Auto Racing

A sprint car education

Leisure: A day trip to Knoxville is entertaining and educational

The National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum is filled with cars and information about the sport. (Spring Car museum)
The National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum is filled with cars and information about the sport. (Spring Car museum)
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One of our fall Iowa day trips took an unusual turn.

We’re nature enthusiasts and our travels usually focus on birds, fish, rivers, mountains and seashores where we love the challenge and quiet of hiking away from highway noise.

Our norm changed abruptly after an autumn hike at central Iowa’s Red Rock Lake.

We drove into Knoxville on our way to Prairie Creek National Wildlife Refuge to photograph buffalo. Knoxville. We’d never been there but learned it’s named after one of our favorite American patriots — Henry Knox, the visionary general of the American Revolution and father of the American artillery.

After leaving the lake and entering town we saw no evidence of the New England revolutionary, but the massive Knoxville Speedway dominated the horizon. Adjacent to it was the National Sprint Car Museum and Hall of Fame.

So, we stopped.

We love birds and insects, trees and wildflowers but knew virtually nothing about car racing. We didn’t even know what a sprint car was. But we parked at the museum and were soon graciously greeted by Laci White, the Museum’s Special Events Coordinator. She quickly introduced us to sprint cars, the museum and the hall of fame. We discovered the impact racing has on this small Iowa town.

Although we usually shun noisy places, many folks are captivated by pistons and power and the thrill of high decibel racing. Knoxville is the epicenter of worldwide sprint car enthusiasm. Drivers and their teams and thousands of fans converge on Knoxville from all over the world for races, to mingle with other enthusiasts and enjoy the town and Museum.

Races are so popular, the speedway holds 21,135 spectators — or about three times more people than Knoxville’s population.

According to Museum Coordinator Bill Wright, Knoxville is the sprint car capital of the world. The town’s racing history started with horses in the 1800s. The first car race was held during the dawn of the auto era in 1901. Sprint car racing at the track zoomed off in 1961 when Marion Robinson announced a $1,000 purse for a race winner. That was a big prize then and drew both racers and fans from far and wide.

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The sport has been growing ever since. Now, races are held most Saturday evenings during the warm months.

Sprint car racing is Knoxville’s economic engine.

“There are more restaurants than you’d expect in a town this size,” Wright said.

Sprint car racing is popular in New Zealand and Australia and drivers from Down Under often spend the summer racing season in Knoxville. American drivers head to those distant southern hemisphere countries to race while Iowa’s season is in winter dormancy.

Just what is a sprint car?

There are many variants, but are all generally small light vehicles with enormous methanol fueled engines. They are fast and noisy. Some reach 160 miles an hour roaring around the rather short, oblong track. The fastest cars have what are called “wings” on their top. These surfaces are angled so wind pushes the car downward, giving wheels a better grip on the track. They also are designed to crumple in a crash, adding a degree of safety. Some sprint cars are unwinged and there are several smaller variants.

Our interest in geology stimulated special interest in the track itself. Each spring, about three inches of a material called “zook” is placed on it and smoothed out.

“Zook is a perfect surface for racing as it gives the cars grip while not flying off and getting fans dirty like some materials would,” Wright said.

Zook is a dark clay material mined in the area. The track is groomed throughout the racing season.

We asked about the demographics of sprint car fans and learned devotees come from all walks of life and many occupations.

“I enjoy the action on the track. Sprint cars are a lot faster and more agile than stock cars,” said Ryan Warner of Larchwood, a fan since childhood. “One of my favorite memories is going to the sprint car track with my children.”

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The Raceway encourages families with children to attend and has a no alcohol section in the stands. Races are noisy and parents should be sure to put ear muffs or plugs over their children’s ears — and their own — to protect their hearing.

According to Wright, race times are set for early evening so parents can enjoy the races with the families and get their children off to bed at a reasonable time. That’s unlike other forms of car races that sometimes go into the wee hours.

Most drivers are male, but at the Museum we learned of 23-year-old McKenna Hasse of Des Moines. Known as an American Ninja Warrior, she’s an accomplished sprint car driver. We enjoyed watching her tear past male competitors on a YouTube Video.

This former class valedictorian is one smart and gutsy competitor.

The Sprint Car Museum and Hall of Fame is a nonprofit organization separate from the adjacent track. It is open year-round and is a pleasant destination during the quiet non-racing season. Our visit helped us learn the history of the cars and view many different types of sprint cars and how they evolved over the years. Of course, a visit can be timed so a family can enjoy a race. Just expect crowds on race days.

Sprint car racing isn’t for the financially challenged.

“An engine can cost $80,000 and some competitors bring several to races in case they need a spare,” Wright said.

Fortunately, it’s not an expensive spectator sport. General admission to the Knoxville Raceway for many races is $15 and lower for children. For specific information on races, tickets, other things to do in the area, lodging and camping, the Raceway’s website at knoxvilleraceway.com is an outstanding source.

The season-opener is set for April 17 and this year, Knoxville is hosting a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event on July 9.

The National Sprint Car Museum and Hall of Fame’s website at sprintcarhof.com lists hours, hall of fame members and much more.

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Any sprint car race fan who’s had plenty of noise and action can easily drive a few miles to enjoy the stillness of Red Rock Reservoir, Iowa’s largest lake. It offers pleasant camping, fishing, boating, hiking and the peaceful quiet of its woodlands.

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