Sunday, July 13, 2014

First Impressions of Iowa(!) Speedway

I'm actually going to write a for-real wrap-up on the race once I have the chance to see it in the DVR sometime Sunday. But I thought it would be fun to just throw out a few thoughts of my first trip to the 7/8th-mile oval just outside Newton, Iowa.

Heading this way had been a thought of mine for a while but it just never worked out, so I was happy when the chance arose this year. I was originally going to make the trip for both Friday and Saturday, but when I realized the IndyCar race was Saturday night we just decide to trek in for the main event.

So Kevin (my 13-year-old son) hit the road about 12:40 and headed out of Aurora. Our first stop would be at our hotel in Coralville, where I wanted to check in and get a look at the weather. Everyone on the ground there said "come on out!" so we did. My other concern was about traffic, but thankfully that wasn't  a problem either as we were in and parked right away.

Iowa Speedway is one of the "newer" tracks, built in 2006 just south of Interstate 80 a ways east of Des Moines. IndyCar has been a tenant and partner since the beginning, and local businesses have always figured a way to keep the series there. While how the series is looked at by track administration now that it facility is owned by NASCAR remains to be seen, it appears they will always keep a window open as while the crowds aren't overflowing, they are decent and there is a lot of sponsor activation.

In my life as a race fan, I've been to events at Indianapolis, Chicagoland, Milwaukee, Iowa and Daytona. I've also visited Monza (the post of my awesome day is here) as well as the 1992 Cleveland Grand Prix (RIP).

If I had to compare them to baseball stadiums, Indy would be Wrigley Field, Daytona would be Dodger Stadium (really the first of its kind), Milwaukee would be old Yankee Stadium (lots of history but heavily renovated) and Chicagoland and Iowa would both be like the new ballparks that have sprung up, like new Busch Stadium in St. Louis or someplace like that.

There is room for all of them. While Indy lacks lots of emenities, like functioning rest rooms and good sight lines, it makes up for it because, well, it's Indy. Your ticket is buying you passage into a living, breathing place of history, one of the best and most amazing sporting events on the planet, as well as a chance to see cars going faster than any race course in the world. So while things are cramped and in some places you can't see a lot of the track, the expectations are different because it's a 100-year-old facility.

The newer tracks, however, have a much different vibe. Most just have seats along the front straight, and the massive grandstands cut a pretty imposing figure as they rise several stories into the air. Since it sits on top of a hill and is less than a mile from the road, Iowa is visible from I-80 and it cuts a pretty impressive sight as it rises up from the cornfields.

The facilities are just better: better bathrooms and bigger concourses make it easy to move around, and the newer tracks are almost all built a bit like a bowl, so the infield sits low and you can see all the way around the track. Kevin wanted to sit close to the track, so we were in the seventh row and still could see pretty much the entire race course.

One of the things I tell people about racing in general is that if you have only watched it on TV, you haven't done yourself justice. Racing is something that has to be experienced in person, because TV doesn't capture the real speed and power of the cars.

To tell the truth, TV does no justice to Iowa, because there is no way it can show how fast the cars are really going. Once the race got started, I was absolutely amazed at the visual overload of cars running around a bullring oval at 180 mph. While Indy is 40 mph faster, my senses are used to being there. Iowa, meanwhile, is a whole different animal. The cars looked like fighter jets streaking flat-out around that little track. No doubt a very amazing experience, especially once it got dark, which made the cars look even more badass.

 The race, of course, was pretty excellent. While Tony Kanaan dominated the race, leading 247 of the 300 laps, there were lots of great battles all over the track that hopefully they showed on TV. While it wasn't crazy, 3-wide stuff, it was side-by-side racing where drivers had to battle to win positions.

We listened to James Hinchcliffe's scanner all night, and during one of many face offs with Simon Pagenaud his spotter yelled into the radio "Make him work for it!" Until winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and runner-up Josef Newgarden took tires during the last yellow and freight trained the rest of the field on their way to the front, nothing out there was easy, especially dealing with slower traffic.

But that's short-track racing, isn't it? I hope that Iowa Speedway remains on the IndyCar schedule for a long time, and I think it will. Despite the initial fears we all had once NASCAR took over the track, I think it's a mutually beneficial arrangement that will, or should, continue. Having now been on the schedule for several years, the race has a solid fanbase and has racing that creates even more fans every year. Like Kevin and I.

Iowa is a place every IndyCar fan should figure out how to experience at least once, and I have a feeling it will be on our schedule next year. 

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