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What Makes the Perfect Night At the Race Track?

Benton County Speedway (Photo: Bucky Doren)
Benton County Speedway (Photo: Bucky Doren)

What is it that makes the perfect night of dirt track racing? A loaded question if there ever was one. Can there be such a thing as a perfect night?

Honestly I don’t think any track can create the perfect night at the race track for everyone. On the one hand, everyone likes something different about a night at the speedway. Is it large car counts that makes the event for race fans? Heritage of an event? The track? Drivers? Tenderloins? Family? Friends? A win by their favorite driver, and the list goes on for ever.

On the other hand, what is good for the fans, may not necessarily be good for officials and drivers. Sunny and 85 degrees may be great short-wearing weather, but it can create a headache for track officials. How much water do you put into the track? We all know it’s going to dry out, but the science in keeping a track racy is in how the moisture evaporates. If it gets to hot, and add more stress to the motors. Too much heat and moisture in the air, and engine builders need to rethink how they jet the carburetor. Plus hot, sweaty drivers tend to over react when something happens on the track.

Suffice to say, what makes the perfect night is going to be different based on the individual, but are there any common threads? I talked with several race fans to find out.

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The biggest thing I had to consider when I tried to wrap my head around the hundreds of different answers I received was that there are so many different types of race fans. There are the ‘Diehards’ who hit 50-plus races a year. Then there is the ‘Passionate Fan’. Just like the diehards, they love the sport, but they can only find the time and/or money to hit a dozen or so races. There is the ‘When I Can’ fans who enjoy only a night or two at the race track.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. There was also the ‘Casual Fan’, the ‘Family Fan’, the ‘My Neighbor Has a Car Fan’, the ‘Wayward Traveler Fan’, lest we forget the ‘Current Event Fan’. Just like church, racing has it fair share of people who only venture to the facility during the biggies. They like to hit a race or two because of the history/tradition.

I don’t think there was a common thread that someone can weave together to create the perfect night, but there was a common theme that came up while I talked to everyone.

I asked each person I talked to point out the one thing that is the most important factor to them in defining a perfect night. Most found it difficult to narrow it down to just one thing.

Car count was the most popular answer, but it was far from the only one. Some of the other answers: smooth/racy track, big names, big series, quality of facilities, and heritage of the event/track rounded out the top six answers.

“Car count,” Becky Sennert (Ankeny, IA) told me. “I love to see more cars for a better feature race.”

“I would say car count,” Dustin Mangrich (Gibertville, IA) pointed out. “I love to see a good group of cars. (Having an) A & B Main means we are going to have a great night of racing.”

“Competition and drama, they’re all equally important,” Rick Reiter (Des Moines, IA) proclaimed. “But I think car count is most important. More cars equal more fans, and the track makes money and stays open.”

Knoxville Raceway (Photo: Bucky Doren)
Knoxville Raceway (Photo: Bucky Doren)

“Heritage of the event and track for me,” commented race fan Kevin Lenz (Alta, IA). “If I’ve been to that event before or have heard about an event that has had success, I would be more inclined to go and check it out.”

“I look for specials in the classes I enjoy,” Scott Wiley (Donahue, IA) told me. “IMCA Late Models and Modifieds. Travel time is a factor as well as tracks that historically have had excellent track preparation.”

Some of the fans are former participants, and although they have a slightly skewed perspective, that doesn’t discredit their opinion. They’re still a race fan after all.

“Quality of cars I would say,” stated former race director Joe Hayes (Marion, IA). “I’m still a Late Model fan, and love to watch them compete. I can’t stand it when there is nothing going on the track.”

Former driver turned fan Ryan Watnem (Humbodlt, IA) echoed that sentiment, “For me it’s smoothness of show. I can’t stand it when a track takes forever and a year to get a show in with only 60 cars in the pits. “

Former car owner Wes Musch (Waterloo, IA) agreed on car count as a fan, “I’d say weekly, I hope to see 25-30 cars. For a one night only special, 40. During a three-day special, I’d like to see 60 cars. To be honest though, I never really worried about car counts when we raced. I just knew if we were at the track with the car, we had to beat them all, no matter how many were there.”

As I pointed out… a wide variety of opinions on what makes the perfect show. For me personally, I love a well-run show, but track condition is the most important for me. I’m okay if the track is a bit rough, as long as it yields some side-by-side racing. What’s the point of having 99 Modifieds check in for a race if you only see three passes all night.

So there isn’t really one thing everyone could agree upon on makes the perfect night, but there was a common theme about what tracks when looking towards the future.

Dirt Track Racing (Photo: Bucky Doren)
Dirt Track Racing (Photo: Bucky Doren)

In a word, ‘evolution’, or change if you prefer, but here again there was a wide range of things to consider.

“Fan entertainment,” Mangrich offered on the subject of change. “When you walk through the gates, you feel as if you left the world behind. Maybe on one side behind the grandstands there are a couple drivers doing autographs for the kids or driver merchandise. Maybe a simulator or arcade. On the other side, there could be twenty-one-and-up kind of Skydeck V.I.P. House with TV’s showing the racing action.”

Hayes talked to me about one night when he took his boys to the track. They were 21 and 18 at the time, and they were upset that there wasn’t an APP where they could instantly get results.

Mark Berglund (Shell Rock, IA) has been involved with a few race teams over the years and shared his thoughts on change, “Something I think needs to be done is to take a hard look at weekly payouts and championship payouts. Many tracks haven’t changed their payouts in years, but the cost of racing has risen tremendously. The time and effort to run for a championship does not equal the return.”

All that said, the one change that everyone I talked to hope for was a better social media buzz. Most stated that it doesn’t affect their decisions, but they shared their concern for the newbie fans just starting to take an interest in dirt track racing.

Be honest with yourself for a moment. Have you ever said to yourself or racing family that something about racing needed to change, get fixed, or move to the next level? Maybe it was the promoter on how they do something. Drivers on how they act towards other drivers on and off the track. Better service. More courteous fans. Have you looked if there was something you could do to help make it a better experience for someone else.

“I have no problem going to an event by myself and ignoring the negativity both at and away from the track,” Brandon Leonard (Cedar Rapids, IA) shared. “It doesn’t bother my group of friends either. With that being said, I could see where some people could be frustrated and pushed away by it.”

“I think it affects the younger generation,” thought Hayes. “I learned a long time ago that some people on social media just want to bitch. Younger people are influenced by that stuff.”

Berglund agreed with the social media trolling impacting would-be newcomers, “Yes I believe that negative buzz could affect people that might be thinking of give a track and or race a shot.”

“Sometimes yes, it might change my mind on a track,” Lenz added. “But i will still try to support it no matter what.”

“I do believe it hurts and can be negative and keep fans from attending,” Reiter concluded. “I’d like to see people post positive things. (That) hardly happens.”

Dirt Track Racing (File Photo: Bucky Doren)
Dirt Track Racing (File Photo: Bucky Doren)

Social media negativity has only impacted one of my decisions across my 40-plus years of living the #IowaDirt life. It was the biggest reason I stepped away a few years back. Yes, I did that mainly to spend more time with my son before his college career begins, but the constant ‘I’m smarter and louder than you are’ rants on social media and to my face made that an very easy decision.

I stepped away from announcing. I stepped away from helping teams market themselves. I stopped talking about it on my radio show. I stopped writing articles like this one. I even stopped going to a track just to be a fan.

Granted, I still worked at a track on Saturday nights during that hiatus, but I was far from loyal to being there every Saturday night (roughly 60% of the nights). I still helped when I could because that staff I worked with was, and still is, a lot of fun to be around.

All in all, I stopped and why? It wasn’t because my feelings were hurt. It wasn’t because I hated the sport. Even during my hiatus of sorts, I still loved the sport. I just grew so tired of my Facebook & Twitter feeds bogged down with a bunch of grown men ‘sword fighting’ with everyone. I grew tired of it carrying over to when I was at the track. There was only so much negativity I could tolerate.

So why my resurgence back into the dirt tack lifestyle? I’m hoping to try to cut through the noise and show something positive about the sport, and maybe we’ll a learn a little something along the way.

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