Part tradition, part innovation, part “cultural festival,” an annual celebration of winged sprint dirt track racing is set to transform an Iowa town of 7,300 into the Mecca of sprint car racing next week.
The 53rd Annual Knoxville Nationals — what amounts to a four-day racing tournament that has been described as the Super Bowl of sprint car racing — kicks off August 7 in Knoxville, Iowa.
Today Knoxville bills itself as the “Sprint Car Capital of the World,” and backs it up with the nationals, which attracts more than 100 of the world’s top sprint car drivers, all vying for a piece of the nearly $1 million total purse. With a seating capacity of well over 20,000, attendance for the four nights of racing should equal perhaps ten times the town’s total population.
Few if any dispute the Knoxville’s sprint car capital status, but the track’s general manager of Knoxville Raceway says the essence of the event goes beyond the statistical descriptions of longevity, attendance, purse and participant numbers.
”The way I look at it, the Knoxville Nationals is really a cultural festival,” said Brian Stickel, general manager and promoter of Knoxville Raceway. “People come here from not only all over the U.S., but all over the world. It doesn’t matter who you meet they’re friendly and welcoming and they want to have a conversation about anything. It’s a cultural festival that culminates every night with some of the best, open-wheel dirt track racing in the world.”
Knoxville is famous for its national event, but it also holds weekly Saturday night racing programs with purses of nearly $35,000 each weekend. Weekly sprint car racing here is in three categories, each designated by the size of the engine in the car: 305-cubic-inch engines, 360-cubic-engines and 410-cubic-inch engines.
The “410s” run during the most famous Knoxville Nationals. The 360 category also has a nationals event at Knoxville, held August 1, 2 and 3 as a lead in to 410 nationals week.
Stickel said entries for 410 nationals are strong, with more than 100 cars entered so far. Last year’s nationals drew 98 competitors. Ticket sales are on par with 2013. There are even hopes of selling out the grand finale Saturday night.
Sprint Car Racing Challenges
But all of that is not to say sprint car racing is immune to challenges, many of which are similar to other forms of racing. As they have in the past, Knoxville’s leadership is inviting sprint car promoters from around the country to discuss their common challenges in a forum held on Thursday during Nationals week. Safety is always first on the list, but it’s also always followed quickly by costs for both participants and fans.
”It’s expensive (to race),” said Stickel. “360 racing is just as expensive as 410 racing and 305 racing if we are not careful will go the same way, that’s one of the challenges facing us.”
”If we can get more spectators in the stands we can get the sponsors more exposure, they (both tracks and cars) can sell more sponsorship, so that’s something that we all need to work on together,” Stickel said. By focusing on making sprint car racing more popular in general, promoters stand to gain individually, he said.
Focusing on Format, Embracing "Extreme"
One of the things sprint car racing does to help differentiate itself in the crowded racing market is to emphasize its unique format.
”Our philosophy is here that the racing is great and you come for the races, but you enjoy your family and friends,” he said. “That’s the beauty of dirt track and sprint car racing. Unlike NASCAR racing, you don’t go and sit for three hours or four hours and watch a 400 or 500 lap race. There are 12 to 16 races in any given night that last from 5 minutes to 20 minutes. In between you’ve got time to talk to your friends about not just what’s happening, not only at the races, but what’s happening in their lives. So you got time to make connections and visit with people and that’s kind of what it’s all about.”
Stickel also says non-racing friends he brings to the track report hat sprint car racing gives them a bit of an extreme sport vibe. Sprint car races are full of visual and audible mayhem and punctuated by occasional flipping wrecks. The sights, sounds and frenetic pace of a sprint car race are often even a bit of a shock to fans used to long, paved track races.
While the quest to attract ticket-buying customers never ends, Stickel says Knoxville Raceway operates within some self-imposed limits.
“One thing we are not, we’re not a side show,” he said. “So we don’t bring in a ton of buses to crash each other or cars that jump things, that kind of thing, during our races. We’re here to do events, quality events. We take these drivers and their teams very seriously. They are innovators. Their ingenuity and imagination have brought the sport to where it is today, and without that we wouldn’t have sprint car racing. So we respect what they can do and we feel they are the show.”
To augment the racing, Knoxville Raceway is also hosting other stand-alone events, such as boxing, rodeo and a monster truck show. Stickel said the goal is to have one big event in the months of June, July, August and September. Nationals fill up August and Late Model Nationals are in September, so that leaves June and July.
Hoping for Love at First Sight
The true star of the Knoxville show, however, will always be the ungainly looking sprint cars and the drivers who wring every tenth of a second out of them for eight to 50 laps. Seeing and hearing a dozen or more sprint cars roar to life at the drop of the green still does more to create new fans than all the marketing efforts combined.
“We think we can give them that exciting experience if we can get them here,” said Stickel. “But you have to be here to experience it and then we want to help educate them and make life-long fans out of them.”
In part two of this three-part post, Erin Crocker describes the mayhem inside a sprint car during a race. Read it here. Part three talks about Knoxville's balancing act between tradition and innovation. Read it here.