DES MOINES – For dirt track racing fan Mike Townsley, Sept. 28, 2016, is a date that will live in infamy.
That was the day Iowa State Fair Speedway promoter Tony Moro – not fair general manager Gary Slater or communications and marketing director Mindy Williamson – told the world the fairgrounds’ famed half-mile racetrack was being removed and racing was being put on hiatus. At the time, Moro – who had just spent $15,000 on marketing, apparel, and a new website – was stunned to have to make the following announcement:
“It is with great disappointment that the promoters of the Iowa State Fair Speedway (ISFS) announced today the discontinuation of racing at the speedway for the foreseeable future. The surprising news was delivered recently by Gary Slater, CEO of the Iowa State Fair in a private meeting. The Iowa State Fair Speedway has been an important part of the Midwest racing roots and Des Moines for decades.
“The decision came as a shock not only to the race promoters but racers and fans alike certainly in light of the announcement made by Gary Slater at the ISFS Awards Banquet last fall where he made a public promise that ‘there would be racing at ISFS for many years to come.’ As described in the private meeting, there are no plans currently in place to rebuild the track and there is no expectation that racing will become a part of the Fairgrounds in the future.”
Moro, who saw four generations of his family – his father, himself, his son, and his grandson – all race at the fairgrounds half-mile, added his own personal statement, as well:
“This came as a total shock and huge disappointment, given our multi-year contract. My partners, Eric Lundstrom and John Pat Dorrian and I have made a significant personal investment of time and money to make the Iowa State Fair Speedway a competitive, entertaining and family friendly venue for all. We want to thank everyone for your support and participation, and we are sorry we won’t have the opportunity to continue in this historic venue.”
Weekly racing became a fixture of the Iowa State Fair Speedway in the 1960s. With attendance lagging for the weekly program, Moro, Lundstrom, and Dorrian stepped in a few years before the track’s demise with a long-term plan to revitalize the venue, including the possibility of restructuring the track to shorten it and add higher banking.
In an interview with KCCI-TV after the announcement was made, Moro said he was presented with the fair’s own long-term plan that might include a future 3/8-mile racetrack located near the northwest corner of the fairgrounds, although he said there was no commitment to do so. For her part, Williamson heavily emphasized the fair would bring racing back in her responses to media inquiries:
“We’ve had a longstanding tradition of racing here at the state fair, and our plans are to bring that back … I would say it’s a short pause. And to a race fan, a pause of two to three years seems like a really long time, but hold with us and be with us and supportive because we’re trying to make this venue even better for them.”
Plans were also published that showed the proposed location of the racetrack in correlation to the new grandstand entertainment area. The timeline for fairgrounds improvements presented at the time by Williamson stated:
- In 2017, a restructured Midway would open.
- In 2018, renovations of the historic Grandstand would be completed.
- In 2019, a new “motor sports area” would be completed.
The purported motor sports area would be designed to host rodeos, marching band competitions, and other entertainment options. Seating for this area would be separate from the Grandstand and would hold approximately 6,500 people.
But Moro’s tone was far less optimistic than the fair’s PR machine:
“They have no interest in this racetrack. We know that. They’ve proved that over the years. You can’t shut a business down one day and reopen it five years later and expect it to be the same. It’s not going to happen.”
One of Moro’s sponsors at the Iowa State Fair Speedway, Carl Moyer – owner of Karl Chevrolet and Karl Kustoms – who also raced at the track himself, voiced his own displeasure at the decision to end racing and remove the track at the time in an interview with KCCI-TV:
“We’ve got plenty of people who will stand up and say, ‘Show me what we’re doing wrong, what we can do better,’ – and they can’t. In the meeting, he said it could be three years, five years, maybe never if we don’t have the funding. I’d say if racing is done at the State Fair, Gary Slater should be done at the State Fair.”
The Iowa State Fairgrounds racetrack – a relatively flat, but wide, half-mile oval – was built in 1907, along with the fair’s legendary grandstand. The track was tested by none other than the legendary Barney Oldfield, the first man to ever pilot a car at 60 mph on a circular track who was known at the time as “The Speed King.”
According to racing historian Bill Haglund, Oldfield proclaimed the track “one of the finest in the nation.”
Just a few years later, following the formation of the International Motor Contest Association, speedway-style racing became a big feature of the 10-day fair schedule. The only exception being the ban on auto racing during World War II to conserve fuel for the American war effort.
Watch these video highlights from the 2014 Iowa State Fair, narrated by Toby Kruse, provided by Iowa Public Television:
Even as the news was coming out about the fate of the half-mile track, crews had begun taking down the lighting fixtures to prepare for the bulldozers to begin removing the 109-year-old racing surface. Just three weeks later, Turns 1 and 2 and much of the front stretch racing surface were gone, and the rest would disappear soon thereafter.
After that, racing fans like Mike Townsley waited and watched the northwest corner of the fairgrounds for signs of new construction on the promised 3/8-mile dirt track. More than four years into that wait, with not even a hint of new construction activity, he decided to petition the Iowa State Fair Board of Directors:
“I like dirt track racing and know the great history of the wonderful Iowa State Fair races. And I was real disappointed that the dirt track was taken down. I am a member of some of the Iowa dirt track racing Facebook groups and hear the many who were really hurt that the dirt track was being removed from the Iowa State Fairgrounds also. Many vow they will never go to the Iowa State Fair again.
“I can remember as a child in the 1960s walking by the half-mile dirt track and seeing the midget racers waiting to go into the infield. I wanted to go to the races so bad, but no one would take me. I have attended races at the Iowa State Fair as an adult. I miss them very much. I also have attended tractor pulls and have seen the huge crowds in the grandstand. And the fair board ended that as well.
“We are sad and hurt about that and I wanted to do something. I remembered that there was a representative of the fair who said that when they were taking out the half-mile track from the Iowa State Fairgrounds that they would build a new dirt track somewhere else on the fairgrounds.
“I started the petition because I wanted to remind the Iowa State Fair Board and secretary of the fair of their promise to build the new dirt track. So, I wanted to do something and knew there were others who were hurt and angry and felt betrayed by the Iowa State Fair Board.”
The online petition (click HERE) garnered more than 2,400 signatures when Townsley submitted it to the fair board in January. Although some told him it was a waste of time, the petition is still gathering signatures. As of this writing, nearly 2,600 have signed it.
But Townsley never got any response from the Iowa State Fair. When asked by Iowa Racing News about the petition, the status of racing at the fairgrounds, and the fair board’s decision-making process, Williamson issued only the following statement:
“To answer the questions below, there are no plans, at this time, to include a racetrack in the proposed outdoor entertainment project area.”
Pressed further about her prior comments in 2016 that essentially promised racing would return, she added:
“My quote in the Des Moines Register in 2016 was with ‘hopes of a return’ and was accurate for the information available at that time. The plans were for the future and have altered due to many different factors, including designated gift donations, pressing financial obligations, and a pandemic.”
Asked if he felt like the Iowa State Fair Board lied to the public about the future status of racing in 2016, Townsley said:
“Yes, they did.”
Iowa Racing News attempted to reach out to Moro, Moyer, and others associated with the Iowa State Fair Speedway, but did not receive a response from them as of this writing. The speedway’s Facebook page (click HERE) remains active with more than 7,000 followers.
For more news and information that “covers the Iowa dirt track scene,” visit www.iowaracingnews.com.