One-on-one with the Man "Ralph Capitani"

Monday, April 2, 2007
By Kathy Bell, Knoxville, Iowa - Since the season opener at Knoxville is only a couple of weeks off, I decided to sit down for a little chat with Knoxville Raceway Director, Ralph Capitani.
It is no secret that the numbers of sprint car drivers still competing at tracks across the country are dwindling. Yet, Cappy is still expecting to field two pretty healthy classes of sprint car competition at Knoxville again this season.
“It’s hard to tell how many cars we’ll have this season until the first night when we see who shows up,” Cappy said. “I’d be happy to see around 30 cars in each class. Our numbers have stayed pretty steady. I think we have three things going for us, a healthy points fund, consistency in our rules and the tradition of racing at Knoxville. There are still plenty of drivers who would like to have a Knoxville Raceway win under their belts.”
Cappy expects both the 410 and 360 class to be competitive again this year. 410 defending champion, Billy Alley is expected to be back as is runner-up Brian Brown. Those two kept race fans on their feet until the checkered flag dropped on the final night. This year should be interesting as I can see Alley wanting a second title and Brown wanting to avenge his runner-up position. There are, of course, plenty of strong competition in the 410 ranks to make both of these young men work very hard to stay on top.
Jake Peters is also expected to return to defend his title amongst a very competitive class of 360 competitors. Although the companion class, the 360-division has put on shows to rival the more celebrated 410 class which benefits you, the fan, who gets what they paid $12 for, a full, exciting night of racing at Knoxville.
One decision that was made in the off-season that is sure to make race fans happy was the re-establishment of one group of elite traveling sprinters. I heard plenty of people complain last season about not going to either a World of Outlaws or NST race because they were ticked off with the split. All politics aside, I will be happy to see everyone racing together. I’m sure I’ll take in more races this season too.
Cappy and I talked quite a bit about the future of sprint car racing with the biggest obstacle being the continual rise in cost to maintain a sprint car. We’re not only talking about escalating costs for a weekly racer but also and even more so for a traveling team. Racers have to deal with the high cost of not only buying equipment but also just being able to afford towing down the highway from track to track across the country with the extremely high cost of fuel and other expenses.
“Someday and it may be sooner than you think, the high cost of keeping a car going will catch up to the local, weekly racers,” Cappy stated. “I think you’re going to see 30-35 traveling cars and your weekly shows, as we know them today, will disappear. There are a lot more 360 sprint cars out there right now. I can see the 410 weekly shows turning into 360 weekly shows with possibly a 305 or late model support class. I don’t know how quick it’s going to happen but I can see the cost of maintaining a 410 car running itself right out of business.”
Cappy said with everyone having the same equipment in today’s market, rules need to be made to put the race back in the hands of the best and most talented drivers.
“Fans are tired of paying to watch a follow-the-leader race. To give them a competitive race we need to set forth rules that will put the race back in the control of the racer. About the only control we have over the racers are the wings and tires. Right now we have a one right rear tire per night rule to help keep the cost down and sometime in the future we’ll probably have to include a smaller wing rule too,” he explained. “In the future we’ll probably have to also address the left rear tire. They’re setting the cars up now so the pressure’s on the left rather than the right rear. If the setup is too soft, you get the rubber-down effect.”
Cappy said they are hoping to gradually limit enough with tire and wing rules that the motors won’t be as important and once the cars are loosened up it will limit the necessity for the need for huge amounts of horsepower putting the race back in the hands of the driver. He’d also like to see the motors last longer between re-dos. Instead of six races on a motor he’d like to see 20 races on a motor before it needs refreshed. That he said would really help a racer, financially.
When you look at the future of racing, one ace in Knoxville’s pocket is their racing history. After more than 50 years the Knoxville Raceway name is still held in high esteem.
“Everyone still wants to race here,” Cappy said. “I’m not being egotistical, I’m stating a fact. We have become more diverse in the class of cars that race here due to the same need all race tracks have, the key to our success and to the success of all race tracks is putting fans in the stands. In light of what is happening all over the country, the popularity of late models has continued to grow. There are thousands of late models competing all over the country. I see no reason not to run them here too.”
“We’re also looking at 305 sprinters, not necessarily running them on a regular basis but they have remained an affordable form of racing and with the cost of the 410 cars rising out of sight with the 360s right behind them, we have to keep our eyes on all the options,” Cappy said. “Even the 305 class would have rules. We can’t have them running around here going 100 mph without rules. We won’t sacrifice safety for top speeds.”
Cappy still believes the Knoxville Nationals is still the sprint car race of the season. “I think the Knoxville Nationals is the best sprint car race of the year, bar none,” he said. “It is the only time you see ALL of the best sprint car drivers competing on the same playing field. It is a United States and Internationally wide event.”
He said the Knoxville Nationals is the best race for the fans because of the inversion rule. Not only do you have the best sprint car drivers competing, it takes everything they have to make it to Saturday night. They don’t start at the front, they have to time well and do well in their heats to make it to a competitive spot in Saturday night’s prestigious event. The $150,000 first place prize is also on many drivers wish list. You don’t find that much money as a first place prize in sprint car racing let alone in hardly any other form of racing either.
As a veteran sports reporter and long time sports fan, I know the significance of getting airtime for sprint car racing on ESPN. Even a 4:00 a.m. time spot on ESPN is worth more than prime time, somewhere else.
“Getting sprint car racing on ESPN is a huge step,” Cappy said. “If you are already a race fan you are probably already hooked on racing and a regular fan of SPEED Channel. Race fans watch racing. If you are a sports fan, you are already watching ESPN 24 hours a day for sports in general. Those are the people we need to get the word out to. Race fans are already hooked. We need to pull in your average sports fan and it seems to me it should be relatively easy since I firmly believe sprint car racing is the most exciting form of racing out there. If the non-race fan doesn’t ever see it they aren’t going to know it’s out there. We now have a great opportunity with ESPN to reel those people in.”
“We pay $3,000 to win each week in the 410 class and $1,250 in the 360 class for a total of $29,000 each regular race night. We need to have an average of 3,000 fans in the stands to break even, each week. Last year, we were lucky to average 2,000 fans a night for our weekly shows and attendance was down all over the U. S. Except for the year of the floods, last year was our worst year, weather wise, that we’ve had for a very long time. We had very few nights that didn’t have a threat of at least 30 percent chance of rain. The weather and the fact that gasoline was close to $3.00 per gallon compounded the risk,” Cappy said. "People didn't want to travel to a race that could be rained out."
“People seem to think the Nationals can make up for losing money each week. It can’t. It takes around $100,000 just to get prepared to open the first night with facility repairs and maintenance and getting the track surface ready for opening night, paying for insurance and concessions,” he explained.
This is Cappy’s 40th year at Knoxville Raceway. He said he is thankful for the continued support of the race fans, sponsors, drivers and their crews. He hopes to continue to provide the ultimate racing experience to fans, new and old as they choose to make Knoxville Raceway their home away from home every Saturday night.
In closing, I’d like to dedicate this column to two very dear race friends who passed away last month, Kathy Visser and Jim Roush. Jim and Kathy were part of the Knoxville Raceway family for many years and it just won’t seem the same without them.
Until next time, be safe and keep on turning left! I can be reached for comments at