History Of Knoxville Nationals

The 59th Knoxville Nationals is being run this week at the Knoxville Raceway located at the Marion County Fairgrounds in Knoxville Iowa. The event has a rich history dating back to 1961 when a two day event was conceived by then track promoter Marion Robinson. He called it the First Annual Super Modified National Championship. This article is dedicated to the three promoters that had the most influence on the success of the Knoxville Nationals. 

   The Marion County fairgrounds constructed a half mile horse racing track in the late 1800’s and remained only a horse racing track until 1914. In 1901 an automobile race was attempted, but no more motor racing was tried until 1914. From then on auto racing was conducted in the summer and early fall through the 1940’s except the for War years when auto racing was suspended at the track.

   Stock car racing became popular in the late 1940’s across the United States. Knoxville Raceway’s first weekly racing series began in 1954 and the track also added lights so racing could be conducted after dark. In 1955 the Marion County Fair Board promoted  auto racing and in 1956 the Board of Directors hired Marion Robinson to promote auto racing at the track. 

   Under Robinson’s promotion stock cars became modified stock cars which became super modifieds when the stock car bodies were cut way down to save weight. During the late fifties and early sixties the super modifieds became full race cars with full roll cages. In 1966 the event became so popular that it became a three day event. At the same time sprint cars with full roll cages began to compete with the super modifieds and by 1968 the sprint cars replaced the modifieds at Knoxville Raceway for good.

   The year 1974 almost saw the end of the Knoxville Nationals as Robinson and the Marion County Fairgrounds parted ways in May of 1974. They were going to shut the track down for the 1974 season when a race official named Ray Grimes took over the duties of promoting the races. With a conservative budget and the ability to get volunteer help he saved the track from being closed for the 1974 season. Some say that without Ray Grimes the Knoxville Nationals would not exist today.

   Ray Grimes was an ex Navy airplane pilot and a successful corporate pilot for various companies around Iowa. He also had a passion for auto racing. He had a short unsuccessful racing career do to a lack of funds. He still had a strong passion for racing and became a race official which led to him to promoting the Knoxville Raceway.

   Ray missed the 1975 season due to a snowmobile accident, but returned for the 1976 and 1977 seasons. Ray’s full time responsibilities as a pilot began to take up more of his time so he passed the duties of race promoter to Ralph Capitani in 1978.

   During his time as promoter Grimes made Knoxville Raceway events more fan friendly, helped race teams with larger purses and rewarded them with racing items such as oil and spark plugs. He created a point fund and organized the first banquet for weekly competitors. He also expanded the Nationals to a four day event and invented the National’s scoring system.

  He used previous Nationals scenarios to create a scoring and point system that is still being used today. Many of the nation’s major tracks and sanctioning bodies copied Grimes scoring and point system and they are still using variations of it today.

   The impact he had on the sport along with his many accomplishments led to him being inducted into Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame in 1980.

   He passed away on Nov. 2, 2016 at the age of 84 in Indianola, Iowa. His dedication to Knoxville Raceway and to sprint car racing is still being felt today. He impacted so many lives and many people do not know who this man was and his continued effect on sprint car racing today.

   Ralph Capitani continued to build and grow the Knoxville Nationals that was instituted by his two predecessors. He was a teacher and coach at Knoxville High School until he assumed the leadership at Knoxville Raceway. His ambition was to make Knoxville Raceway grander, purses higher and the grand stands fuller. He accomplished all three and they reflect on what the Nationals have become today. 

   He was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1994 and Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame in 2013. He retired in 2011 and in 2012 the Capitani Classic sprint car race was created in his honor. It is contested the Sunday evening before the Knoxville nationals.

   He passed away on Feb. 26, 2017 and was known as a mentor to everyone he worked with. Knoxville Raceway called him a “visionary of the sport”. His impact on the sport can still be seen at the Knoxville Nationals when they are racing this week.

   The Knoxville Nationals continues as the number one sprint car classic in the world thanks to these three men who contributed to the ultimate success of this historic event. This weeks Nationals started on Aug. 7th and will conclude on Saturday night Aug. 10th. In between there will be exciting sprint car racing provided by some the best sprint car drivers in the world. With four nights of racing they will be competing for part of close to a million dollar total purse. Saturday night pays $ 150,000 to the winner and $ 10,000 to start in the 24 car field.

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