It’s pretty easy to assume auto racing is a simple sport. After all, at oval tracks like Hawkeye Downs, there’s only two ends to the track, and they both look similar to the outside observer.
But if you’ve ever spent a day in the pits of a racetrack, or participated in a competitive race — not just those fun karts at an amusement park — you’ll know there’s a difference between driving and racing.
So with the help of Bulltown Legends in Kalona — and owners Warren and Denise Ropp — I had a chance to take to the track in a U.S. Legend Car at Hawkeye Downs, in an effort to illustrate what it takes to sit behind the wheel in competition.
I grew up in a racing household. My dad and uncles raced go-karts across the country for 30 years, and passed the love of motor sports on to me. I raced go-karts off and on from eight years old until this spring, so I’d been around race tracks before, but never in a Legend car. I’d also never competed in any vehicle with a roof, roll cage and seat belts, or one in which I had to shift gears.
The Legend division was an easy choice, though, because lately it’s far and away been the most popular class at Hawkeye Downs, and has seen immense growth across the country through its sanctioning body, INEX.
I went to Hawkeye Downs my first night as a Cedar Rapids resident to sit in the stands and watch. When the Legend cars took the track, not only was I entertained by the on-track product, but I noticed the others in attendance thoroughly enjoyed what they saw. I overheard some “Oh, those are the cutest little cars,” and a few say “I bet I could do that, no problem.”
So, naturally, I jumped at the chance to go see if those fans were right, or if there was more to these cars than meets the eye.
I found out in a hurry the Legend cars were no joke. The cars have a tight wheel base at 73 inches and weigh 1,300 pounds with a sealed — meaning no modifications — 1,250cc Yamaha 4-stroke motorcycle engine under the hood. The light, top-heavy Legend cars make 122 horsepower and have a five-speed transmission with a top speed of 120 mph, so finding grip is the key to fast lap times.
Though I didn’t go that fast at Hawkeye Downs — the Legend cars race the 1/4-mile oval in the middle, so there’s not enough straightaway for that much speed — I certainly felt every bit of the horsepower.
While I was being strapped in for my first laps in the car several hours before the race, Warren gave me some advice that may seem basic, but proved vital: don’t mash the gas. Treating the gas pedal like an egg shell, he said, was the key to fast laps.
My first practice laps where slow and easy, and when Warren gave me the signal to pick up the pace, I learned quickly how sensitive the cars are.
Going down the back stretch, I took the car to full throttle, and immediately, the back end of the car started to come around, and though I didn’t spin out, I did end up in the infield grass. Warren waved me in for a quick chat and gave me some tips.
“Keep the car lower on the straightaway, you’re swinging out too far,” Warren said. “Roll that throttle too. You should never be fully out of the gas.”
After running dozens more practice laps, I got more and more comfortable applying the advice Warren gave me. By the session’s end, Warren said I was ready for the race later that night.
When I returned to the track for the driver’s meeting and races — about two hours after the practice session — I had worked myself into a bit of a frenzy. My dad and uncle had come to town, and the prospect of racing against other cars in a vehicle I didn’t have much experience with had considerably raised my stress level.
That wasn’t helped, either, when I couldn’t get my belts buckled for the hot lap session that precedes the racing. By the time I got them buckled, the session was over, and I’d lost a valuable opportunity to learn with other cars on the track.
While I waited for the first heat race, I chatted with other racers, all of whom assured me that with my racing background, I’d be fine come race time. To my great relief, they were right.
The heat race went well, and while I didn’t pass any cars, I didn’t get passed either. I gained confidence in the car and what it was capable of with each passing lap, to the point that by the end of the heat race, I was pushing pretty hard to run fast laps.
The minutes between the heat and feature race featured a range of emotions. I would transfer between encouraged and excited to intimidated and nervous. I’ve never been scared of competing, and wasn’t that day. My anxiety was rooted in the unfamiliarity of the situation, coupled with the fact that I was driving another person’s car. I’d only ever raced personally-owned equipment, so the risk of damage took on a different tone. On top of that, I was trying to remember everything Warren had told me and how to apply it with other cars around me.
By the time I strapped into the car for the feature race, though, my worries were gone. As has always been the case for me, all my stresses and worries disappear when I pull the helmet on. That night was no different.
My initial plan for the race was to take it easy, not stick my nose in where I could get in trouble and bring the car back in one piece. But my competitive nature took over when the green flag dropped, and I gave it all I had. There were some close calls — two separate incidents where a car spun directly in front of me — but I was able to avoid both and race on. Each lap at speed, with those other competitors there to learn from as much as race against, I polished my — very rough — skills behind the wheel of a
“All I had” ended up being an eighth place finish after starting last in the 14-car field. In 15 years of off and on go-kart racing, I never experienced the speed and response in a race vehicle that I did in the Legend car.
The Legends leave little to be desired. It’s not the simple ride it may appear to be, but the cars give a welcome jolt to the senses.
They give a racer everything he or she could want, and provide the challenge that makes racing what it is: an ever-changing quest for speed.