Iowa wraps NASCAR in a 'warm embrace'
December 12, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
DES MOINES, Iowa -- It's been the kind of week that makes even hardened Iowans shiver, with high temperatures struggling to creep out of the single digits. Outside the capital city, the farms that define this state remain covered by a blanket of white. Even in town, clumps of slushy snow are piled high on street corners, and sidewalks are coated in salt. It all serves as a reminder that winter in the heartland has never been for the meek.
Inside the Iowa Events Center, though, it seemed downright balmy, and not just because the thermostat was set on high. The place positively radiated with warmth on a day when NASCAR formally introduced itself to the Hawkeye State as the new owner of Iowa Speedway, and dignitaries from local to state level voiced their appreciation for a purchase that ensures the future of Iowa's largest professional sports venue.
"As we see it, the acquisition of Iowa Speedway for NASCAR is a long‑term strategic play for our sport," Eric Nyquist, NASCAR's vice president for strategic development, told an enthusiastic crowd. "It has everything to do with the fan base that lives here and is in and around the upper Midwest. … It's beautiful, it has great racing, our fans love it. It has a great and passionate staff that has worked tirelessly to bring it to this stage."
NASCAR announced last month it had purchased the seven-eighths mile facility from the previous ownership group, which included designer and 1989 series champion Rusty Wallace. Located 37 miles east of the state capital in the town of Newton, the facility has hosted Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events since 2009. Despite often attracting sellout crowds, the track struggled financially.
Enter NASCAR, which sees the purchase as a means of bringing stability to a facility that anchors its presence in the upper Midwest, as well as an opportunity to experiment with amenities or tactics it may want to apply to other tracks. Jimmy Small, a 28-year-old who most recently served as marketing liaison with teams and drivers across all three of NASCAR's national series, was named Thursday as the track's new president.
"We determined several years back that we needed to put all of our efforts and focus them around engaging our fan base, and doing everything we can to improve the racing product," Nyquist said. "Part of that is reaching an evolution of our fan experience, and that's in part why we say this is a very strategic play for us -- to step in and take a facility that's performed well to date, and with with the city, the state, our partners, the fan base and our collective industry, take Iowa Speedway to another level."
That level, for the foreseeable future, won’t include a Sprint Cup Series race. Next season, the facility will hold a Nationwide race in May in conjunction with a K&N Pro Series event; a Camping World Truck Series race in July in conjunction with an IndyCar event; and a second Nationwide and Pro Series weekend in August. The facility has 30,000 permanent seats, and can accommodate almost double that with temporary grandstands. Nyquist added there are also no immediate plans to expand the track's capacity.
But the track does now have a secure future, something many area race fans and civic leaders fretted over when they initially learned the facility was being put up for sale by its former majority owner, Featherlite founder Conrad Clement and his family. Iowa Speedway has an estimated annual impact of roughly $60 million in the region.
"I can tell you there always comes a doubt, where is this going from here," said Mike Hansen, mayor of Newton. "We obviously knew it was a great asset in our community. The fan base was great. We knew that the potential for somebody to make the investment there, to have a great asset, was there. We didn't in our wildest dreams know it would be NASCAR, but we're extremely pleased it was them. I know there were other names tossed around who might be interested in the facility. … It happened to be at the right time, and we certainly are pleased to be partnering with NASCAR as we move ahead."
That kind of local enthusiasm and support is what endeared the facility to NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Cfficer Brian France, who spearheaded the purchase.
"Brian France was very bullish on this decision," David Higdon, NASCAR's managing director, integrated marketing communications, said. "He believes it's the right thing to do for the city, the right thing to do for the state, and certainly the right thing to do for NASCAR."
The level of fervor for the facility in central Iowa "really blew a lot of people in our industry away," said Nyquist, who is from nearby southern Minnesota.
"It was the warmth, the sense of energy, the way the entire community embraced it, left an indelible mark on our operation … When we sat down with municipal leaders … we got nothing but a warm embrace."
The feeling was mutual. "This is really, really a big deal," said Jay Byers, chairman of the region's economic development group, the Greater Des Moines Partnership. "It's a big deal for central Iowa, it's a big deal for the state."
Nyquist said the facility is in very good shape, and won't require much if anything in the way of physical improvements. Where NASCAR plans to experiment is in the area of the fan experience, tinkering with elements varying from the routine -- such as public address music, concession food, entertainment and traffic patterns -- to ways of bringing the spectator closer to the action. In NASCAR's eyes, Iowa makes for the perfect laboratory given its strong built-in support.
"We have a wonderful facility, you have great racing. So it allows for an opportunity to try some things at the margins and see the true impact of what that has on the fan base," Nyquist said. "Whereas in other markets where they're still working on the racing a little bit, or there may be capital improvements needed to be had, this gives us a pretty clear view. And given our intimate knowledge of NASCAR and the market and the track, we think it's a perfect place."
The details of that experimentation are still being worked out. "It's still too early to determine what specifically that means," Small said. "But in the short term, the quick answer is … I know how many resources NASCAR can provide to race tracks, race teams, etc. We're going to take full advantage of those resources. Also those resources continue to evolve and develop, so we'll continue to be as smartly aligned with NASCAR."
Whatever it is, it won't be speedway business as usual. "We took this acquisition as more than just buying a speedway and continuing to run races in standard course," Nyquist said. "… What I can say is, we're putting our creative hat on. We're willing to go in, be aggressive, be innovative, and bring real energy to it."
All that, though, is still to come. Thursday was about smiles and handshakes and congratulatory messages from the governor, all over ensuring the future of a little speedway that makes a big impression throughout its home state. Why, the mayor's beaming smile could have melted the snow outside all by itself.
"Isn't this exciting?" Hansen said. "When I first found out who was the purchaser of the Iowa Speedway, the potential purchaser, do you know how difficult that was to keep that to myself? We don't have to do that anymore."