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Popular Iowa Race Track and Drag Strip Under 14 Feet of Water Amid Record Midwest Flooding

Raceway Park of the Midlands is now an inland sea.

Iowa’s Raceway Park of the Midlands is a 2.23-mile road course galloping through the soy bean fields south of Omaha, a playful little stretch of pavement with wide, grassy runoffs, self-serve race gas pumps, and an accompanying drag strip that’s forged a partnership with the popular racing YouTube channel 1320video. And it’s currently under 14 feet of water, another victim of the devastating floods that continue their lethal creep across the upper Midwest.

Photos shared by the complex’s Facebook page show the circuit and NHRA-sanctioned drag strip transformed into an inland sea by record floodwaters pouring out of the Missouri River. A lone row of bleachers and the roofs of track buildings are all that hint at what lies beneath the water’s surface. It’s an arresting sight—especially because Raceway Park of the Midlands is both representative of and intimately tied to the wavering tradition of small-town racing in America. It’s your local track, even if you’ve never heard of it before, facing a truly existential threat.

The drag strip. Note the tower, tops of bleachers, and light poles., Facebook | Raceway Park of the Midlands

“So we got about 14 feet of water sitting on the road course and drag strip right now,” owner John Finch told The Drive. “We don’t even know what it looks like under there yet. The longer it sits there, you know, the more likely it is to undermine the asphalt. I’ve got a lot of equipment down there too that I just couldn’t get out in time. It’s bad.”

Built in 2002 as the Mid-America Motorplex, its curves were penned by a track designer named Alan Wilson, and while you may not know the name, you probably know his work. Wilson is responsible for a constellation of America’s popular mid-level tracks, including Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, which is on the IndyCar circuit; Gingerman Raceway, a popular club track in Michigan; and the Utah Motorsports Campus, which is now owned by Lotus parent company Geely. 

It was designed to serve as a national-level facility with up-to-date amenities, equipment, and everything else necessary to attract serious organizations and casual racers alike. Those ambitions ran headlong into the 2008 financial crisis and another flood in 2011, and by 2013, Mid-America Motorplex was put up for auction. There was a good chance it would be returned to farmland—but the winning bid went to Finch, a local businessman who wanted to preserve an increasingly rare local track. He’s spent the last five years filling out the schedule, raising its profile on the club racing scene, hosting more open sessions, and maintaining the drag strip’s NHRA certification. All that changed this weekend.

Facebook | Raceway Park of the Midlands

Finch faced an awful one-two punch on Saturday as word spread that the floodwaters were tumbling south along the Missouri River. He lives right next to track, which itself is about three miles from the river; with less than a day to evacuate, he had to choose between saving his personal possessions and anything he could pull out of RPM and move to higher ground.

“I got out some family heirlooms, did what I could, but there was just so much I had to leave behind. Then I headed over to the racetrack, had a couple of guys come down and help me get as much as we could out. We’re all running around. It’s pick and choose. Which one do you save?”

Before the flood., Facebook | Raceway Park of the Midlands

As it happened, neither. Finch and his crew were in the parking lot a few hours later when water began to flow across the asphalt. In his words, they got in his truck, pointed it “180 degrees in the opposite direction,” and drove to safety. Everything was submerged minutes later. Finch expects he’s already lost at least $1 million between his house and possessions alone, while the extent of the damage to the race track is a complete unknown at this point. The aerial photos were taken on Sunday—nearly a week later, it’s only gotten worse.

Raceway Park of the Midlands never rose to the level of Wilson’s other tracks, but it’s provided a home to SCCA and NASA events, karting, club gatherings, and anyone looking to take advantage of its weekly open days during the racing season. It’s an uncommon thing in 2019, a smaller circuit dedicated to serving the local community and little else. That all seems a distant memory as it reels from one of the most destructive floods in Iowa’s history.

“The track is planning to clean all this mess up and try to salvage the rest of the season. We will need as much help as possible to make this happen. We are asking for volunteers and heavy equipment to help clean up this massive party mother nature left behind. If you have questions please call John Finch at 402-510-3363. We will keep everybody updated as things dry up,” the post on Facebook reads.

The complex also contains an NHRA-member drag strip that operates under the name I29 Dragway. It can’t lay claim to a famous designer—but it does have a famous fan in the operator of the 2-million-subscriber YouTube channel 1320video, which sponsors the right lane, occasionally films there, and uses the entire facility for a yearly charity car show. The channel’s Facebook page also posted a picture of the damage in a plea for attention to the track’s plight amidst the surrounding destruction.

Finch expects it will be at least another few weeks before the waters completely drain and the ground is solid enough to support heavy machinery; it’s then that the real work can begin. But he still plans to have the complex at least partly open by the summer starting with the drag strip. With all the electronic timing and audio equipment destroyed, it won’t be NHRA sanctioned, which Finch admits “breaks his heart.” He instead expects a return to roots with arm drop, no-prep racing.

“Just so people can come down there on Fridays, and test and tune, check their cars out. Y’know, it’s just a nice deal, a nice thing for people to have,” he said. “But if they’re racing for points, they’re gonna have to go elsewhere. Those die-hards, I want them to do good, and we just won’t have the conditions right yet.”

That optimism is mixed with a healthy amount of righteous anger at what he sees as a complete failure of federal flood control policy. But he continues to speak about the track in the present tense—it’s very much still there, ready for resurrection if at all possible. He talks about building a comprehensive teen driver school, where young people can come and learn the basics of defensive and high-performance driving. Something he’s dreamed about since a careless accident took the lives of three of his young relatives. There are too many kids out there driving modern muscle cars with more horsepower than they can handle, he thinks. They could really use an affordable, safe place to learn.

It’s a worthy effort should Raceway Park of the Midlands beat the odds and rise again. Ultimately though, it’s not up to Finch, nor the enthusiasts, nor the kids, nor the officials in Washington. The track’s fate instead lies with an entirely different course, that of the restless Missouri River.

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