The people, the places and the dirt on central Iowa motorsports
Most of the tracks dotting the Iowa countryside are short, about a half-mile or less, shaped like an oval, and because they were originally designed to run horses, they have narrow turns. These ovals are paved with little more than good old-fashioned black Iowa farm soil that’s beaten down to form a path.
These paths aren’t desirable to travel for many. Life on the dirt offers death as a real possibility, and you can forget about winning a substantial financial windfall or widespread fame, as it’s unlikely.
So why do so many risk so much for so little? To the untrained eye, dirt track racing is just a set of souped-up cars racing to make left turns. But if you lift up the car hoods and look underneath, you’ll see thousands of hours of hard labor, blood, sweat and usually some tears, too.
City life has suckered many urbanites into forgetting motorsports are still a thing, but behind those hawkeye state steering wheels sit some pride-filled, ingenuitive, daredevil drivers who are as determined as anyone, anywhere in the world to be winners.
Buckle up, and hold on tight, as you’re about to scoop the loop of Iowa’s engine offerings. Enjoy a sweet taste of the dirt life, meet a few regular racers, and see what makes each of their hearts tick.
Finance nerd with a need for speed, this black belt has a reason to smile
Listen up, central Iowa. It’s time to take note of 20-year-old black belt, McKenna Haase.
“I’m a finance nerd,” she says of her studies at Drake. “Then at night, I fight. And on the weekends, I drive racecars.”
The best part? She says she does it while wearing a pink bow.
The day before giving her high school’s commencement speech as valedictorian, the dirt-racing demon made history as the first female to win a sprint car feature race in Knoxville Raceway’s 114 years of existence.
Knoxville isn’t NASCAR, but “the sprint car capital of the world” does draw 200,000 fans from around the world each summer. So doing something no one else ever had, at a place like that, is reason to smile.
“Find what you love, get behind the wheel, push on the gas and never look back,” says Haase, which is similar to what she said at her graduation ceremony where she laid out a strategy to quantify happiness.
For Haase, happiness is partly attained by meeting her need for speed, a need she’s had since a young age.
“We founded THR (Team Haase Racing) — which is our race team — in 2010 when I was 13,” she says. “So that’s when I started going out and getting my own sponsors.”
She has weekly obligations including social media posts, in-person appearances, keeping tabs on merchandise inventory, accounting for expenses, negotiating T-shirt prices and sticking to the budget she created before each season.
She says it’s a full-time job but is grateful for the opportunity. She’s also grateful her budget has grown along with her success.
For the the first time, Haase hired a crew chief (Donnie Cooper). She hopes his extra set of hands and expertise will allow her to accomplish even more.
“I used to spend every night at the shop,” she says. Running the business side of things is also time consuming, as well as maintaining her peak physical condition, which is critical and neverending. “A lot of work goes into this. You can’t just get in the car and just drive at the end of the week.”
In her first three seasons, Haase raced in the smallest of Knoxville’s three sprint car classes — the classes are based on the allowable maximum engine size, as bigger engines generally correlate to increased power. She finished third in her class in 2016, and based on that success, she stepped up in competition for 2017, which began in April. At press time, she had earned 11th place in the points standings in a class of 30, which isn’t bad for a rookie.
With her racing career continuously growing, Haase’s success has her hungry for more. She hopes to someday realize her hopes and race as a professional and at the highest level.
“I’m just a girl who is chasing a dream that’s kind of far-fetched,” she admits. “But hey, it’s worked so far, so we’re going to keep going.”
In his blood: Tony Moro
Some say racing is akin to a legalized drug. Tony Moro, a racer, a car and truck owner, a fan and the promotor of racing at the Iowa State Fairgrounds is in that camp.
“We spend more than drug addicts,” he says. “It runs in families, and we always say it gets in your blood. I mean, if you get involved in it, it seems like you just can’t get out.”
Moro isn’t talking about the mob; he’s talking dirt track racing. He says people keep coming back for the competition and the thrill of winning.
“My best friends in the world are people I’ve met through racing,” he says. “They’re competitive, they want to win, they’re successful. You’ll find that most of these racers work all day at their jobs so they can afford to race, and then they work half the night to work on their equipment to be better than the next guy.”
Moro is 61 years old now, but hasn’t lost his passion for the sport.
“You know what we’ve been doing all day?” he asks, pointing to his auto body and collision center he owns on Second Avenue. “We’ve been working on our dirt trucks. That’s what we do; we love it.”
He is a second-generation racer. His son and grandson make it four generations of racing in all. He says the whole family has the bug.
“My sister — we grew up racing — she got away for many years and went to California. Now she’s retired, and all she wants to do is come back and watch my races,” Moro says.
Recently, he crashed. He wasn’t critically injured, but the wreck was severe. News travels fast in the racing world, and his protective sister texted her concern with a caution to be more careful.
“But the crowd loved it,” Moro texted back.
To which she replied, “Sure they did; they smelled death.”
Moro isn’t sure how many wrecks he’s been in, but he says it’s a lot. He remembers the results of the crashes more clearly.
“I’ve broken myself up,” he says. “I’ve broken both my shoulder blades. I’ve broken my collarbone. I broke my sternum… not all at the same time, though.”
In Iowa, racing mostly consists of ovals, figure 8s, and straight-away drag racing. But Moro hasn’t tried the 8s, and he laughs at the proposition of an intersection purposely placed on a race track.
“No,” he says, rubbing his sternum. “That looks dangerous.”
Best racer in Iowa history?
Moro raced as a young adult and showed promise, but he gave it up to support a young family and grow a business — Tony Moro Collision Center. But by age 35, he couldn’t stay away any longer. He’s raced as often as possible ever since.
He pauses when asked who the best-ever Iowa racer is. He says there are several possibilities but that Tiny Lund — who won the Daytona 500 in 1963 and died in a crash 12 years later — is at least somewhere near the top of the list.
He says best racers from central Iowa are probably Billy Moyer — who is as decorated as any Iowa racer —or possibly Don Hoffman.
“They were pretty much legends in our area,” he says.
Through the years, Moro has developed some insight into what it takes to be a good driver.
“It’s like being in a street brawl,” he says. “When you’re all done you don’t know whether you got hit or how many times you hit somebody else, it’s just an out-and-out flogging. And then all of a sudden you think, ‘OK, it’s over now, am I bleeding anywhere?’ ”
He says some handle the speed of the action, the intensity of the competition and the physicality of the sport better than others. A racer needs to be able to focus on the track while improving the car in the midst of motorized mayhem. It’s this attribute that determines long-term success.
“There are some people who have the ability, that as it’s going on, they can still think about what their car is doing at different points on the race track and how they can make it better,” he says. “While other people can’t remember what happened while they were out there.”
Racing through history with Bill Haglund
When racing insiders with obscure questions can’t get Google to turn up the answers they need, they call Bill Haglund. He’s the man who wrote the book on Iowa dirt track racing history, all 600 pages of it. He laughs that if he’d known how much work it would be, he wouldn’t have done it. But Iowa is glad he did.
As a sports writer, Haglund covered dirt track racing for decades. He’s also raced cars in competitions, announced live racing over PA systems and managed a major speedway. At one point, Haglund helped start a NASCAR team and worked as the gas man for a Winston Cup team that raced at Daytona and Talladega.
Haglund knows racing as well as anyone.
“The first nationwide poll of auto racing, across the whole country, was in 1972,” Haglund remembers. “At that point, Iowa was determined to be the racing-ist state in the nation.”
He says Iowa had more racetracks per capita operating on a weekly basis than any other state, and it stayed that way until RPM (magazine) quit doing its survey sometime in the mid 1990s.
“There are more racetracks in Indiana,” he says. “There are more racetracks in the state of New York, and there are probably more in Ohio, but population wise, per capita, Iowa is right at the top.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Both North and South Dakota have a slightly higher per capita of track ratios to population than Iowa. But Iowa has nearly four times the quantity of tracks as either of them. Haglund was referencing RPM magazine, which tracked active tracks with regular, weekly events.
What to expect at the track
Races are high-volume, fast, entertaining and exciting. They are also affordable and family friendly — usually $8-$15 for adults, and many tracks admit children for free.
Expect cotton candy, kids of all ages, concessions, souvenirs and a variety of people having fun in “leisure mode.” Plus there is the roar of high-powered engines throttling under the summer sky.
First-time racegoers should know they probably don’t need ear plugs, but Haglund says to bring a blanket, either for keeping warm or to use as a seat cushion.
Come hungry and bring cash, the concessions are plentiful, but not all tracks accept credit cards.
And when it comes to the competition?
“Don’t expect to understand racing the first time you go,” he says. The rules are tricky at first, but Haglund predicts you’ll have fun anyway.
Generally, each event begins with qualifying heat races. Those are followed by features of the finalists in each division.
Heat races are usually 10 laps or so. The feature races are about 20.
Closing time is undetermined at the track. It depends on the severity of the crashes, which are an unfortunate reality of the sport.
“Once in a while, guys get upside down and have a little shorter car than what they came with,” he says.
If Haglund could communicate one thing about his sport, it’d be this: “People have the mistaken impression that auto racing is about the cars and engines. It’s not. It’s about the people. It’s just like any other sport. It’s the people who make it what it is. Some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life, I met because of racing. Everybody thinks they’re a bunch of roughnecks. They’re not. We have high school principals who race. We have policemen, dentists, lawyers and doctors, and they all race.”
What does crazy look like? If basic mathematics were the only factor, given the meager return on investment, intensive cash commitment and the high potential for debilitating injury or even death; to some, racecar driving might look exactly like crazy. But after witnessing Bill Haglund’s passion, Tony Moro’s devotion and McKenna Haase’s determination, it’s apparent that none of these three are anyone’s fool. These three Iowans all possess attributes young kids can look to and emulate.
Remember the advice McKenna Haase offered: Find what you love, get behind the wheel, push the gas and don’t ever look back?
After saying that, she finished with this: “And in that sense, I think racecar drivers can teach you everything you need to know about life.”
Not every Iowan is intended to rev several tons of automobile at 200 mph around an unpaved path, but maybe it’s time central Iowa is better introduced to the folks who are driven to drive really, really fast.
Hello, Des Moines. Meet dirt track racing. The 2017 season zooms on clear through September’s finish line… IT’S GO TIME! ♦