Racing at the Iowa Speedway brings Iowa to the national stage

Former Formula 1 driver Marcus Ericsson of Sweden made a pit stop in the Hy-Vee One Step 250 at the Iowa Speedway in 2023. (Photo: Chris Owens)

Writer: Oliva Hicks

Thirty-one cars flew around the tight streets of downtown Des Moines. It was a scorching day in July, when the pavement of Iowa’s capital city melted rubber. Camaros, Mustangs and Firebirds rounded the corner, turning south onto Fifth Avenue beneath banners advertising the 1989 Iowa State Fair. Locals either held both hands against their ears or sought respite from the screeching engines in Scruffy’s Deli.

The city’s vision of using grand prix racing to bring the nation to Iowa’s front door was 30-some years ahead of the curve. Starting this Friday, cars will line the pit lane at the Iowa Speedway in Newton for the Hy-Vee IndyCar Race Weekend, the track’s fourth NTT IndyCar Series doubleheader. The speedway’s leaders and fans are still riding high from the first NASCAR Cup Series race over Father’s Day weekend, which sold out within just a few days.

Hosting the Greater Des Moines Ruan Grand Prix, an annual Formula 1-style street race from 1989 to 1992, was a curious choice. Racing in Iowa was associated with small towns and dirt tracks. Across America, the sport was all country music and crushed beer cans — a far cry from European racing’s glitzy Monte Carlo culture.

“Engines roared, tires squealed. It was enough to wake the dead,” KCCI’s Dana Cardin announced during a report you can still watch on YouTube. “But grand prix organizers are hoping it will also be enough to wake up the nation’s image of Des Moines as a sleepy little Midwestern town.”

It wasn’t until 2006 that the Iowa Speedway opened its grandstands to the public. While the motorsport empire of the nation is two states over, in Indiana, Iowa is the unsung hero of racing, home to more race tracks than any other state. Its reputation is growing as the Iowa Speedway claims to be the “fastest short track on the planet” and feels the effects of Formula 1 fever.

Thanks to Netflix’s popular docuseries “Drive to Survive,” racing is catching on. While Americans stare starry-eyed at Formula 1’s billion-dollar bottom lines, celebrity drivers and yacht-dotted seaside race settings, IndyCar keeps things classic in a Midwestern way, mixing the stardom of former Formula 1 drivers with competitive racing.

And, if anything, Iowa’s racing scene is intent on being singular.

“NASCAR weekend, a few weeks ago, definitely built the identity of Iowa Speedway, and we really tried
to lean into that. This is the Midwest. This is corn country,” Iowa Speedway President Eric Peterson said. “I love how much feedback we’re getting on a global scale about this race about to happen in this tiny little town of Newton, in the middle of a cornfield.”

The sport is winning Iowa fans from across the country — and drivers, too.

“I love this track, I always have. And I like the area,” said Josef Newgarden, an IndyCar driver for Team Penske. “Newton kind of comes alive during race weekend more so now, because of the involvement with Hy-Vee.”

Newgarden has won five of the last seven IndyCar races in Newton, earning him the nickname “Mr. Iowa Speedway” despite his roots in Nashville. As he put it last year, “I think of this event now as a ‘Field of Dreams’ of motorsports.”

The Iowa IndyCar and NASCAR race weekends manage to blend racing’s homegrown heritage of cowboy boots with the big-city culture and celebrity flair, complete with Friday’s autograph session.

“Bring your kids out, bring your family out,” Peterson said.

There’s the beer garden, food trucks and live music for those who prefer the culture to the actual action on the track. Luke Combs, Eric Church, Kelsea Ballerini and Post Malone headline this weekend’s performances.

Of course, those with a need for speed can focus on the track, where cars reach speeds of more than 185 miles an hour and sprint between the start and finish line in just 17 seconds.

There are no current plans for racing to return to one-way streets of downtown Des Moines, but as Peterson said, “There’s just nothing you can take off the table.” For now, racing fans can enjoy the spectacle just down the road.

The Hy-Vee IndyCar Race Weekend starts with Free Family Friday, when spectators can watch practice sessions and a pit stop speed challenge, all at no cost. On Saturday, the green flag waves for the Hy-Vee Homefront 250 at 7 p.m., followed by a post-race concert. On Sunday, the second of two races, the Hy-Vee One Step 250, starts at 11 a.m. Find the full schedule online.

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