Mourning Ralph Capitani
Cappy (Des Moines Register photo)
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
by Track Historian Eric Arnold
All of us at Knoxville Raceway and the Marion County Fair Board are deeply saddened to pass along the news of Ralph Capitani passing. “Cappy” was one of the most influential people in the history of the Knoxville Raceway as the Race Director and Promoter for 34 seasons from 1978-2011. He was 84 years old.
Cappy was born March 15, 1932 in Des Moines and attended high school at Dowling Catholic. He then went to the University of Northern Iowa (known then as Iowa Teachers College) where he was a standout fullback on the football team and named NAIA First Team All American in 1954, the first student athlete named All American for the school. Cappy had offers to try out for the Chicago Bears but the US Government sent him into the Army where he served his country in Germany from 1956-1957.
After exiting the military Cappy started teaching and coaching high school sports at Parkersburg and Ida Grove before making his way to Knoxville in 1961. In Knoxville Cappy was a Government teacher and coach of football, baseball, basketball, and track for 31 years. He was the head football coach at Knoxville High School from 1961-1968. He and his wife Marilyn made roots and started a family.
Cappy began to work part-time at the Marion County Fair Association as the Secretary because it paid more money than working at the city swimming pool, which he had been doing summers prior. He had no interest in racing of any sort prior to moving to Knoxville. By 1969 Cappy had given up coaching football because of his increasing passion at the racetrack.
The job of being the Promoter in 1978 was a tough one. Ray Grimes resigned at the end of 1977 due to his career demands as a commercial pilot. Cappy was asked by the Fair Association to step in the next year and he agreed. What Cappy did from there to transform the track was nothing short of a miracle.
His leadership and fiscal responsibility elevated the facility and racing to new heights as he helped shape and mold the Sprint Car Capital of the World. Under Cappy’s tenure the Knoxville Raceway facility grew from 8,000 seats to 24,000 and the Nationals purse increased from $51,000 in 1978 to $1 million in 2010.
His goals were to strengthen Knoxville’s weekly program and increase the size and stature of the Knoxville Nationals. Today the Knoxville Raceway is known as the best dirt track facility in the world and the Knoxville Nationals are acknowledged as the most prestigious sprint car event that all strive to win above any other race.
Cappy created new events, such as the Mystery Feature, Race of States, 1200 pound Nationals, the 360 Nationals, and the Late Model Nationals. He helped introduce 360 sprint car racing in the early 1980’s as a way for people to race sprint cars at a more economical cost. Later the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum was erected in Knoxville with Cappy’s support.
Throughout all of Cappy’s success he never asked for the recognition he deserved. He always praised the team of people that surrounded him, such as Track Officials, Drivers, Owners, his trusted office manager Arleta Voyce, and the Fair Board for reinvesting into the facility. Most importantly Cappy was a fan first and he never lost sight of taking care of the fans.
Ralph Capitani was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993. He was later inducted into the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame in 2013. He also served on the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame Committee through 2016.
There are not enough words to describe our thanks to Cappy for all of his contributions to Knoxville Raceway and we offer our sincerest sympathies to his wife Marilyn and their family for their loss.