Photo: Connor McCourtney
Des Moines is known across the nation as the home to multiple insurance agencies, magazine publishers and the Iowa State Fair. Now, if everything goes as planned, the city will become Track Central USA.
The Drake Relays has been a fixture in Des Moines for 102 years, but in the past decade, steps have been taken to make Des Moines one of the best track and field cities in America.
Last year, the 2010 USA Track and Field Championships were run on the blue oval at Drake Stadium. The 2011 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships will be held June 8-11, and the same event will be hosted by Des Moines in 2012. Hosting future Olympic qualifying trials is also a possibility.
“Iowa is the middle of all the states, Des Moines is the middle of Iowa, we have a crossroads of Interstates 80 and 35, so it’s an epicenter, center location of the nation so we said, ‘Let’s catch up,’” Relays Director Brian Brown said. “So Track Central USA is something we can secure. I think we have done a fair job of establishing that.”
Des Moines’ strongest competition in the world of track and field cities is Eugene, Ore. Eugene has been given the name of “Track and Field Capital of the World” because of its great track history, state-of-the-art facilities and its city parks that are home to one of the largest running trail systems in the United States.
The University of Oregon in Eugene hosted the Olympic trials in 1972, 1976, 1980 and 2008. The city will again host in 2012.
Hayward Field, Oregon’s equivalent of Drake Stadium, went through a major renovation project in 2004. Funded through large donations from Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, the project made it one of the best track facilities in America.
“The only way we can play is with community support. We can’t rival Nike on an individual basis,” Brown said.
Brown said that along with reaching the status of track capital would come a lot of benefits to the community, especially financially.
“We just need to encourage some of these area leaders to see the vision and have them see the potential impact. We are talking a $25 million impact or more on the community, because, for the trials, they come in and stay 12 days or 14 days in our city, buy up all our hotels, eat up the food. It is a big, positive impact on the city.”
One area of improvement vital to making Des Moines a national home to track and field is a state-of-the-art indoor warm-up facility for athletes.
The Drake Field House is not up to standards for Olympic trial-level hosting, especially because it lacks an indoor track with lanes. The outdoor facility, however, is among the nation’s best after a $15 million renovation project in 2005.
“Our outdoor facility is one of the world’s best in terms of the Mondo, in terms of the uniqueness of the historic setting of the stadium and this brand new track. We are waiting to move forward,” Brown said.
When it comes to atmosphere, the Drake Relays has proven over the past 102 years that Iowans will come out to support the greatest athletes in the nation.
“The intimacy of the stadium is great,” Brown said. “When I competed, I felt the electricity and the atmosphere that was given off.”
He says that the energy fueling the athletes also fuels the crowd, working as a two-way street.
“I think it’s both ways. The athletes give it to the stands and the spectators give it back,” Brown said. “It’s kind of a good relationship between the two.”
Brown also said the overall atmosphere and the compassion of the people involved in Relays helps fuel the athletes.
“It says a lot about the support personnel. They feel that support and compete at the highest level because of that,” he said. “All of that adds to an athlete’s ability to compete at the highest level when they feel like they are wanted.”
U.S. track athlete Jeremy Wariner, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, agrees that Des Moines has provided a great atmosphere for the Drake Relays.
“The crowd at Drake has always been top notch,” Wariner said. “Whether it’s 45-degree ice or 80 degrees and sunny, (the crowd) is always out there supporting. They just enjoy watching track and field. As long as we are out on the track, they are out there supporting us.”