The Upper Iowa Speedway, a quarter mile, semi-banked oval track in Winneshiek County, Iowa, on June 22, 2019. (Video by Sara June Jo-Sæbo)

It’s only February and I’m already dreaming of summertime at the stock-car races.

When I was a kid growing up at the parsonage in rural Iowa, I loved mowing the lawn.  We had a rider.  I was 10 when I discovered that freedom was this mower — behind the wheel of something much stronger than me.  It was a three-hour job and I sang Kenny Rogers at the top of my lungs the entire time.  “Ruuuuuuuby…. Don’t take your love to town…”

When I was 20, a dear family friend made the mistake of allowing me to help seed oats.  The tractor roared.  I felt so strong driving it.  And the noise – it was like my own voice was amplified all the way up to the sky.  Every row came up crooked in his field that year, bless him.  And his neighbors remarked.

The race track used to have horse racing and buggy racing. Here’s a 1923 headline from an August edition of the Decorah Public Opinion:

Fast Horseraces at the Fair

This year’s races… will see the greatest array of fast horses ever appearing at a county fair any place.  Fifty have been entered…  Just read over the list of horses entered below, and it will convince the most skeptical that there is going to be something doing when the races start.

When the horse racing events dried up mid-century, the dirt track was groomed for cars and joined a generation of stock-car racing.  Maybe you think you know what it’s like to go to a dirt-track stock-car race in the rural Midwest.  Let me tell you about the poetry of this truly marvelous experience.  

There’s something ancient about the sound of stock cars on weekends in the summertime.  Like a deafening roar from Roman amphitheaters.  Or the pre-historic blast of a meteor as it penetrates layers and layers of earth in this Midwest town.  I imagine the limestone bluffs above Upper Iowa recognize the rumble coming from the speedway; they remember the meteor and they tremble.

When the cars round the bend, they all rise up together on two wheels; noise, dust, and heat are rebellious and they simmer around this precise dance. It’s a beautiful and precarious moment because they’re all synchronized; one wrong move jeopardizes all drivers.  In the universe, balance is measured every moment between chaos and harmony.  Here we are watching it happen right before our eyes, reminded of how fragile is everything.   

America is comprised of hundreds of authentic cultures and hundreds of bold imitations. Both are revealed in what our imaginations can create.  Stock-car racing is as much cultural as it is a representation of everything that each driver wants to dream.  They are artists whose palettes are cars of color and light, celebrations for noisy grandstands.  My favorite category is Mini Mods. They scream like hornets; each car is lit with ground effects and reflective tape. They’re so loud that you’re crazy not to wear ear protection.  I find myself buzzing with them just like when I mowed the lawn… “Ruuuuuby…”

The Upper Iowa Speedway, a quarter mile, semi-banked oval track in Winneshiek County, Iowa. (Video by Sara June Jo-Sæbo)

The limestone bluffs that surround this small canyon amplify the roar coming from the speedway. They stand like quiet giants observing another human spectacle.  Generations of people going back thousands of years have freely passed through here or have been removed from here by stronger industrial powers arriving to this continent.  This land belongs to Wahpeton and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ.  There have been campfires here; now there are grills.  There have been hunting parties; now there are tailgaters.  There has always been dancing here; there has always been fishing.

In high school, my friend Tony lived with his grandma.  A crew of us frequently ended up at Tony’s on Saturday night and she would chase us out saying, “You kids get out of here!  It’s your night to howl!”  Summer is coming.  I hope the track will open up so we can watch the dreams of these artists.  I’ll get a hotdog and a can of pop.  These are our nights to howl; to dance; to crank up the tunes; to remind these ancient rocks that we’re still here.  Let’s make a joyful noise because it matters that we care about each other with all of our authentic selves and with our bold imitations.  Summer is coming again.

Be well, country … and be in touch.

Sara June Jo-Sæbo grew up in the Midwest and currently lives in Texas.

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