Origins of the Marion County Fairgrounds

By Bob Wilson

The current fairgrounds was purchased in the late 1800s and a new half-mile horse racing track was constructed at that time. The annual county fairs were held on the grounds but no actual auto racing was staged until 1914, unless of course one counts the 1901 race, which can most likely be touted as the first automobile race attempted on a fairgrounds in Iowa, if not the country.

The race was reported as being “nothing remarkable” and “the time made was not especially good on account of the wind. One of the vehicles belonged to the Wells Manufacturing Co. of Des Moines and the other to Fred Tone of the Tone Spices Co.” The cars were on display at the fairgrounds during the day and they drew large crowds of onlookers.

It wasn't until 1917 that all the buildings were built (including the old covered grandstand which was razed in the 1969). The local high school football games and track meets were staged on the infield and track (respectively) until the late 1930s when the current football stadium was built. 

It was also at this time that automobile racing meets (as they were called then) were staged on the track during the summers and early autumn. The success led to a string of racing events between 1927 to 1936. Named drivers such as Johnny Gerber, "Speed" Adams and other regionally known drivers competed in the meets during that time. Of course, no lighting existed around the half mile at that time so all events were staged in the afternoon hours. Additionally, calcium chloride was used on the surface of the oval to keep dust at a minimum.

During the early 1940s and especially during the war years, no racing at all was contested at the fairgrounds site. It wasn't until late in the decade that racing once again returned in the form of hot rods. The first four years of the 1950s saw competitions with hot rods, midgets and stock cars. The stock cars were sanctioned by the Newton Stock Car Racing Association (Newton, Iowa).

1954 saw the first weekly racing staged at the Knoxville half mile. Lights had been added, new fencing circling the track while the track itself was graded to create banking in the turns (whereas prior to this the surface was flat for horse racing). The Southern Iowa Stock Car Racing Association (SISCRA) based out of Oskaloosa (Iowa) sanctioned the racing of stock cars at Knoxville, Oskaloosa and Ottumwa.

'Stock Car' racing had become extremely popular across the United States after World War II. Generally speaking, stock cars were pre-war passenger cars stripped of glass, innards and extra metal such as fenders and running boards. Most sanctioning bodies demanded that roll cages be constructed inside the car as a safety feature. As a rule, the racing was a slam-bang affair and the paying customers could not get enough of the action.

In 1955, the SISCRA pulled out of its sanctioning at Knoxville due to internal problems leaving the Marion County Fairgrounds to promote the races on its own. The local Board of Directors continued to do so for that year and in 1956 hired Marion Robinson of Des Moines to promote the local racing here. From that point until the mid-1970s Robinson was at the helm at Knoxville.


Under Robinson's hand, the racing of stock cars turned into 'modifieds'. A 'modified' was simply a 'stock car' that had had modifications made to the engine and other key parts. The modifieds quickly evolved into the 'supermodifieds' by the late '50s. Supermodifieds were modifieds that had their car bodies cut way down to eliminate weight. At this point in time these race cars still looked similar to passenger cars. As the supermodified evolved into the 1960s, most builders eliminated the chopped and channeled car bodies and replaced them with sheet metal. Some builders even began to replace the actual car frames (which were taken from production autos) with tubing. Once that happened, the genie was out of the proverbial bottle as sprint car frames with roll cages attached were the fastest way around the Knoxville oval. By 1968, the sprint car as we know it today was the choice of car owners, replacing the supermodifieds at Knoxville for good.

It was Robinson who conceived of the Knoxville Nationals in 1961. At that time is was called the First Annual Super-Modified National Championship. It was a two-day event back then with time trials only on Friday and racing on Saturday. The event became such a success that by 1966 it had grown to a 3-day affair. In 1973 Robinson convinced the fairboard to allow 'wings' at the Nationals in order to entice more of the Eastern cars to race at the event. (After the 1961 season, 'wings' or 'air scoops' as they were called back then, were banned at Knoxville. The 'air scoop' had found its way to Knoxville during the first Nationals. No one around here knew about the 'foil', and many owners added the new 'appendage' after the event was history. However, the 'air scoop' continued to be legal at many tracks around the nation, including the hotbeds of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and New York). Again, at Knoxville, the wing was made illegal after the 1973 season was concluded.

1974 saw an end to an era as Marion Robinson was replaced as race promoter by P. Ray Grimes. Grimes served in that capacity until the 1977 season when due to injuries in a snowmobiling accident over the winter he was no longer able to fulfill his duties. It was Grimes who added one more day to the Nationals making it a 4-day gathering. With Grimes gone, that year Ralph Capitani was hired as the Race Director of Knoxville Raceway. Under Capitani's supervision the track sanctioned the World of Outlaws in its initial season for the Knoxville Nationals of 1978.

It was Capitani who began to grow the event to what it is now. By 1982 he had increased the payoff for the 4-days of racing to $100,000. That compares to a total purse payoff of just over $5,000 in 1961. The following year, 1983, saw the 360 sprint division begin at the track under the name of 'Modifieds'. At the end of the season a $50,000 points fund was dispersed to the drivers and owners. That fund is currently sitting at over one-quarter of a million dollars in 2004.

1985, the silver anniversary of the Nationals, saw a check of $25,000 go to the winner of the championship feature on Saturday night. Two years later, The Nashville Network (TNN) made the first tape-delayed broadcast of the event. All the while the event continued to grow in many ways other than stature. In 1987 the total payoff increased to $200,000 and by the early '90s with new permanent backstretch seating in place, the total purse had surpassed $300,000 with $50,000 to win. That fall, the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum opened its doors to the public.

The first $400,000 Nationals was celebrated in 1993. It was the following year that TNN televised the first live broadcast of the event. That year also featured a $500,000 purse with $100,000 to win the championship feature.

2002 saw the Knoxville Raceway head into a new era with a massive paving project in the infield of the half-mile race track taking Knoxville head and shoulders above all other dirt track racing facilities in the nation as well as the world. 2003 marked the Golden Anniversary of racing at Knoxville Raceway and one year later the track began its first multi-day Late Model event, a competition that is expected to grow into a "Nationals-like" affair.
Today the seating surrounding Knoxville Raceway is slightly above the 24,000 mark, which is thought to be the fourth largest outdoor facility in Iowa (behind the football stadiums of Iowa and Iowa State Universities and Iowa Speedway). Seating in 1954 was listed as 2,000.
This year will see the 54th Annual Factory Value Parts Knoxville Nationals in early August and for the fourth year in a row it will pay an astounding one million dollar purse. Who could have guessed the tremendous growth and corporate involvement for an event that once paid out $5,000 total. 

With this storied fairgrounds celebrating 61 years of continuous weekly racing in 2014, it has developed a reputation that is known world-wide and has become an icon for what others strive to be. We hope you can come celebrate with us each and every week and that you will find yourself saying sometime down the road, "I saw it at Knoxville!"