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Motorplex racing back after flood-shortened 2011 season

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    PACIFIC JUNCTION - Jim “Roadkill” Howe doesn’t stop moving.  It’s 5:30 p.m. Friday, and Howe, operations manager of Mid-America Motorplex (MAM), is holding a quick staff meeting inside the office before the weekend begins. He simultaneously texts an insurance agent about a wreck as he updates the MAM website and Facebook page.
    On the road course, cars zoom by at 120 mph. Outside the drag strip, cars line up and wait patiently for the gate to open.
    Howe pays attention to every detail about the Motorplex, telling employees to pull weeds that the average attendee (cannot) even see, calling his concession stand workers to inquire their whereabouts.
    That attention to detail has been the key to success over the past year. Like many western Mills County residents and businesses, MAM was hit hard by the flooding of 2011. The Corps of Engineers told Howe on June 18, 2011, the facility had to shut down due to the eminent threat of flooding. The employees loaded what they could into semi trucks, which were put up on a hill near the pond at the track. Then, they shut the gates and went home, waiting to see what would happen.
    The facility remained closed for the summer.
    It was a huge loss for Howe and his team. Along with Howe, MAM employs 43 part-time workers and two full-time employees, all of who lost their jobs last year. The track lost $750,000 in revenue.
    “I had grave concerns at that point that the future of MAM was doomed,” Howe said. “In the back of my mind, I knew that we would pull through if it was going to be a gentle flood with no current.”
    Pull through they did. On a hot Friday night earlier this month, Fred Bell of Des Moines and the BMW Car Club of America’s Iowa Chapter was hosting a weekend-long High Performance Driving Course, with people coming from as far adifficult to master, but there’s not a lot you can do to your car if you do hit. Most tracks have steel or concrete barriers.”
   The BMW club has been holding their performance driving class every year since the track opened. The class was the last event held before the flood hit last year.
   “That was June 10 to 12,” Bell said. “We were nervous. I had 100 people coming in from all over the area, and we made it happen.”
   Howe is still making it happen. In the 90-plus degree heat of early June, Howe says hello to Bell and his crew, then jumps in his maintenance pickup and drives over to the drag strip to help with cleanup, driving a tractor that sprays a sticky compound for the cars to drag on as two other employees use push brooms to get rid of every speck of grime that a drag car could slide upon. As two employees help Howe clean, three more employees clean the maintenance truck.

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The gates open at 6 p.m. By 6:45, there is a steady stream of cars coming in the gate with people talking among themselves in the parking lot or lining up for concessions before the races begin.  At 7 p.m. (sharp), Howe enthusiastically calls into the team’s walkie-talkies.
   “Let’s go, let’s go!,” he says. “Let’s get those cars in the wet and get ‘em goin. It’s Friday night!”  
   From the sound of Howe’s voice, one would never know he had already spent close to 60 hours at the track that week.
   “This is a bigger business than people in Mills County realize it is,” Howe said. “We give $50,000 to $100,000 annually to charities through events we do, supporting everything from cancer to diabetes. We paid $70,000 in property taxes last year.”
    The floods could have wiped everything out.
    “When we reopened the facility, it looked like a war zone,” Howe said. “Everything was ruined.”
    Howe and some of his employees returned to the track in August 2011. They spent two months working towards reopening, and in October, they were finally able to do business again, but racing is seasonal, and their season was about over. The track is closed from late November to April.
   Howe has had no help with the cleanup. The $200,000-plus in damages was funded by the track. They have been given about $8,000 in charitable contributions, but FEMA has not given them any help.
    To help defray the costs, Howe has been holding a variety of events along with his regular repertoire. Council Bluffs radio station 89.7 The River held its annual River Riot concert at MAM on May 11. The Des Moines-based band Slipknot will be holding a musical event at MAM, called Knotfest, on Aug. 17.
   Howe is also diligently working on his July 7 event Rolling Thunder and Fire Extreme Exhibition Show, an annual event that promotes racing with special vehicles, like Diamond Jim’s Joy Car.
   His regular weekends include Friday night amateur nights and Saturday night National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) sanctioned racing. Anyone with a license and an interest in drag racing can pay the $20 fee and use the drag strip on Friday nights. Glenwood resident Joe Bremken has raced his 1972 Nova on the track.
   “I’ve been drag racing for about 40 years,” Bremken said. “I’m happy the track is only about seven miles from the house. If we didn’t have this, we’d probably go to Kearney, or Osborne, Mo. A bunch of us live in the same neighborhood, and this is our thing – no bars, just cars.”
   The crew at MAM is still cleaning up from the flood.  As of the first weekend in June, Howe and his team had just finished painting the 3500-seat leachers.  Water lines can be seen inside the concession stand and on the warning signs.  
   The ever-moving, ever-jovial Howe doesn’t let that get him down. He’ll be every weekend, making sure the track runs smoothly and everyone is having a good time.