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Iowa Speedway takes another step forward

Published: Friday, Feb. 22, 2013 11:59 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Feb. 22, 2013 12:49 p.m. CDT
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(Shane Lucas/Daily News)
Iowa Speedway fans fill the bleachers for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series American Ethanol 200 on July 4, 2012. The race was won by Timothy Peters, who finished second in the series in points for the season.
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(Shane Lucas/Daily News)
NASCAR Nationwide Series Austin Dillon takes a pit stop during the Pioneer Hi-Bred 250 at Iowa Speedway on May 20, 2012. The race ended with driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s third consecutive victory at the track.
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(Shane Lucas/Daily News)
NASCAR Nationwide Series driver and Des Moines native Michael Annett talks with TV crews before the U.S. Cellular 250 on Aug. 4, 2012. Annett finished fourth in the race, which was won by Elliott Sadler.

Even though the 2012 season was the biggest, loudest and most critically acclaimed season Iowa Speedway has had to date, track officials are already looking forward to 2013.

On top of winning numerous NASCAR awards for events, helping launch the career of a new NASCAR Sprint Cup driver and forging new bonds with different series, 2012 also featured improved attendance and a general feeling of further improvement for a track that continues to make a name for itself.

“2012 was a great year for Iowa Speedway,” Iowa Speedway CEO Doug Fritz said. “Obviously with a few events winning awards is great accolades for us, but from a fan’s perspective, we’ve only heard positive things. We want to continue improving the fan’s experience.”

Last season’s schedule was expanded by one race, featuring two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races for the first time on top of two NASCAR Nationwide Series dates and the mainstay IZOD IndyCar Series weekend. Both Truck Series races earned rave reviews from fans and commentators alike, while the Nationwide races allowed fans to see Ricky Stenhouse Jr. win his third-straight race at the track, then have that streak ended in what could be his final race in Iowa for a while.

However, it was the IndyCar series that developed the most with the track last season, and it will continue to do so in 2013. IndyCar introduced a heat race style of qualifying for the first time ever last year, and it will do it again in 2013, but with some major changes. The amount of laps per heat races was extended and now instead of just racing for position, points will be on the line when the drivers line up for qualifying in Newton.

In a time where IndyCar has removed at least one oval track from its schedule, seeing a commitment to Iowa Speedway shows just how far the track has come.

“That’s a testament to the fanbase here and around the country,” Fritz said. “Iowans just love the open-wheel racing, and it’s great to see IndyCar recognize that. They want to race where the fans are, and obviously the open-wheel racing here is fantastic.”

Other minor changes from last season to this upcoming season include the schedule itself. Instead of starting in May, the schedule now will begin in June and extend through September. The final race of the year, a Truck Series weekend, was also moved back to avoid conflict with the Iowa/Iowa State football game. The Iowa Grand Motorcycle Rally, a new event as of last year, was also shifted to better accommodate riders’ plans for Sturgis.

“One of the things we heard from the fans was that first week in May was challenging because of graduations,” Fritz said. “So, we were able to talk with NASCAR about improving our day and seeing what was open. We feel June 7 and 8 is a very, very good date, and we’re really excited about it. Overall, what we like about next year is we have a combination of some Friday-Saturday and Saturday-Sunday events.”

Perhaps the only thing lost from last season to now is a little bit of star power. Stenhouse Jr., who obviously built up his status as a folk hero at track, received the call up to the Sprint Cup, as did Danica Patrick, who often drew a big following.

Fritz isn’t too worried about that, however. With new talent constantly filtering into new series, he expects the next big thing will be racing in Newton in no time. There’s also the possibility that homegrown talent such as Nationwide Series driver Michael Annett or up-and-comers Brett Moffitt and Mason Mitchell could very well be that next big thing.

“What’s great about this sport is sitting here today, we won’t know who the star of tomorrow will be,” Fritz said. “When guys like Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett retired, you think ‘Oh my goodness, what now?’ But it’s just amazing what happens because of NASCAR’s development series. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a great example of that.”

The Speedway will kick its unofficial season off with its annual Daytona 500 party on Feb. 24. Individual event and season tickets are currently on sale, and any and all information fans could need is available at iowaspeedway.com

While the question of whether a Sprint Cup will eventually arrive in Newton is lingering like it has been for the last few years, nothing much has changed on that front. That decision is still largely tied up within the scheduling powers-that-be within NASCAR, and fans will simply have to wait out their possible decision.

Until then, however, at least the buzz of engines will continue to fill the summer months in Newton.

Sports editor Shane Lucas may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 432, or at slucas@newtondailynews.com.

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