A Big Ticket
Iowa Speedway officials want their track to be the ‘buzz of the town.’ But though fans would love to snag the biggest ticket – a Sprint Cup race – officials warn there’s no guarantee it will happen now or in the future.
Friday, July 04, 2014 6:00 AM
Ask a NASCAR official about the likelihood of a Sprint Cup race coming to Newton’s Iowa Speedway. The answer is something to this effect: Never say never, but we’re focused on the events we have.
They’ll talk about their plans to bring in concerts and music festivals, to try to make the speedway a must-see attraction, to be the “buzz of the town.” But they stay away from talk of bringing NASCAR’s top series to Iowa.
Ask Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau, the same question, and you get a slightly different response.
“I do think down the road that their long-term goal is to bring the Sprint Cup Series in,” Edwards said. “They are going to collaborate with as many partners as they can, including us, and the (Greater Des Moines Partnership), and anyone who can help add to that.”
Landing a race in the Sprint Cup Series - the highest level of stock car racing in the United States - would be the biggest ticket for the little 7/8-mile track in Newton. It would likely bring 70,000 plus people to Central Iowa for the weekend and would garner national media coverage for the region.
NASCAR bought the speedway in late 2013 from the family of Featherlight Trailers founder Conrad Clement, at a time when the track was behind on some payments (all of which have now been paid off, the track’s new president said.)
NASCAR officials were quick to point out that there were no immediate plans to bring a Sprint Cup race to the track. But that hasn’t stopped fans or casual observers from talking about the possibility.
Drivers and race teams love the track. It has a reputation as being a well-run facility and widely regarded as having strong fan support.
“The reputation of the place is through the roof,” said Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine who has spent much of his career covering NASCAR. “That goes for competitors, people who cover the sport, for everybody.”
So mark your calendar for a Sprint Cup race in 2015, right?
Not so fast. Even though fans, drivers, and local stakeholders would love to see it, there’s no guarantee for a Sprint Cup race next year, next decade or even in the future.
NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers are pretty open about their desire for Iowa to be added to the schedule. Drivers love the style of the track, said McGee. In a recent tweet, the series’ most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. responded to a fan question about the possibility of a race at Iowa by writing “I bet it’s coming!”
Another driver, Brad Keselowski, wrote about his dream schedule on a recent personal blog, a schedule that included a race at Iowa.
“I think it deserves one,” he wrote. “I love that place, and we’ve got great fans there.”
With NASCAR officials, it’s a different story. NASCAR is tight-lipped about the possibility of a Newton Sprint Cup race in the future, and last year even warned media members and lawmakers against such speculation.
At an April Iowa Speedway vendor event in Grimes, one attendee made the comment that Rusty Wallace, the former NASCAR champion who helped design the track, had said the track would get a Sprint Cup race. Indeed, Wallace, who no longer has an ownership stake in the track but is still counted as an ambassador to Iowa Speedway, has been vocal in the media the last few years about that possibility.
Steve O’Donnell, senior vice president at NASCAR, was a speaker at the event. He quickly dismissed that idea.
“Rusty says a lot of things,” O’Donnell said.
“We would never say never to a Cup event, but we’ve got some work to do on our end first to really elevate the current product (at the Speedway),” O’Donnell told the Business Record afterward.
Iowa Speedway President Jimmy Small, who took over for former CEO Doug Fritz, expressed a similar sentiment. Although NASCAR owns the track, Small said he isn’t involved in the process for setting the future NASCAR schedule, and that the track is focused on making its current schedule the best it can be, rather than on pushing for a Sprint Cup date.
“I can say our plans haven’t changed (for 2015),” Small said. “But who’s to say what can happen in the future? We don’t know.”
The case against Iowa
In one breath, ESPN’s McGee is very complimentary of the speedway. He has been multiple times in the past as well.
In the next breath, though, he’s not as optimistic about Iowa’s chances for a Cup race.
You might think that NASCAR’s purchase of the track is a good sign for adding a race in the future - many fans do - but that’s not necessarily the case. Of the 36 races on the 2014 Sprint Cup schedule, 31 are at facilities owned by one of two ownership groups: International Speedway Corp. (ISC) and Speedway Motorsports Inc. If your track is not owned by one of those two groups, it’s tough to get a Sprint Cup race.
The silver lining is that the ownership groups of ISC and NASCAR overlap, as both were founded by the late Bill France Sr., and the two organizations even operate out of the same building. But the relationship between the two is, well, a little weird, said McGee, who spent two years working for NASCAR. It’s not cut and dried that NASCAR’s affiliation with ISC is going to help Iowa Speedway.
“History says if ISC buys your racetrack, then you’re getting a race,” McGee said. “If NASCAR buys the race track, they’re trying to figure out what to do with it.”
Also working against Iowa Speedway is that NASCAR isn’t quick to make significant schedule changes on its top circuit. Only three tracks have been added to the Sprint Cup Series circuit since 2001, and all three have been owned by one of the two major companies.
“We evaluate the Cup schedule on an annual basis, so there’s always discussions going on,” O’Donnell said. “But that calendar is full.”
Said McGee: “It’s just so complicated. I hate politics, but that’s a lot of what it comes down to.”
What would it take?
What can Greater Des Moines business leaders do to help get a top-level race? Pledge to support it monetarily, McGee said. That could be a matter of promising corporate sponsorship money in advance to become the title sponsor of the race. Most races are named after a corporate sponsor; for example, the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway is called the Bank of America 500. Bank of America Corp. is based in Charlotte.
“As a result, that race, thin crowd or not, is going to be a success,” McGee said. “So if the local corporations, the corporations that are based throughout Iowa, are willing to commit to ‘OK, this is what we’re going to do,’ then, you know – nothing speaks louder to NASCAR than cash.”
To get a Cup race at the Speedway, it also would take some improvements to the facility - specifically, more seating – and it would take infrastructure improvements around the track, Small said. Currently the track has about 25,000 permanent seats (though it has reportedly has accommodated about 60,000 at races in the past with temporary seating); most Sprint Cup venues hold more than 70,000.
Some Iowa lawmakers last year were seeking to give the speedway $8 million in state money to expand seating at the facility in hopes of luring a Sprint Cup race, but the bill was not passed. Under the new ownership, any renovations to accommodate a Cup race would be done after NASCAR decides to hold a race at the facility, Small said.
“If that time comes, we’ll take the necessary steps,” Small said, pointing out that the speedway has a good rapport with state lawmakers. “We’re confident as far as Iowa Speedway is concerned in having conversations like that, if NASCAR decides that those conversations need to happen. But until that conversation happens, we’ll focus on what we need to.”
Never say never
Based on comments from NASCAR, it seems unlikely that Iowa Speedway will be added to the Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2015.
“I think everyone is hoping for it and that’s understandable,” Small said. “But honestly, it’s not a discussion internally as far as I know. It’s not something that we’re pursuing at Iowa Speedway right now either.”
But Edwards, who is 59, hopes to see it happen in his lifetime.
“I think that’s always been the long-term goal of that track. I think it may take years before it can get there,” Edwards said. “It’s like any strategic plan. It takes years to work toward that goal.”
Plans for the speedway
If NASCAR doesn’t have immediate plans to put a Sprint Cup race at Iowa Speedway, then why buy the track? Speedway President Jimmy Small mentions factors such as great fan support, good facilities and support from local leaders.
“And also, the timing was right for NASCAR to own a racetrack,” he said.
The reason, he said, is that NASCAR is in the process of implementing more than 50 initiatives aimed at driving fan growth and engagement. And Iowa Speedway provides a perfect testing ground.
That includes improving on things like pre-race festivities, how they deliver tickets, parking, concessions, entertainment before or after the race and any number of other things as they relate to fan experience.
“It allows us to really have our hands on the event itself, to see the structure of the business, to see the business firsthand,” Small said.
The economic impact
According to numbers calculated by the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), race weekends at Iowa Speedway had an economic impact of between $2.4 million and $3 million each weekend in 2013.
Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the CVB, said he would expect those numbers to at least double if a Sprint Cup race was on the schedule. He estimates that 30,000 additional fans would attend the race, and that they would likely spend more time in the area than they do for the current races on the schedule.
“It would be a huge positive thing for the region,” he said.
By comparison, the preseason National Basketball Association game scheduled at Wells Fargo Arena in October will have a positive impact on the region, but not on the scale of a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
“The NBA game is going to be a one-night deal and seat roughly 16,000 in Wells Fargo,” Edwards said. “You take a NASCAR race, it’s going to be multiple nights. ... Sprint Cup, you are probably talking 70,000-plus (fans). So a much broader overall impact.”
Other markets have seen a Sprint Cup race have a positive economic impact on their region. Kentucky Speedway, which sits in rural Sparta, Ky., is a good example.
Kentucky Speedway opened in 2000 and gained a Sprint Cup race in 2011. From 2010 to 2011, overall economic impact for tourism spending went up 27.6 percent in the four-county region around the speedway.
Comparing top racing series
This is the top series in NASCAR and arguably the top racing series in the United States. In the world of professional sports, the Sprint Cup Series is auto racing’s equivalent of the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball. It is a major professional sports league with large television contracts and superstar drivers.
This is the next-highest level of racing in NASCAR and is often referred to as the “triple-A” NASCAR series. But unlike triple-A baseball, the Nationwide Series has a national television contract with ESPN and draws upwards of 40,000 fans to a race. Often, stars from the Sprint Cup Series will compete in Nationwide races as well. The Nationwide Series currently has two races per year at Iowa.
Camping World Truck Series
This is the third of NASCAR’s three national divisions, and is typically looked at as the third-tier series, though it still has a national television package with Fox. The trucks currently have one race a year at Iowa Speedway, this year scheduled for July 11.
Verizon IndyCar Series
The Verizon IndyCar Series is best known for the Indianapolis 500. It races a different type of car than any NASCAR series, and is close to being on the same level as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in terms of being the highest level of auto racing in the country. In most motorsports circles, the Sprint Cup Series is considered more prestigious than IndyCar, and though IndyCar has a national television package, Sprint Cup television ratings are higher. In other words, its a big ticket but not the biggest ticket. The IndyCar Series currently has one race a year in Iowa, this year scheduled for July 12.