ITíS RACETIME IN THE VALLEY AT KNOXVILLE, IOWA - AS THE UMPTEENTH ANNUAL (56th) IS SET TO GO.
August 3, 2016
By Ken Wagner
Wags Wanderings 5
Over the years I have had the pleasure to go to many dirt tracks around the country and have seen a lot of great racing that brings back many fond memories. Not only of the tracks and race cars, or the scenic tours we took to get there, but the people I have met along the way. There are a million stories in the naked badlands, and I am going to tell you a few. Some of the names have been changedÖ. To protect the guilty!
For the Knoxville pics Click here to view
In the beginning of my race chaser methodology that began as a young man going from drag strip to drag strip, doing some racing, but switching to be a fan when the money wasnít there to step up. After marrying my bride Mrs Wags in 1975 and returning to California to live, we started out slow in race watching. We would go to Ascot on a given Saturday until the realization that our motor home would go to other tracks as well. As I researched other tracks that the CRA and Woo ran at, it came to mind I hadnít been to Knoxville yet! Even though Calistoga, Skagit, Hanford, Santa Maria, Manzanita and Baylands where already checked off on my list, the reputation of Knoxville and the Nationals really drew me to go there.
I had dreams of the big half mile before I went there, mostly because of what I had read and heard about, but nothing could have been more eye opening than my first trip there. Reading about it was intriguing, but being there was live and in color! On the last leg of that trip, driving up from Kansas City seemed to take FOREVER on about a 200 mile trip! On the map was a little two lane road off the major interstate that went from KC to Des Moines where Knoxville was listed to the East. We took it, but at 55 MPH, it didnít seem like we would ever get there. It was such a long slow pokey drive until the Knoxville sign appeared. I went by the VA Hospital and Wala, there it was, KNOXVILLE RACEWAY ready for me. .
, I had never seen anything like it! Walking in I saw way more vendors than I figured there were. They sold everything sprint car racing like. The list is too long to tell about. I went by a few before I walked up and down behind the main grandstands where it was like being at the fair with so many people on the move. I was hungry and found a pork fritter sandwich at a concession stand where the fritter was so big it didnít fit the bun, but was amazingly tasty. Iowa pork is the best! I had several every year I went, they were so good. The other pork that I still remember was across the street at the Dingus Saloon where outside they served pork chop sandwiches that were to die for. Inside Dingus, I know nothing! The food at Knoxville added at least 5 pounds on my body every year I went. Add to that the HY Vee Grocery store across the street. It was always our after the races food place where the biscuits and gravy were hard to beat late at night. They had a buffet like display that included fried chicken and so much more and all that too, was great, if Tony the Tiger was speaking.
So the next thing that was obvious as I walked around before going inside to see the races was the endless line of trailers headed to the fourth turn entrance to the track. I just looked on in amazement as they rolled in too many to count. Going thru the line to get inside the track, and before you could go thru the tunnel to get to the steps up to the seats, was another bunch of booths selling, selling, and selling! It never ended and each day some new t-shirt hit the displays. I actually got to know a few of the local vendors as the Wagtimes Jackets all came from there.
I felt like I was on fire as I took my seat and looked into the infield where more cars pitted than I had ever seen at a track up until that day. I took it all in and saw many cars that I knew about but hadnít seen run yet because there were no wing cars in NARC yet. I had been to a couple of WOO shows in California, but the Midwest and PA harbored a lot of fast cars that didnít travel much. Wow I was entrenched and the racing was certainly fun to watch as more money was up for grabs than Iíd seen before. Seems like in 1985 the winnerís share was $25,000, but my memory doesnít bring back money details to me that well. I know they paid $150,000 to the winner last year, so in 30 years the purse has grown tremendously!.
The four days there was really special as I came in my motorhome and got a camping spot back with the racers and never left the track except to cross the street for food. I remember meeting racers back there who were not famous yet, looking to stun the big boys. They came with less than hot equipment and often tents to sleep in, but everyone was there because it was the Nationals and thatís where they had to be. Names I canít remember, but I kept an eye on their progress thru the week. All were friendly and today most are not racing because that was 30 years ago!
I met a lot of people that first year, including my friend Agnes, and it set the pace for the following years when it wasnít brand new anymore, but still worth the trips. I never got bored and continually talked racing with new friends the entire time I was there. I got to know people from all over the country and that is what I have as my best memories of Knoxville. Some of those people are still friends to this day as only the Chili Bowl allowed me to see them very often. Now, not so much as I have slowed down my race traveling to almost a dribble, going only a couple of times a year.
One of the interesting things I viewed at Knoxville was the annual ďbus rideĒ! A few of the late night revelers would go around when everyone was asleep and borrow lawn chairs to line up and sit in for the ride. Then someone whose initials were K E, would call out where they were, which ways to turn, when to stop and what they saw and apparently some even more boisterous thoughts as they got loud at times. I never could stay up for the ride, but I heard a lot about it over the years. I know Agnes knew better than to leave her chairs out for them as some were destroyed by the riders.
Some of my racing memories from the Nationals I remember well include the time Steve Kinser won a 12 car heat race from the back row by going up above the cushion in the soft stuff against the wall and motoring around the field in one lap and went on to win the 10 lapper. That was unreal! Watching Doug Wolfgang in 1990 win the ďDĒ, then ran 2nd in the ďCĒ, won the ďBĒ before finishing 5th in the Main Event. He passed a lot of cars! Having Bobby Allen beat Sammy Swindell in 1991 after a late race battle that saw Sammy blowing oil the last third of the race, was the bomb! Seeing ďanyone but KinserĒ on the walls of the track where the mud was removed was always funny, but back then he was super tough to beat. There was some great finishes, but many were from the front row by the big three, Kinser, Wolfgang and Sammy, so I quickly learned the first two nights were the best had way more passing with the inverted heats.
Most of the negative things at the Nationals always included rain. The first rainout I experienced there was rescheduled for the next afternoon in the sun. I went, I saw and I left before it was done. I never went to another day show there, it was too humid and brutal! One particular rainy year, our motorhome was a long way down the campground that was literally under water, so it was a mushy walk to the grandstands and food, but we made it and carried clean shoes with us.
The annual tĖshirt contests down by the barns could be both positive and negative, but depended on the contestants. Sometimes, and I rarely went down there to watch because of the rowdy crowds, Ha! For us men, it was kind of cool to see pretty young girls parade around and tease the crowd. But, sometimes they did more than tease and it was a bit too much, even for this veteran male mind. At one time the barns were named for the states the cars that used them were from. The California Barn and Arizona Barn were famous. In inclement weather the drivers and crews often played volleyball inside and whooped it up. Trust me, when I say they are just as aggressive in the games they play as on the racetrack.
I sadly remember leaving my car keys and house keys in the motel in Des Moines. Since we were in a rental car, it tested my mettle. Our flight out of KC was going to be close as we left late that morning. About 70 miles down the road I noticed them missing. I called the motel and asked them to check under the bed? They found them and then I had to find someone coming our way or at least meet us halfway back towards the motel. Somehow I did and they drove our way and we met. I got the keys and a tennis shoe that wasnít mine, and we were on our way. I donít even remember who brought them? We just made the flight, but it was intense.
Before cell phones, calling home was a real experience. There were not a lot of pay phones on the property and the one I always used was one of 4 or 5 where when it was quiet and time for me to call, others had the same idea. I tried to call every day, but I was so busy, sometimes it just didnít work out. Standing in line gave opportunity to meet new people!
Being a newbie that first trip there didnít stop my enthusiasm as it was one great trip and I didnít miss a thing. It was so tremendous, stupendous, incredible and dynamic, I blazed a trail there for a lot of years after that. At that time I was just beginning to notice how much better, to me, the non wing racing was, but the Nationals made a big impression on me and I only quit going there because I had other things to do and many of my traveling friends also started passing on the trip. I am sure that today for a newbie, it has to be still so amazing and certainly the biggest sprint car race anywhere, in money, quality of cars and attendance!
I was surprised to see some familiar West Coast cars that made the trip. Rick Unger, Jimmy Sills, Leonard Lee who has just moved to Milo. IA, Ron Shuman, Chuck Gurney, Dave Bradway Jr, Billy Boat, Tim Green, John Pearson and Bubby Jones made the long tow. Bradway was the highest finisher in the main on Saturday with, Sills, Gurney and Unger making the big show also.
So looking back on Knoxville, it enriched my life in many ways and helped me further my love for the sport. I have a lot more stories about some other trips there and perhaps Iíll spit them out sometime as I continue on my Wandering Ways in the past!
Wags Wanderings Back Issues: