What’s happening in Knoxville, Iowa this week is a shockingly well-kept secret.
Any follower of sprint car racing knows about the Knoxville Nationals, of course. This is the 58th year, and many of the fans have been making an annual pilgrimage to the races here for 10 years or more.
But outside of the community, sprint car’s most prestigious and high-paying race doesn’t get the widespread attention it deserves.
The Nationals aren’t on TV; they can only been seen through a $49 internet pay-per-view. The media presence outside of the normal sprint car publications is practically nonexistent. Heck, most people hear “Knoxville Raceway” and assume it’s in Tennessee.
That all adds up to make Knoxville a hidden gem on the motorsports calendar, despite roughly 25,000 people descending on a sleepy country town that normally has a population of 7,300.
But here’s the thing: While people at Knoxville are extremely happy for newcomers to experience the event for the first time — and are very open to welcoming others — they’re not crying for attention.
Sprint car fans know the edge-of-your-seat, jaw-dropping racing at Knoxville is ridiculously good. They know the county fair atmosphere surrounding the track is a party-lover’s dream. They know the raceway itself is a top-notch dirt venue, complete with a new suites tower, paved infield and large Hall of Fame facility overlooking the track (not to mention what drivers say might be the best dirt in the country).
So if you come to Knoxville and see that for yourself, then great! People will be thrilled you discovered what they’ve already known for awhile. But if not, well…it’s your loss. They’re still going to soak up the joy and intensity of the most important week in sprint car racing and love every second of it anyway — while drinking their asses off, of course.
Interestingly enough, that attitude about the Knoxville Nationals is representative of sprint car racing in general these days.
Fan interest in sprint cars is growing. Drivers and community members all agree on that, because they can see the crowded stands and the car counts and the purses. It might be gradual, but they feel it’s going up.
But while that growth is positive, no one seems to have any interest in sprint car racing — even the World of Outlaws — going too big-time.
There’s a great hesitation toward anything that could “NASCAR-ize” sprint car racing. The community loves what it has and doesn’t want to lose any of what makes it special.
Right now, the sprint car experience is this: You get to the track before hot laps and walk around the various merchandise stands (with drivers often selling the shirts themselves when they aren’t at the car), then maybe grab some cheap food or a beer. Once hot laps start, the lack of a TV presence keeps everything moving quickly; from qualifying to the heats to the features, the show keeps rolling along.
At a World of Outlaws race, drivers are asked to stay at their cars for at least 30 minutes so fans can come down to the infield and get their autographs or a photo. And that’s if you haven’t met one of the drivers already while they’re just walking around the track (they don’t have PR people or handlers).
The racing seems pure — drivers are basically racing a seat strapped to rocket ship — but many formats around the country (even Knoxville) are twisted for entertainment purposes. There are inversions and bonus spots and all sorts of fan-focused rules, but that’s accepted because the show is an important part of what they do.
If it’s not good racing, people won’t come back. And if people don’t come back, the purse and merchandise sales will shrink.
Since most sprint car drivers make no base salary, that’s pretty important. They rely on race winnings (splitting the purse with the team owner) and profits from T-shirts (which go 100% to the driver since there’s no middle man).
Want to know why Knoxville is the center of the sprint car world? One reason is the promoter decided to put up a giant purse back in the day. It now pays $150,000 to win, whereas the average winner on the elite WoO tour might get around $10,000.
That’s a big deal for a no-frills sport like sprint car racing. The goal of this form of racing seems to be about two things: Providing an opportunity for these daredevils on wheels to eke out a living while making sure fans enjoy watching them compete at the same time.
No, the venues aren’t stadium-quality palaces. Yes, there’s dirt flying and lots of bugs and the bathrooms probably won’t be clean by the end of the night.
Oh, and the sport is quite dangerous — if you haven’t heard.
But damn if it isn’t fun, and plenty of people have already figured it out.
They’ll be thrilled to have you if you want to see for yourself. Just don’t come expecting to mess with a good thing.