Iowa Speedway trying to forge old, new fan connections

President Jimmy Small looking into all manner of fan engagement, re-engagement to make facility viable

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NEWTON — There seems to be a growing divide between a couple types of race fans across the country.

Dirt racing fans who follow their local driver or family member from track to track each weekend are less and less professing interest and dedication to NASCAR. Often the refrain from that group has been that the changes and racing style don’t connect to them like they used to; that marketing and advertising no longer are geared toward the lifelong fan, but rather attracting new ones.

Iowa Speedway President Jimmy Small knows that’s the case in Iowa, too. Reconnecting local racing fans to NASCAR is not only a priority, it’s vital to his track’s success. Entering his fourth season in charge of the 7/8-mile track and facility, Small has a lot on his mind to fill the grandstands again.

“It’s definitely something we talk about here internally all the time,” Small said. “Something still ongoing and in development is the Speedweeks we started last year with Knoxville. We’re building on that. We’ve had ongoing discussions with (Knoxville marketing director) Kendra (Jacobs) about how it can be improved and grown. I’ve got some really crazy and major ideas — that I’ll note as just that for now — with local tracks, especially Knoxville, that I’d like to pursue in the future. We’re on board with (reaching local racing audiences) 100 percent.”

Small knows it would be foolhardy to try to ignore those concerns from fans.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Larson recently made the case that drivers should be encouraged to go race locally and as much as they can to better connect with fans across the country. That’s especially the case when fans in Iowa might not have the money to travel the longer distances to see a Cup Series race.

 

Working with local dirt tracks has to make sense, though, Small said. Iowa Speedway has a marketing and advertising budget just like any other business, and track officials can’t spend all their time on touring all corners of the state to appeal to the local crowd.

Things like Speedweeks and meeting with NASCAR Home Track state champion Paul Glendenning at the state capitol are the first steps toward doing that, though. Adams County Speedway in Corning is the only NASCAR-sanctioned dirt track left in Iowa, so that makes it a natural fit with which Small and Iowa Speedway can interact.

That’s not to say working with an IMCA track is impossible. Quite the opposite, Small said.

“As far as having the ability to go out and put signage up at those tracks is difficult for us on the budget side, but to partner with them on something like we’ve developed with Knoxville is not difficult,” Small said. “We just want to make sure it’s authentic, makes sense and there’s a story there.”

There’s a pretty easy line to draw from reconnecting with dirt fans to refilling seats that have been empty the last several seasons. But that’s not the only avenue Small can or wants to take, even if it is vital.

When NASCAR bought Iowa Speedway, it was teetering on the edge financially, and needed a boost. NASCAR has provided that, but Small acknowledged, “it’s still a challenge out here, but NASCAR signed up for that.”

Small pointed out the facility has a responsibility to more than just the dirt fans in Iowa and the Midwest, too. He’s always envisioned Iowa Speedway as more than just a racetrack, and that was made clear by the announcement that Metallica would play a show at the track on June 9.

“This has been the best year financially for the racetrack, but it’s still a tough model to operate this track year-round, which is why we want to bring in more events and host more events,” Small said. “We want to work with local officials and state officials to find ways to incentivize groups to come to this state, whether it’s with the economic development authority or the Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau.

 

“We want to do that as much as possible because that’s going to help us get closer to a point of sustainability for this racetrack.”

The elephant in the room of every conversation about making the track financially viable or putting people back in the seats is the possibility of a Cup Series race ever making it to Newton.

NASCAR solicits and considers feedback from fans at many turns — the series has cited fan feedback when implementing new race, points and playoff structure, as an example — and the series schedule has been a point of contention from many around the sport for a while now. To listen to the fans, interest in the 1.5-mile tracks has waned, and short track racing is coveted.

Small doesn’t mind answering the question, but also can’t do much about it. With Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corp. having all but five of the race dates on the schedule (two races each at Dover and Pocono, as well as Indianapolis Motor Speedway), where Iowa Speedway fits will remain a mystery until something drastic changes with the other 20 racetracks.

Besides that, there’s no guarantee of sustained attendance increase at Iowa Speedway even if the Cup Series came to town. When the track opened, temporary seating had to be brought in to accommodate fans for the inaugural Verizon IndyCar Series race. It’s also no secret many other tracks aren’t selling out anymore either.

Small said that fact of sustainability is lost on some people, and that a Cup date is a quick fix to a larger industrywide problem — and a fix that’s far from guaranteed to stick.

“I believe that would be a shortcut and it also would be shorting what we owe to our fans this year, next year; before that race would come,” Small said. “We’re always happy to answer that question, but we owe it to our fans to concentrate on what is on our current schedule and what’s achievable and making the most out of that; maximizing their return on investment. That’s priority No. 1. We want to point that out so that no one gets any sort of hint or believes we’re just focused on getting that event just so we can sell space out again. We’re committed to our fans that are here right now and putting on the best show we can.”

Which fans Iowa Speedway connects to and how it connects to them is the central question for any entertainment venue, much less a racing facility. Reaching out to a base that might feel alienated is one important piece. Reaching out to new (and perhaps non-racing) fans is another.

Making the racetrack sustainable of course is the objective behind all Small’s objectives.

The fact remains, though, it’s a two-way street. Competition at Iowa Speedway is widely regarded as some of the best racing of any series that visits, but competition alone won’t be what tips the scales on filling in a theoretical gap in the Cup schedule. It also won’t be the only factor for what brings people back in the first place.

Small was put in this role at such a young age (28 years old when he got the job in December 2013) to find those answers.

“It’s important our stands are full for the races we currently have (because) that brings even more attention,” Small said. “By having a really good product on the racetrack, having the seats completely full and providing a really good, well-rounded experience that delivers the return fans need on their investment of tickets, what does that lead to? We all know what that leads to. When this place is full, this place is intriguing to anyone else — any other promoter or not. That’s what needs to happen, so that’s what we’re working on.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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