116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Hy-vee Deals 250 once again brought the roar of 850-horsepower engines at 200 miles per hour to Iowa. Internationally recognized names such as Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarten, and Marco Andretti have all set track scorching records that propel the Newton oval into one of the most exciting venues in the country.
In addition to that comparative newcomer -- the track’s inaugural race was in 2007 -- the state itself has also produced some of the most legendary names in American motorsport history. It is a legacy of the need for speed that dates back from the early 20th century to today.
Hawkeye Downs, in Cedar Rapids, for example, opened for auto racing in 1925 as a short quarter mile dirt oval featuring small 80-horsepower race cars that in the modern age we would call “midgets.” This progressed to home built modifieds that looked similar to a standard sedan, and then the stock car, using a body that gave the appearance of a Ford, Dodge, or Chevy driven off the lot.
Hawkeye Downs has since expanded its property to incorporate a half mile paved oval that hosts stock car nationals and fans from throughout the Midwest, elevating the track into one of the most respected in its class.
Another nationally top-ranked track is Knoxville Speedway, in Knoxville. Originally a venue for horse races, the facility was adapted in 1901 for automotive races and has brought the biggest names in the sport to Iowa since opening for full time racing in the 1920s. In 1961, the half mile dirt oval hosted the Super Modified National Championship and has been the home of the crowning race for sprint cars ever since. Earning the title “Sprint Car Capital of the World,” it has been a springboard for many iconic names in NASCAR such as Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, and Kyle Larson.
The state, however, has produced its own roster of native sons, and daughters, who have gone on to great acclaim on tracks around the globe.
Mel Kenyon was raised in Davenport during World War II. After the war, he began competing in midget car races on tracks in the Midwest and East Coast. He then entered Indycar racing, finishing third at the Indianapolis 500 in 1968. Kenyon was seriously injured in an earlier race, but continued to drive midgets, winning the national championship seven times and earning the nomenclature “Midget King of the World.”
Phil Barkdoll was a mechanic from the Vinton area who, in 1981, purchased a stock car from Ramo Stott, a 1970s race car driver from Keokuk that held the pole position in the 1976 Daytona 500. Barkdoll entered the NASCAR Winston Cup Talladega 500 in 1984 and convinced businesswoman Helen Rae to found a racing team fielding the car with himself as driver. She became the first woman to own a NASCAR racing team and continued fielding cars with Barkdoll and others until the mid 1990s.
Rae wasn’t the only woman, though, beginning to delve into auto racing at the time. Janet Guthrie was born at Iowa City in 1938. In 1977, she was the first female to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and finished ninth in the race. She also was named Rookie of the Year at Indianapolis and went on to compete in the NASCAR Winston Cup race at Bristol, finishing sixth on the Tennessee superspeedway. She is now the subject of a full length motion picture by Balcony 9 Productions titled “Speed Girl” with Hilary Swank starring as Guthrie, which is scheduled to be released in theatres next year.
In more contemporary times, Iowa continues to lead the pack. Michael Annett, of Des Moines, has started in 439 NASCAR affiliated races, including the Xfinity Series in which he finished fifth in points in 2012 and drove in the top ten competitively with that series and the Monster Cup Series until his retirement due to injuries last year.
Joey Gase, of Cedar Rapids, began racing in junior classes at age eight at Hawkeye Downs and won the late model championship in 2009. Two years later, he was chosen to drive in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, rising to the Monster Cup Series and competing in the Daytona 500.
Perhaps the most recognized of modern drivers at that level from Iowa, however, is Landon Cassill. Also of Cedar Rapids, he was born in 1989 and has been driving on the NASCAR circuit since 2008 when he started with Xfinity and was named Rookie of the Year.
Since then, he has driven in more than 500 NASCAR sanctioned races including 330 in the Monster Cup. His car is currently owned by Kaulig Racing in partnership with Richard Childress Racing, which has spawned such champions as Dale Earnhardt Sr., Kevin Harvick, and Austin Dillon and Cassill will be competing alongside teammate and veteran Cup driver, A. J. Allmendinger. Allmendinger is at this time leading the series in points. Cassill is in the Top Ten.
To learn more about these drivers, and the legendary cars and records of endurance and speed that led the way on Iowa tracks and across the nation, the Marion Heritage Center is debuting an exhibit titled “Oil, Autos, and Ovals: Racing in America.” The exhibit is scheduled to open at 1:00pm Saturday August 6th with lectures, artifacts, and autographs from a century of swooshing around tracks from coast to coast.
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.