CEDAR RAPIDS — Hawkeye Downs Speedway enters its 92nd season of racing Friday night.
Those 92 years have seen some immense change at various times — the move from dirt to asphalt in 1989 the biggest, of course — but the last decade or so has been as tumultuous as any decade in its history.
The beginning of the 2017 season sees another change in leadership at the historic racing facility. Past efforts focused a lot on racing — via rule changes and attempts at special or touring events, among other things — while the new direction for the facility’s future appears to be more expansive.
Cedar Rapids City Ccouncil member Ann Poe signed on approximately six weeks ago to be the Executive Director of Hawkeye Downs. As Executive Director of NewBo City Market and one of the key figures in the restoration of the NewBo area, Poe’s vision for Hawkeye Downs’ next several years has everything to do with “place-making.”
“When you develop a sense of place, things around it grow and build, and we’re going to apply that same philosophy here at Hawkeye Downs,” Poe said. “We’ve done a couple focus groups and online surveys and people are telling us that there’s so much more we can offer and can do. We want to expand.
“We want to look at how we can grow Hawkeye Downs to be a viable community venue again.”
Poe said the task of place-making has two parallel tracks on which the new team running Hawkeye Downs will run.
Poe is joined by Director of Operations Potique Johnson — who goes by Tiki — and returning race director Kevin Korsmo to work with the board of directors, which has a new president in Josh Moore, to achieve a strategic plan Poe said is in place.
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Their job, Poe said, is to market Hawkeye Downs in those two ways — racing and non-racing events. She mentioned drive-in movie nights, a microbrew fest and a food truck fest as options for non-racing events, while excluding the return of the All-Iowa Fair.
Racing, though, remains the “core” of Hawkeye Downs and the source of much of the nostalgia on which they want to draw. For now, changes to rules or classes on the track are something that will come at least after one full year of racing, Poe said.
The biggest aspect of what Poe and the team there has done so far is re-engage people within the community as sponsors and supporters — for both of the tracks she mentioned. Her role as a city council member and being “born and raised” here have combined to open a lot of doors for the facility, she said.
“Our racing, racecar drivers and fans are very important to us because it’s part of our core,” Poe said. “We’d love to grow the field; grow the number of cars. We want to keep that growing and strong.
“We’ve had a number of vendors who have said, ‘We believe. We want to be part of the rejuvenation.’ … That’s the goal as we attempt to continue to make racing our focus in the summer months and then find other events for the community and for people in Eastern Iowa to come in and enjoy.”
Along with the McGrath Family of Dealerships, Van Meter, hibu and others, Poe highlighted Cassill Motors as a major sponsor and supporter that’s returning this season to help bolster racing events and the facility itself.
As far as those racing-specific events for this season, the schedule is highlighted by Clash at the Downs III, which brings the Big-8 Series back again on June 2, as well as Military Night on June 16, the Racing for a Cause INEX Legends Regional Qualifier race on June 30 and the lone Saturday event in which the Bandit Big Rig Series and Midwest Super Trucks come to Cedar Rapids.
“I’ve gotten calls from out-of-towners and we’d love to have them run for more than just the first couple races,” Korsmo said. “Hopefully people see what we’re trying to do and want to come join us and build racecars and know we’re going to be around for a long time. That’s our plan.”
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The goal list is both long and lofty for Poe, Johnson, Korsmo and the Board, and like many management teams before them, this one believes they have the answers.
Poe said they’ll listen to the community — citing her role on city council as proof she’s willing to do that — and racers for their input. While there won’t be a return to dirt on the half-mile as it exists now — a consistent request from parts of the community — Poe said if there’s overwhelming desire for dirt, something could potentially be built somewhere else on site.
Regardless, everything they intend to do is with the goal of making Hawkeye Downs a place the community gathers.
“We have a wonderful history of serving this community, whether it was the fair or the racetrack,” Poe said. “It’s that sense of nostalgia. It’s that sense of place that we want to expand upon. We want to grab that nostalgia and bring it back, build on our history and develop it so that it comes back to those days of being a viable community asset.”
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