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09/22 2018

NEXT BIG THING ON DIRT: BOONE, IOWA AND THE IMCA SUPER NATIONALS

No one in the cream-of-the-crop Boone finale — the Big Dance, they call it here–– had to eat ramen noodles to afford the entry fee, but there may have been a time when they did.PHOTO BY STEVEN COLE SMITH

Sprint car event is a grassroots racing spectacular

BY:  STEVEN COLE SMITH

Eight miles away, you can see the lights. Work your way north up Highway 17, pass through Madrid, then Luther. You can’t help but look over on the horizon to your left, where the glow is at 11 o’clock, then 10, then 9. Are the lights at Boone Speedway really that bright, or is it just that there isn’t much taller than corn and cows between here and there?

When you hit Highway 30, it’s an easy jog to the town of Boone, Iowa, population maybe 13,000 any other day. But tonight, this particular summer Saturday, that population grows by maybe 10,000. It’s warm, it’s clear, and there are hundreds of race cars in the pits, thousands of fans in the stands, gallons of beer, miles of hot dogs.

It’s the final night of the IMCA Super Nationals, the biggest dirt-track event you’ve never heard of. It may be The Next Big Thing in dirt-track racing.

Tulsa’s Chili Bowl? Kind of jumped the shark when Danica Patrick and The New York Times showed up.

The Knoxville Nationals? Sure, the event at Knoxville Raceway, located about an hour and a half south of here on the other side of Des Moines, is at capacity for the sprint car spectacular, but it has grown to the point where you feel like your favorite restaurant has been discovered and you can’t get a table anymore.

Eldora Speedway? No question, the track has thrived under Tony Stewart’s ownership, but sometimes the crowd reminds you of Bike Week at Daytona — lots of people wearing expensive, still-shiny black and orange T-shirts with the price tags still attached, but who have never actually sat on a Harley.

They don’t call this “America’s Racin’ Vacation!” for nothing.PHOTO BY STEVEN COLE SMITH

If you want the real deal, racing essentially untouched by the motorsports elite, with a star-studded field for the grand finale that’s populated by drivers whose name you have never heard but are shining stars to this grassroots-savvy audience — that’s the IMCA Super Nats.

Some necessary background: Don’t confuse IMCA, the International Motor Contest Association, with IMSA, the International Motor Sports Association, or even with ISMA, the International Super Modified Association. The near-suicidal ISMA cars run on pavement, mostly in New England. IMSA sports cars run on street and road courses and are driven in large part by 45-year-old men with talent or a trust fund.

No, IMCA is different: It was founded in 1915, making it the oldest active motorsports sanctioning body in the country. You read Autoweek and you didn’t know what the IMCA is? Well, that’s probably our fault.

Actually, explaining what IMCA is today is a bit of a challenge. It is, first and foremost and proudly, essentially blue-collar. That is hard to grasp when you walk through the absolutely packed pits at Boone Speedway and see that apparently blue-collar now means Kenworths towing 42-foot stacker trailers, but there are racers who are clearly struggling, able to afford only an $80,000 Ram 3500 Limited Mega Cab Dually towing a simple $36,000 American Hauler trailer that doesn’t even have proper living quarters! Of course, that doesn’t include a race car. Or tools, or tires, or spare engines, or all the other stuff you reportedly need to, you know, compete.

IMCA is not for the faint of heart, it seems.PHOTO BY STEVEN COLE SMITH

So you make the money back with your winnings? Uh, no. The winner of the Super Nationals — we’ll reveal his name shortly, which will certainly bring him fame and adoration he never anticipated — hoisted a big cardboard-and-foam check in victory lane made out for $5,900.

If this sounds like these are trust-fund babies, too, they aren’t. These are people who, for the most part, work hard at their jobs, find sponsors, wrench on their own cars, and, when necessary, race for Team Mastercard.

Work your way down the food chain to the local IMCA racer, who doesn’t have the funds or maybe the talent or certainly the equipment to come to Boone to race with the Big Boys each September. Those might be people who, faced with putting new tires on the family car or on the IMCA race car, figure the Goodyears on the ’96 Ford Explorer can go a couple more months.

They work on their race cars early in the morning before going to their job. They work on it at night after they get home, while neighbors and aunts and uncles and cousins cross their arms and shake their heads at the very real prospect that this polished, near-perfect race car, by the end of Saturday night, might well be a smoldering disaster that requires two wreckers and a forklift to load it onto the open trailer. Dirt-track racing at the local level is a full-contact sport, and the driver who takes his or her car home at the end of the night needing absolutely no work before next weekend — that’s a racer who wasn’t driving hard enough.

And to the victor goes the spoils — and the check for $5,900 — at Boone.PHOTO BY STEVEN COLE SMITH

And while no one in the cream-of-the-crop Boone finale — the Big Dance, they call it here — had to eat ramen noodles to afford the entry fee, there may have been a time when they did. And there are fans in the stands here who know their racing world in far more detail than the average NASCAR or Formula 1 fan. When it comes to knowledge of what is actually taking place on the racing surface, short track fans are far more sophisticated and knowledgeable — and far more invested. Who else would dedicate their annual vacation to come to Boone, Iowa, and camp out in the parking lot of the Walmart across the street for all five days of racing? They don’t call this “America’s Racin’ Vacation!” for nothing.

Yes, beer is often involved, but until the Amish formally launch a buggy racing series, that will be the case in most every kind of racing. (That said, the amount of beer being consumed in the Boone Speedway pits was impressive, and unusual, since alcohol is strictly banned in the pits of many racetracks.)

So what are they racing here, exactly? While the IMCA sanctions eight different classes — from four-cylinder compacts to winged sprint cars — they are best known for IMCA Modifieds, the stars of the Super Nationals. This year, 215 Modifieds came to Boone — down from past years, but things are tough all over — hoping for a slot in the Big Dance, where 33 cars line up three wide, Indianapolis 500-style, and race for 40 laps.

While the bodies are bigger and wider than they used to be and almost all of them are professionally wrapped with lots of fluorescent sponsors and shooting flames, underneath, the IMCA Modified has not changed that much over the years. The frame has to be from a post-1964 American rear-drive passenger car — Chevrolet Chevelles and second-generation Monte Carlos are popular, but getting hard to find.

The IMCA’s longstanding claim to fame, pun intended, has been its claim rule – for years, a racer finishing behind another racer could “claim” his engine for $325 – $300 to the racer, $25 to the wrecker driver who yanks the engine out of the car after the race. If you don’t let them claim your engine, you don’t get invited back. This kept racers, in theory at least, from spending a fortune on their engine, knowing they could lose it for $300.

IMCA still has a clam rule, but it’s $1,050 – $1,000 to the racer, $25 to the wrecker driver, $25 to the official who has to stand there and make sure everything is proper. But now the claimed driver also has the option of receiving $100 and the engine out of the claimer’s car, so at least the claimed driver doesn’t go home engineless.

Or – and this is fairly new and gaining popularity – IMCA now allows the GM604 “crate” engine, a 400-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8 that GM sells mostly through Chevrolet dealers for about $6,000. That engine is “sealed,” so you can’t tamper with it (and there’s a cottage industry out there thinking up ways to modify a sealed engine), but at least it isn’t claimable. Many racers are going this route to keep from being claimed – once it was not unusual for a racer to run an oddball V-8, such as a 472-cubic-inch junkyard Cadillac engine, essentially unclaimable because few other racers wanted to figure out how to mount it in their chassis and hook it up to their transmission.

The whole crate motor concept is far more widespread than you’d imagine – most all the ARCA cars, and the majority of the NASCAR Camping World truck series competitors are running no-touch engines from Ilmor, which are basically Chevrolet V-8 tweaked by Ilmor, and by calling them Ilmors, Ford and Toyota teams can run them without having the engines branded as Chevys. Ilmor, of course, dates back to 1983 when Roger Penske backed a couple of British engineers who wanted to build race engines. Ilmor still builds the Chevy IndyCar engine, but its Plymouth, Michigan division turns out of lot of V-8s for ARCA and NASCAR.

The other IMCA Modified trademark is using hard, narrow tires that erase the advantage of a super-powerful engine – you just spin the tires with excess horsepower. It’s sort of like four round, rubber restrictor plates. Only one brand and type of tire is allowed, the Hoosier G60-15 made especially for the IMCA. They cost about $115 each – compare that to the cost of tires in the IMSA or ISMA series. Your choice of tires: Tall or short. That’s it.

So, we now return you to racing.

Boone Speedway (raceboone.com) is a high-banked, quarter-mile dirt oval (but it seems larger), undeniably one of the finest dirt track facilities in the county. Boone’s promoter, Robert Lawton, won the RPM National Promoter of the Year award, and his track draws a weekly crowd of about 2,000, huge for this type of racing. I’ve never seen a track so highly rated online by fans and competitors.

The degree of banking is unusual, and certainly makes it difficult to keep the surface moist. Immediately before the 40-lap Big Dance, there’s the “track farming” that Boone has become famous for — not one, not two, but seven six-wheel John Deere tractors take to the surface — of course, this being rural Iowa, John Deeres are about as scarce as high cholesterol. These tractors — some with discs, others with rollers, join a water truck and three school buses that were packing the track. In less than 15 minutes, the entire track surface is watered, overturned and tamped down. Tony Stewart, take note: These guys put Eldora and the Chili Bowl to shame.

There are the obligatory flags and fireworks, and finally, at 11 p.m., it’s race time. It would be nice to say that it was a battle for the ages, but Jeff Aikey of Cedar Falls, Iowa — backed not coincidentally by Aikey Auto Salvage, where “The best part is a used part!” — absolutely ran away with the race, starting on the pole and leading all 40 laps. Second was Cayden Carter, but six lapped cars separated Aikey from Carter at the checkered flag. Modifieds and drivers from a dozen states were represented, but nobody knows Iowa racing like Iowans, so good for Aikey. He had won the late model division crown six times, but this was his first win the Modified Big Dance.

“This is big,” Aikey understated in victory lane, hoolding that $5,900 check as high as the rafters. Yes, it is, and it ought to get bigger.