Timeless Tracks: Hamilton County Speedway

Hamilton County Speedway Modifieds

Photo courtesy Hamilton County Speedway

Even though I’m elbows deep into the 2014 season already I still have hundreds of memories and thoughts floating around inside my head from things I saw and experienced via my endeavors in the racing world in 2013.  Some may say these endless thoughts in my big head remain only because there’s nothing else in there taking up space to force them out.  While that bit of insight might be hard for me to deny, I rather like to think that they are still there because each and every of the experiences impacted my perception of the racing world in some form or fashion.

One such experience came in the middle of the week in mid July on the hottest of hot days that southern Iowa could possibly offer at the historic Hamilton County Speedway (Webster City, Iowa).  While impending heat strokes and dehydration did their best to prevent my absorption of everything that the old-school facility had to offer, my absolute love for new and interesting race tracks reigned supreme.

While impending heat strokes and dehydration did their best to prevent my absorption of everything that the old-school facility had to offer, my absolute love for new and interesting race tracks reigned supreme.

A series of pay-per-views for the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series (LOLMDS) took me on a pilgrimage from Kansas to Iowa to Nebraska in a five day stretch.  All of the events had three common denominators, which were great drivers, great fans, and miserable heat.  The trip to Hamilton County Speedway began around midnight the night prior to the event as myself and my good friend, Michael Rigsby (owner of DirtOnDirt.com) departed Lakeside Speedway (Kansas City, Kansas) just minutes after concluding the first of four nights of live pay-per-view action.  We were sweaty, stinky, and dog tired, but we knew we had a four hour drive in front of us. We deemed it better to head on north to Iowa after the completion of the show in Kansas instead of staying the night and driving the next morning.

We rolled into Webster City, Iowa about 5:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, and had the quite undesirable, yet simultaneously interesting experiencing of checking into the hotel as many of the business class people were checking out.  They looked at us as if we were vampires trying to beat the rising sun to bed.  Looking back now, I’m not so sure they were wrong in their observation.

After an impressive three hours of sleep we jumped out of bed and headed to the track to set up for the evening’s broadcast.  As we made the short two mile drive from our hotel to the track I was able to absorb the feel of Webster City, Iowa.  It appeared to be a farming community that supported a small town.  There was no danger of getting the big city blues in this place.  As we made the turn off the main drag at the city pool we immediately saw signs for the fairgrounds, which housed the track.

Upon arriving at the track I quickly found a setup after my own heart with a large, covered wooden grandstand.  While the seats themselves had been replaced with more modern metal, the traditional wooden overhead and beams still stood strong.  Something about this style of grandstands has just always appealed to me as it creates a feeling of nostalgia.  The aging wood of these dinosaurs almost always seems to have its own story to tell.

IMG_1113Moving past the grandstands as humidity tried to cut through my body I was more than amused to notice that track packing was being down with eighteen wheelers.  Trucks pulling what looked to be grain trailers circled the massive oval as they prepared the track for the evening’s event.

As I looked for the announcer’s box I quickly took note that there would be no luxurious suite for the scorers and announcers on this night, but rather a simple wooden, open-air stand located on the front stretch.  While this scenario is obviously less than desirable for protecting expensive electronic items from the elements, I still found it kind of neat.

My next initial perception came with the realization that the haulers all parked in the infield.  While this can be a viewing hindrance at many tracks, including this one, the view of an infield of haulers always gets my blood pumping.  Growing up at my home track – Riverside International Speedway (West Memphis, Arkansas) – I was always eager to run into the grandstands upon arriving at the track each week to see what race teams were parking in the middle.  For me it’s just an inexplicable feeling of comfort and being at home.

A few hours later our entire crew was on site, and the broadcast equipment was assembled and ready for action.  I took advantage of the downtime prior to the start of the festivities to investigate the facility more and talk to some locals, many of which began arriving at 10 a.m. for a show that didn’t start until 6 p.m.

Talking to the local diehard fans I quickly was educated in the history of the place.  The original race track opened across town in 1910 after Australian native, Ruper Jeffkins, moved to town to take a job at a local car dealership.  Jeffkins was a well-known racer in Australia, and used his passion for the sport to build a track in Webster City in 1910.  I was fascinated to learn that the opening night of the facility saw both cars and motorcycles in action.  Ruper operated the track for a season before moving on to be a driver and mechanic for the famed DePalma racing, which paced much of the 1912 Indianapolis 500.

IMG_1109While Jeffkins may have departed Webster City, he didn’t take the town’s love for racing with him when he left as the track operated under various different management and owners.

By 1938 work began on what is now the Hamilton County Speedway at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds.  The facility was completed in 1939 with racing making its debut at the new oval in September of that year.  The track has been in operation ever since with many of the region’s best drivers turning countless laps around the semi-banked, ½ mile oval.

Fast forward almost three quarters of a century later, and here I was at the track that represented true heritage in not only Iowa stock car racing history but also that of our country.  Walking around the grandstands I noticed that different sections were named after different Hall of Fame drivers as plaques adorning the warrior’s names were positioned strategically on supports posts.

IMG_1108Before I knew it the infield was jam-packed with cars, the facility was busting at the seams with fans, and it was time to get the racing action underway.

After hearing stories of great racing action atop the clay surface I was eager for action to begin, but the extreme heat of the day would quickly take its toll on the track as the moisture was soon gone from the clay, which made passing difficult.  While the racing didn’t prove to be spectacular the overall experience was still incredible as extremely passionate fans filled every nook and cranny of the place just to get to be a part of history as the facility hosted perhaps its biggest event ever.

Before I knew it the final checkered flag of the night had dropped with Illinois’ racer, Jason Feger standing proudly in victory lane after his first-career, Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series triumph.  Moments later we were in full teardown mode as we set our sights on our next destination, which lied the next day in Greenwood, Nebraska.

While my Hamilton County Speedway experience came and went in the blink of an eye, it’s undeniable that it left its mark on me.  Many times people ask me if the quality of the race is all that matters in my mind when it comes to trying to decide if a show was enjoyable.  While many times I would say this is indeed the case, it most definitely was not the determining factor of whether or not I had a great time at his Iowa oval.  The overall experience on this night for me was just amazing.

IMG_1110Getting to be a part of history at a historic race track on a more than warm night in southern Iowa…well for me, you just can’t put a price tag on that.  Experiences like this one just make me hungrier than ever to find the next hidden gem on the road of life.  After all….it often seems to me that we all need something unknown to keep us forging ahead.  For me it’s relentlessly chasing heritage and history on this long, dusty trail.

 

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