Growing up as a kid in the ’70s, Mitch Swinton of Lone Tree always wanted to be part of a club.
The boys were in Cub Scouts, the girls in Girl Scouts, and inner city youth belonged to Boys and Girls Clubs. And even though he never joined one of those groups, he says he knew – deep down inside – that someday he would be in one.
He just needed to find – or in his case, create – the right one. Mitch is the founder of Lil Racer Car Club, which seeks to provides recreational, educational, and entertainment choices to young dirt track racing fans who are younger than 12.
The impetus for starting Lil Racer Car Club began with Mitch’s own childhood:
“As a young child, my dad introduced me to the exciting world of stock car racing at the Big 4 Fairgrounds in Nashua, and Midway Downs, a track located between Nashua and Charles City in the mid- to late-’60s. In later high school years, I would attend races at the North Iowa Speedway in Mason City, where I would go and cheer on my favorites. Races at the Butler County Speedway in Allison were exciting as well, until the track was closed, due to neighbor opposition.
“After I moved to Iowa City to attend the University of Iowa and then on to Lone Tree when I met and married my wife of 36 years, a friend in town asked me to go with him on weekends and watch races at West Liberty Raceway beginning in the early ’90s – the track that I would deem my ‘home track’ until it closed to become a ‘specials only’ track in 2017.
“I belonged to a small group at the track called the West Liberty Raceway Booster Club that held fundraisers to help with track improvements and the end of season racing banquets. After the group disbanded when a different track promoter was named, I decided I wanted to continue assisting the local racing scene by doing something for the young race fan in order to create a fun atmosphere for them and hopefully increase their numbers and build track attendance.
“I had been taking my only son who was 6 at the time to the track to watch with me and soon realized there was nothing formally in place to get kids to make the track their ‘GO TO’ destination on weeknights during the summer. I decided that I wanted to do something for the kids who came to the track, in hopes they would go home, tell their friends how much fun they had, and invite them along the next week.
“Things are much different in today’s society. In the ’60s and ’70s, there was no social media to speak of. Television consisted of three or four channels. No cable or movie or sport channels. No PPV race channels. Movies back then consisted of the local movie theatre on the weekend in a city close by, if mom and dad could afford to lend you the admission price to go.
“Farm kids worked the farms and city kids worked in small stores or had newspaper routes. Races were a weekend family event, where the family would pile in the family Buick to enjoy a night at the local track together. With the creation of , an unlimited number of youth sport options, and family vacations away, the track fan age populations are edging upward, and the young race fans are needed in order to help our great sport survive.”
So, one cool April night in 2005, Mitch created Lil Racer Car Club. With fair board approval, Mitch and his wife set up a table under the grandstands at West Liberty Raceway and gave out Easter eggs that had been filled with candy or quarters, and registered young race fans for membership in the club. That first night, five kids signed up:
“What’s better than having a racing kids club, one of which any kid who came to the track could join for free and feel like they belong to something of their own?
Mitch says he thought it would be “easy” to run his new club. Little did he know it would grow to between 1,000 and 1,500 members – across multiple participating tracks. Now, the organization is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity, which allows sponsors and friends of the club to deduct their contributions from their taxes.
But, the focus of this charity is solely on the kids it serves:
“We do not race anything with motors. We have raced cars made of boxes, we have raced bikes, gunny sacks, Big Wheels and Power Wheels, just nothing motorized. We are a club for kids under 12 years of age – and all handicapped individuals – who want to belong to something they can call their own.
“After a club registration and track waiver have been filled out and signed by a parent or legal guardian, the child receives their ‘Lil Racer Club Permit,’ which they wear in a lanyard to the track each time they visit. This permit allows them to receive their club Swag Bag, filled with free coloring books, colors, stuffed animals, themed club items and a race flag. They also receive a ticket, good for our nightly prize drawing, all entirely free to the club kids each week.
“We have allowed kids to color pictures, return them to the clubhouse, and in return receive a shiny trophy to take up in the stands with them! Trophies are donated to us from drivers across the State who enjoy seeing them given out to kids who will enjoy them for years to come.
“Kids can throw a rubber duck at a target set out on the track for a chance to win concert or waterpark passes, they bring pet food and food for the needy, for a chance to win prizes, can get all the free ice cream they care to eat on our free ice cream giveaway night, or participate in activities associated with our Kids With Cancer Night, Adoption and Foster Care Night, Autism Awareness Night, Epilepsy Awareness Night, or our Juvenile Diabetes Night.
“While we do charge a nominal fee for ear plugs, earmuffs, safety glasses, and goggles, all fees collected are used to purchase more safety items. We are staffed entirely by a dedicated group of volunteers who love working with kids. We have a Facebook page (click HERE to check it out), filled with hundreds of pictures and activities that club members have participated in at different race venues over the last 15 seasons.”
For the upcoming 2021 racing season, Lil Racer Car Club will be at Davenport Speedway on Friday nights and “The Bullring” – Benton County Speedway in Vinton – on Sundays. The club at Davenport will be run by Crew Chief Michael Pigsley of Muscatine and his daughter, Sissy.
Mitch would love it if fans at those tracks check out what the clubs are doing the next time they go to either of those tracks:
“Your kids will thank you for it. After all, it’s all about the kids!”
Lil Racer Car Club has also released its 2021 “Wish List” of items it would like help purchasing ahead of the 2021 racing season. Click HERE to see the full list.
Feature photo courtesy Chris Claypoole; others provided by Lil Racer Car Club
For more news and information that “covers the Iowa dirt track scene,” visit www.iowaracingnews.com.