Nationwide Series, Iowa Speedway cooperative in growth
NASCAR Nationwide Series director Joe Balash knew the passion Iowans had for racing long before Iowa Speedway was even built.
Because of that, Balash, now in his eighth year running the series, had little trouble getting the series adjusted and established when it first came to Newton in 2009. In fact, there was almost no adjustment at all.
“They are avid, knowledgeable race fans,” Balash said of Iowans. “When Iowa Speedway was built and we brought the Nationwide Series there, everybody made you feel at home. From the fans that come out to watch the parade to the people that are working in the restaurants and hotels, everyone makes you feel like they want you to be there for a long time. That’s really cool and says a lot about the community and the track embracing having a large event.”
Started in 1982 and formerly known as the Busch Series and Busch Grand National Series, the NASCAR Nationwide Series has since taken on an identity of its own. Although the Nationwide Series technically is a feeder for the Sprint Cup series where drivers hone their skills, the advent of the Sprint Cup’s Car of Tomorrow in 2007 gave the Nationwide Series a chance to distance itself and create something of its own.
Iowa Speedway has accommodated four Nationwide Series races to date, and each of those have fit the mold that Balash is looking for in the series.
“This year we’ve been very, very happy with the television ratings and the viewership, and the fans have really tuned in to see what’s going on with the Nationwide Series,” Balash said. “We’ve got some really cool storylines taking place, and we’ve also got some of the closest finishes in history so far. Iowa Speedway was built for close, side-by-side racing and I think that’s exactly what the fans are going to see when we get there.”
The concept of side-by-side racing was clearly visible during last season’s U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa Speedway, when reigning Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was rammed across the finish line by Sprint Cup driver Carl Edwards. The finish was seen and heard all throughout NASCAR, and especially by Balash.
“A number of things we talked about last year was you can’t make that stuff up,” Balash said. “The way the race was unfolding and all of the sudden there’s all sorts of oil and smoke and Carl can’t see anything and hits his own teammate. You never want to end a race with two wrecked racecars, especially when they’re teammates.”
Another thing that has helped the Nationwide Series over the years is the occasional presence of Sprint Cup drivers, like Edwards at Iowa Speedway last season and Kurt Busch this season. Although the looked-down-upon tradition of “Buschwhacking” has been deterred with car and scoring changes, the Nationwide Series has also benefited from a number of new personalities such as Danica Patrick, former X Games champion Travis Pastrana and the rising star of Stenhouse Jr.
“There’s a set of stars in the Sprint Cup series, and then you have some of those double-duty drivers that race with us,” Balash said. “But we’ve been very lucky to have people that are standing on their own two feet before they actually get to the series. They bring a following and people don’t have to learn about them before they get here.”
A big part of Balash’s job is approaching new racing markets to bring the Nationwide Series there and spread racing around in general. To do that, the Nationwide Series will evaluate a number of the track’s specifications, like the presence of a SAFER barrier, and will do on-site training with that track’s crew.
Even before that happens, however, Balash said it’s a long, detailed conversation to actually get the wheels in motion for a track to host a NASCAR-sanctioned event.
“We’re actually excited about being able to pioneer new venues for the Nationwide Series,” Balash said. “We’ve been lucky enough to go to Mexico City, Montreal, Iowa, and Iowa has just been a very gracious host. The fans really pack the stadium.
“I know that when the track was being built, there were a number of conversations with people within NASCAR about hosting a NASCAR event. The Nationwide Series is one of the series that was lucky enough to be selected to run in Newton, and we’re very excited about that.”
Balash said the biggest recurring challenges with going to new tracks is learning the logistics of these tracks. Because so many tracks have their own unique layout, it takes time and effort to figure out an easy way to get in and out for an event. While that was the case at Iowa Speedway at first, the two sides have since made that process much easier.
“Now that we’ve had a number of races at Iowa Speedway, we know each other well,” Balash said. “The staff at Iowa Speedway is made up of a number of people from the industry that have a lot of experience with NASCAR and the operational side works very well hand-in-hand.”
Although only time will tell where the Nationwide Series and Iowa Speedway will go moving forward, it’s a safe assumption to say that the grandstand will be full when the Pioneer Hi-Bred 250 runs on Sunday. The race begins at 1 p.m. and will be supported by the NASCAR K&N Pro Series Graham Tire 150 at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Shane Lucas can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 440 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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