Oldest sanctioning racing group in U.S. still going strong
In the believe-it-or-not category, what many motorsports fans may not know is that the International Motor Contest Association (IMCA), founded in 1915, is the oldest active automobile racing sanctioning body in the United States.
Yes, even older than NASCAR, which was founded in 1947-48.
J. Alex Sloan, a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., helped found the IMCA and became known as the "maker of champions." He left his job as a sportswriter in St. Paul, Minn., in 1905 because of his interest in auto racing. With partner William Pickens, Sloan staged races across the United States, featuring some of the top drivers of the era.
IMCA grew rapidly and was sanctioning more races in the U.S. than any other organization by the late ‘30s.
IMCA-sanctioned races were held at county, state and regional fair venues. National champions were crowned in the Late Model division from 1949-1977 and in the Sprint Car division from 1925-1941 and 1946-1977 (no champions were named from 1942-45 because of World War II).
But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and IMCA’s popular ride was no exception. In the 1970s, the sanctioning body fell on hard times, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy when Hawkeye Racing News publisher Keith Knaack bought it and began a retooling process that would shape local dirt track racing for years to come.
Knaack was the racing pioneer who helped introduce the open-wheeled Modified division as we know it today.
Affordability and competitiveness were and still are foundations of that division. Knaack sought to create a class that was economical enough for the "Saturday Night Racer" to compete and have a chance of winning in.
Ironically, the cost-effective Modifieds became the sanction’s marquee division and would grow to become the largest class of race car in the U.S.
Health issues eventually forced Knaack out of the day-to-day operations, and his longtime employee Kathy Root took over the presidency of the sanctioning body in 1990. Four years after Knaack’s death in 1992, Root purchased IMCA from the Knaack family.
Staying true to Knaack’s philosophy, Root and her son Brett built IMCA into one of the premiere sanctioning bodies in the country. Under their direction, IMCA has grown to encompass eight divisions, racing across five different regions. From California to New York, the list of IMCA-sanctioned tracks tops 130 in 27 states, more than double the number of tracks in NASCAR’s Weekly Racing Series.
Each Labor Day, Boone, Iowa, transforms into something surreal. Like Sturgis, S.D., in early August, Boone experiences a population explosion rivaled by few other events. Race fans, thousands of them, descend upon the small Midwest town. They travel from as far away as the East Coast and as close as the next county. They have come to Boone Speedway for six days of the best dirt racing action in the country — the IMCA Speedway Motors Super Nationals. Dubbed "America’s Racin’ Vacation," it is IMCA’s version of Daytona Speedweeks. But instead of 60 racers in two divisions and five races, this event draws well over 700 of the top dirt drivers who race in dozens upon dozens of races for six different championships.
IMCA now sanctions seven divisions in addition to the Modifieds: Late Models, Sprint Cars, Stock Cars, Hobby Stocks, Northern and Southern versions of the SportMods and the 4-cylinder Sport Compacts.
Some ‘firsts’ in IMCA Modified History:
• Rick Brinkema of Waterloo, Iowa, won the first IMCA Modified feature, held June 2, 1979, at the Vinton, Iowa, Speedway.
• Davenport, Iowa’s Dale Fischlein became the first IMCA driver to win four track titles in a single season in 1982. He was also the IMCA’s first national Modified champion.
• Mike Schulte of Norway, Iowa, won both the inaugural Super Nationals championship, and the IMCA National Modified crown in 1983.
• Carla Roberts of Fayetteville, Ark., became the first woman to win an IMCA Modified feature in 1985.
• Canyon Raceway and Manzanita Speedway were the first Arizona tracks to sanction their Modified divisions with IMCA, both in 1988.
• Cocopah Speedway, then Yuma Speedway, became an IMCA sanctioned track for its Modified Division in 1989.
• Regional championships were first awarded in 1993. The five regional kings were Kenny Hatfield of Phoenix, Ariz., in the Mountain Region; Scott Pounds of Bakersfield, Calif., in the Western Region; Rex Merritt of Billings, Mo., in the South Central Region; Ron Pope of Spencer, Iowa, in the North Central Region; and Dave Bice of Avilla, Indiana, in the Eastern Region.