to be had!

A brief glimpse at the "outside patio" at Dingus.  This area would be full of people partying, by sundown!


A race fan can truly find racing entertainment any night of the week starting on Thursday preliminary night of the 360 Nationals, all the way until Saturday night of the 410 Knoxville Nationals.  Thursday and Friday of the first week feature two preliminary nights of racing, followed by the 360 Nationals on Saturday, which pays $15,000 to the winner!  Sunday before the 410 Nationals features a great way for many drivers to "tune-up", during the Capitani Classic, a race which pays tribute to the late Ralph Capitani.  Most race fans head about 20 miles East on Monday, to Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, for the Front Row Challenge.  Terry McCarl knows how to put on one helluva show at Osky, where the saying goes "come for the party and see a race break out"!  Tuesday features a couple of options this year, as nearby English Creek Speedway has Outlaw Kart Nationals on its 1/6th mile clay oval.  Also racing on Tuesday in 2017 are Midget Nationals in Indianola, a race being hosted by the "Colfax Comet" himself, Robert Bell.  Regardless of where you choose on Tuesday, it will wet your appetite for the 410 Sprint Car Knoxville Nationals which kicks-off on Wednesday.  In fact, Wednesday - Friday feature preliminary action, as drivers desperately try to "lock" themselves into the field of the most prestigious Sprint Car race in the world.  Saturday is the "big show", as the 2017 edition again pays $150,000 to the winner!

Sunday's Capitani Classic allows 410 Sprint Car drivers with a "warm up" for the Knoxville Nationals
Monday Night is well-spent at Southern Iowa Speedway, in Oskaloosa!
English Creek Speedway is a small 1/6th mile clay oval near Knoxville and features Outlaw Kart racing on Tuesday

The Track

Ran fans could spend hours arguing about the "best" Dirt Track in the country and neither would be wrong.  For many, things like distance traveled, history of a facility, or prestige of an event may weigh heavily on their opinion.  Regardless of how you may feel, I think everyone has to admit that the Knoxville Sprint Car Nationals are among the top-5 biggest Dirt Racing events in the world!  Knoxville Raceway is a healthy-sized half-mile clay oval, featuring long sweeping turns, with short straightaways.  First time visitors of the track will note the location of the start/finish line, which is much closer to the entrance of turn 1, than it is to the exit of turn 4.  Knoxville Raceway is famous for it's track prep crew and for good reason.  They spend hours a day grooming the very dark brown Iowa "gumbo", which is obtained from the bottom of nearby waterbeds.  Knoxville Raceway is famous for having a surface that only dries slightly and gradually slicks-off, as the groove widens.  Rarely will you see a one-lane surface at Knoxville, as the track rarely takes rubber and the middle-to-high line is generally fastest, by the end of the night.  Another rarity would be catching any dirt in the eyes, from the racing surface.  Granted the surface may slick-off, but it certainly does not become a dust bowl.  Knoxville's facilities are also top-notch, with an efficient way of moving fans quickly while not charging an arm and a leg for quality refreshments.  Overall, Knoxville is one of the premier Dirt Track facilities in the world!

A large American Flag greets the eye, when looking toward the entrance of turn 1 at Knoxville
A new Media Board sits in the middle of turns 3 and 4, providing entertainment to the fans, while keeping them updated
Towering Suites line the front-stretch grandstands, proving this is truly one of the best Dirt Track facilities

The Event

It's hard to explain the feeling that a race fan gets, when they're about to witness the Knoxville Nationals.  Excitement levels rise at least 1 week in advance and culminate on the following Saturday night, as 25 of the best Sprint Car drivers in the world assemble for the most prestigious race on dirt!  When viewing the perfectly decorated cars, fans get a sense that some teams put a full season's effort into this one event, as they know that winning it can etch them in the history books forever.  Just ask Jason Johnson, who "stole the show" from Donny Schatz last year.  Special paint schemes are the norm at Knoxville, further signifying that this is truly a special event.  However, nothing can prepare you for the feeling of seeing all 25 cars roll by 4-wide, 6-deep, as Johnny Gibson delivers his famous call.  Meanwhile, pyrotechnics begin to erupt around the track, following the cars as they maintain their 4-wide salute to the fans!  It's at this moment, that you realize you are about to see the biggest Sprint Car race in the world.

Fireworks shoot-off, as the best Sprint Car drivers in the world take their warm-up laps 
Always a healthy crowd at the Knoxville Nationals!

Special paint schemes are common at Knoxville, as Donny Schatz ran this beauty in 2014

While Brian Brown had one of the best looking cars in 2015!

2017 Race Schedule

27th Annual 360 Knoxville Nationals
Thursday, August 3rd (preliminary night 1)
Friday, August 4th (preliminatry night 2)
Saturday, August 5th ($15,000 to win)

Capitani Classic 410 Sprint Cars
Sunday, August 6th

57th Annual Knoxville Nationals
Wednesday, August 9th (preliminary night 1)
Thursday, August 10th (preliminary night 2)
Friday, August 11th (Friday Night Hard Knox Qualifying + Speed Sport Challenge)
Saturday, August 12th ($150,000 to win)

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