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A Run for the Corn Stalks: The Significance of NASCAR’s Return to Iowa

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What’s Happening?

While the state of Iowa always tends to grab the media’s attention in an election year, this election year, the state will be getting a different type of attention. The NASCAR Cup Series will tackle the seven-eighths of a mile at Iowa Speedway in Newton for the first time. Now 17 years old, the track seems to have seen action from every major oval racing circuit in the United States except for the Cup series. Why has it taken so long for this race to happen, what occurred to make it happen, and why is it important to have this race on the Cup schedule?

What is NASCAR’s history with Iowa and the Midwest?

This will not be NASCAR’s first venture in the Hawkeye State. However, that race took place over 70 years ago. It occurred at Davenport Speedway, also known as Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds Speedway, and was the 25th race on the 1953 Cup schedule. Herb Thomas and his Fabulous Hudson Hornet led 152 of 200 laps en route to his ninth victory that season.

From 1945-1972, the Cup schedule consisted of 45-62 races. This schedule included not just traditional Southern races but many races in the Midwestern states. In that same 1953 season, this Midwestern schedule included tracks such as Rapid Valley Speedway in Rapid City, SD, and Lincoln City Fairgrounds in North Platte, Nebraska. However, by 1972, NASCAR had removed all dirt tracks from the schedule and found its focus in its home on the Atlantic coast and deep South.

The schedule would remain closest to the Midwest as the sport grew via Michigan International Raceway. As the ’90s rolled on, the schedule grew from 30 races to the 36-race schedule we have now. This expansion focused on the West Coast and large television markets with tracks like Las Vegas, Texas, and Auto Club. The Midwest would get a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the schedule still lacked the traditional oval NASCAR had become synonymous with. However, in 2001, the Midwest would finally get attention from International Speedway Corporation by way of Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, and in the heart of the Midwest, Joliet, Illinois, with the Chicagoland Speedway.

While Kansas has become a very anticipated track on the schedule, Chicagoland began to suffer from a turn in attendance and lack of excitement in the Gen 6 era. After the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020, NASCAR was forced to change schedules drastically, and Chicagoland hasn’t seen action since 2019.  While NASCAR would add a Worldwide Technology Raceway in southern Madison, IL, and the Chicago Street Circuit in 2023, a large hole would be left in the heart of the Midwestern oval racing.

This part of the country is home to many great short tracks, such as The Milwaukee Mile, or dirt tracks like Eldora and Knoxville, the latter two of which are in Iowa. This area is known to have a large fanbase of oval racing, and despite the years it took for these fans to get a race back just to lose it again seemingly, NASCAR had not yet completely abandoned them.

Iowa Speedway

Iowa Speedway opened in late 2006 with a D-shaped oval featuring mid-level banking akin to Richmond Raceway’s banking. The track was built in Newton, Iowa, about 35 miles west of the capital city of Des Moines. The track’s first major race would be from a series with Midwestern roots. The then ARCA Re/Max Series would race in Newton on October 15, 2006, a 250-lap race won by Steve Wallace. After this, 2007 would be a breakout year for the track and feature races from multiple series, including the then NASCAR K&N Pro Series, IndyCar Series, Indy Lights Series, and the late Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series.

The short track would continue its growth into 2009 by adding the then NASCAR Nationwide Series and the Truck Series. The Midwest was still familiar with the two series, which had held races in Milwaukee and at the short-lived Chicago Motor Speedway. The next ten years would be a stellar time to be a race fan in Middle America, with the track hosting multiple major races yearly. Iowa also gained notoriety through drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay, who became a consistent winner there in open-wheel. Alongside Rickey Stenhouse Jr., who won three consecutive Xfinity Series races at the track, one of those wins included his teammate giving him a bump across the line.

At its peak, Iowa hosted two Xfinity and two Truck dates yearly. NASCAR even bought the track in 2013. During this time, fans thirsty for more short tracks begged and bargained for Iowa to gain a Cup date. However, like Chicagoland and many other tracks, the COVID-19 pandemic would remove all scheduled races from the track for the 2020 season and the unforeseen future. The following year would be the most turbulent the track had seen as the only series to return would be the ARCA Menards Series and ARCA Menards Series East. Things looked better for 2022 with Indy Car scheduling a double-header at the track; however, its NASCAR future was still uncertain. In the meantime, there was a storm brewing on the West Coast.

In 2020, NASCAR began a plan to reconfigure Auto Club Speedway. A reconfiguration that included turning the track into a half-mile oval while selling off most of the land around the track. These plans, if completed, would take time, and 2023 would host the final race on the track’s two-mile configuration. This left a hole in the schedule, and rumors began to swirl. Would North Wilkesboro get a points race? What about Rockingham? However, the answer may have been a bit more evident than it seemed. Reports began to surface in late 2023 that the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and more importantly, the Cup Series, were returning to the State of Iowa.

Why is the return to Iowa important?

The return to Iowa Speedway for the Xfinity Series and the State of Iowa for the Cup Series is important on many levels.

First, the history of motorsports is deep in Iowa. Iowa itself is in the heart of dirt track racing. As previously stated, tracks like Eldora and Knoxville hold high-level, high-payoff races and have even hosted the NASCAR Truck series. The state is the home of NASCAR legends like race winners Tiny Lund and Johnny Beauchamp, alongside motorsports trailblazer Janet Guthrie. On a large scale, the Midwest has a rich history of dirt and asphalt oval racing. Names like Dick Trickle, Mark Martin, the Wallaces, and the Sauters cut their teeth in America’s heartland.

Second, this continues a positive trend of NASCAR being more liberal in its schedule-making approach. Leading to the 2020s, fans had often complained about the stale nature of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Only one new track had been added to the Cup schedule since 2002. That track was Kentucky Speedway, which was on the short end of the stick after the pandemic, losing its date, much like Chicagoland. Since 2020, NASCAR has added six different tracks to the schedule. This included another Midwestern race at Wisconsin’s Road America. The Cup schedule also included a new configuration of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the infield road course replacing the legendary oval. This has sparked exciting weekends for developing and seasoned fans of the sport, leaving fans looking forward to the new season. NASCAR’s initiative to change the schedule has shown that the sport will listen to fans, and despite those who may oppose it, it has been, for the most part, welcomed by the fanbase.

Third, adding Iowa Speedway addresses the need for a traditional race in the Midwest. Since the loss of Chicagoland, NASCAR has continued to race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Road America. The latter even lost its race for a street circuit in the heart of Chicago. While road course racing has become routine for NASCAR and the Cup Series, there is a hole in the heart of the Midwest for a traditional oval race. NASCAR has not only added Iowa to fill this hole, but the Trucks returned to the Milwaukee Mile last season, and the Cup Series will be back on the oval at Indianapolis this year. The return of an oval race to a part of the country with such a rich history of that type of racing is crucial to the sport’s growth. With these changes, NASCAR has addressed this issue. Like North Wilkesboro, NASCAR will return to its traditional racing style to the places that appreciate it most.

Conclusion

If anything, fans have learned in the past few years that the schedule can change drastically at a moment’s notice. That being said, Iowa is on the schedule this year, but that could change in the future. While some may have different feelings about adding this race to the schedule, it is vital to recognize that, once again, NASCAR fans are getting the opportunity to witness history as NASCAR’s V-8s rumble through cornfields and grain mills across the state.

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Kauy Ostlien

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