The magic is in the dirt. So say racing fans in Knoxville, Iowa, (pop. 8,232) which bills itself the Sprint Car Capital of the World.
“The dirt on our Knoxville Raceway is from the Des Moines River bottom, and it’s very sticky, tacky clay,” explains Thomas Schmeh, executive director of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum in Knoxville. “Cars get great traction on it, which makes for faster and more exciting races.”
Racing has been part of life in Knoxville since the early 1900s, but it wasn’t until 1954 that the sport began to take off. In that year the Marion County Fair Board began holding weekly races and hired Marion Robinson to promote them.
“He was a visionary,” Schmeh says. “He realized the tremendous asset we had in our track and in our location, which is centrally positioned to attract people from around the nation.”
Within a few years, sprint car racing dominated the Knoxville scene. The lightweight, open-wheeled vehicles have a single seat directly behind the engine. In 1958, large “wings” began to be added to the tops of cars, an innovation that forces air pressure downwards, creating better traction and improving safety if a car rolls.
As their name implies, sprint cars are designed for short bursts of speed. Weighing just 1,200 pounds and packing nearly 800 horsepower, the cars have among the highest power-to-weight ratios of any vehicle in motor sport. Each race is between 20 and 30 laps and is as short as seven minutes.
“Many times drivers will just put their foot on the gas and never let up for the duration of the race,” Schmeh says. “It’s very exciting to see 20 cars out there all slipping and sliding on the dirt.”
Knoxville vibrates with racing action for about 30 nights from mid-April to mid-September, with 5,000 spectators filling the stands each evening. While many are from the surrounding area, drivers and spectators also flock to Knoxville from around the nation and the world, particularly during the Knoxville Nationals. The 43rd annual event is scheduled Aug. 13-16 at the Knoxville Raceway.
“Racing put Knoxville on the map,” says Ralph Capitani, Knoxville Raceway’s racing director. “Almost all race enthusiasts know where Knoxville is, and just about every one of them wants to come to Knoxville at least once before they die.”
While racing is vital to Knoxville, it isn’t the only economic lynchpin. Other local industries include a 3M plant, a Hormel sausage-making facility, and a Veterans Administration hospital.
But clearly racing gives Knoxville its unique identity, a fact that the town celebrated in 1991 by opening the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum. Located adjacent to the raceway, its exhibits tell the story of the fast-paced sport while its hall of fame honors its greatest names, from A.J. Foyt Jr. and Mario Andretti to Karl Kinser.
The museum provides a valuable window into the appeal of the sport and the action at the Knoxville Raceway brings the sport to life on Saturday nights. Amid the cheers of the crowd and the roar of engines, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the heady excitement that pulses through the air.
For Larry Ball Jr., a Knoxville resident who has been racing for six years, the thrill of competition is only part of the allure of the sport.
“I grew up watching the races and I even met my wife at the track,” he says. “I love to win, but even more, I just love being part of the atmosphere out there. The surface changes from lap to lap and race to race. You have to be constantly on your toes. There’s nothing else like it.”