July 8, 2014

My Two CENT$

Re-Living Hawkeye Downs

The other night in the pits at LaSalle Speedway by friend Bobby asked where I was off to next. I said, “Hawkeye Downs for the ARCA Midwest Tour.” He said, “Are you ok,” as he was shocked. In a way I was ok with going to an asphalt race and I was looking forward to this race all year. It wasn’t about the race so much but about getting a chance to see an old friend with that being Hawkeye Downs Speedway in Cedar Rapids Iowa. The fairgrounds and track when it was dirt meant a lot to me and I have enjoyed the asphalt racing there. It wasn’t always that way. It took me till 2007 to go back and now I like it. Back in 2007 I wrote a story about my experience that captured my feelings and that I had to just let it go. I hope you enjoy my story called “Never Say Never,” from the Bleacher View Archives.

Never Say Never
by Mike Ruefer 
Davenport, IA - I’m having a tough time this year trying to find new ideas for stories to write about. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about saying the same thing each year about the tracks and races but in most cases I’ve dumped my soul into my writing and said what I’ve always wanted to say. Or at least say what can be printed in a family oriented publication. Bottom line I feel that my best muse is all used up.

I recently talked about change and accepting that it will happen regardless if we want to change or not. To keep things fresh and interesting I was ready to venture out and start my summer journey to a new track or two and it was then when I got a phone call. It was my old friend Chuck Gonzales who is now the series photographer for the ASA Late Model Series organization. Chuck is one of the most gifted photographers I’ve ever known and he invited me to the ASA Challenge Series race at Hawkeye Downs Speedway. I knew I wanted to go but I said something 19 years ago that has haunted me when I said, “I’ll NEVER go back to Hawkeye Downs.”

My dilemma was the paving of Hawkeye Downs during the fall of 1988. Up to that time the half mile track in Cedar Rapids Iowa was dirt and home to many of Iowa’s dirt track legends. On any given Friday night you would see the greatest drivers battle for victories and glory at the most famous Iowa track that rivaled Knoxville in every form and fashion. I can still hear and vision the names of Dake, Eakers, Zwanziger, Dolan, Sanger, Walton, Hansen, Horn and Beckman circling the Downs oval. The rivalry between Davenport and Cedar Rapids was also hot as each track wanted to claim Friday night supremacy. It was a mad dash on I-80 to get to Cedar Rapids if Davenport rained out and vice versa. Watching Darrell Dake race in the famous “Rat 8” Chevy Nova was always a thrilling moment for me as a young man.
The Granddaddy of all races in Iowa for many years was the Falstaff 100 and later called the Miller 100. It was the creation of Keith Fleck a local Beer distributor businessman who developed this race for charity. It was Iowa’s biggest race and one of the biggest in the country on dirt. The early versions of the Falstaff 100 with the first held in 1973 was USAC sanctioned and won by Butch Hartman. Throughout the years the race was a classic event with cars and stars from all the Midwest competing at Hawkeye Downs. It was my “have to go” event. I guess now looking back, it was Iowa’s version of the World 100 and Hawkeye Downs was our Eldora. It meant that much to me and others.
In 1988 an announcement was made that Hawkeye Downs was going to be paved. I was shocked and became bitter. I felt that something was being taken away from me and I got mad. How could they pave Iowa’s greatest dirt Stock Car track? After the 1988 Yankee Dirt Track Classic, the last that was held at the Downs which Steve Kosiski won, I said, “I’ll never go back.”

For 19 years I’ve refused any temptation to go to any race at Hawkeye Downs. Even when special races for Dirt cars were held, I stuck to my guns and stayed home or went to a dirt race somewhere else. I even carried this resentment to all asphalt racing and stayed away only to watch an occasional race on TV. So here was my chance to let bygones be bygones and take Chuck Gonzales up on his offer which I did.

It was strange going back as the fairgrounds looked the same, the grandstand was the same but the difference was the sun bleached asphalt track and not black Iowa dirt. Walking around the pits and seeing the ASA Hot Rods and young gun drivers was interesting. Having only seen asphalt cars on TV gave me no realization on just how fast they really are. My highlight was not the racing so much but lifting this burden of junk off my shoulders that gave me this anti Hawkeye Downs feeling. As I watched some practicing in my old spot in the grandstand, it was like sitting in your favorite chair and it felt good to be back at Hawkeye Downs.
I liked my experience so much that when asked about going to the Miller 100 for ASA Midwest Tour Late Models, I did. It was even better because I was going back to the track, race and city that transformed me into a traveling race fan, 35 years ago. The cars and stars of ASA are real racing Hot Rods and I appreciate their brand of racing. It’s not like dirt racing, it’s different but it’s hard, tough and fast racing action. I’m going to go back to Hawkeye Downs, Iowa Speedway and maybe a few paved ovals up north. It’s a shame that I felt the way I did for too many years and maybe there are other Iowa dirt fans that were like me. I’m still a Dirt guy and always will be but I think I can make a little room in my schedule for some asphalt.

Before I leave this chapter in my racing journey I have to mention the Hawkeye Downs Wall of Fame in the Larry Kemp Tech Building. Having not spent any time in the pits ever before at Hawkeye Downs, I was mesmerized by all the great driver signatures that have raced and won on dirt and asphalt at the track. I found myself staring and looking at the wall, somewhat dazed. I’m sure the ASA tech guys thought I was weird as I kept taking pictures of the signatures. So much history is on that wall that I hope it is preserved for future generations. It links the Dirt past with the Asphalt present. Overall I learned that I should “Never say Never,” when it comes to racing. I still wish Hawkeye Downs was a dirt track but going there again felt good. Thanks Chuck for giving me that call.