Sprint Car driver R.J. Johnson walked away from his first conversation with legendary Knoxville Raceway promoter Ralph Capitani both angry and frustrated.
It was 2008, Johnson’s first year at Knoxville. He made the trek from Florida to Iowa with his father to race in the 360 Sprint Car division. Their shoestring operation consisted of one car and one motor, and they stayed in the Knoxville campground during the week.
Johnson was involved in an accident with Luke Dollansky two months into the season. His car destroyed, the frustrated driver confronted Dollansky in the work area. The incident blew over, that is until Capitani called Johnson the following Wednesday.
“He called and said, ‘Hey, do you want to race here again?,’ ” Johnson recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m standing 200 yards from the front straightaway, so I don’t really plan to go anywhere.’
“He said, ‘Well, if you want to race here, you can’t act like that and you will have to pay a fine.’ I asked how much, and he told me $500. I said, ‘Cappy, I can’t pay that.’ He said, ‘If you want to race, you will figure it out.’ ”
No one said anything to Johnson when he pulled into the gate the following week. He thought he got away with it until Capitani popped up at the gate and said, “I’m going to need that fine.”
Capitani, 84, died earlier this week. Johnson, now a resident of Knoxville, chuckles when reflecting on the incident, because that was the man they called “Cappy.” He was tough, but he was fair. And he treated everyone the same whether you were a rookie or a star in the sport.
Johnson paid his fine and continued to race during the 2008 season. At the end of the year, Capitani gave Johnson the $500 back in cash and said, “I just wanted you to learn a lesson. I appreciate you racing here all year, and I hope you come back.”
“It’s just the guy he was,” Johnson said. “He wanted to be fair. He had to be the hard-nosed guy, but he was always in it for the right reasons. He always wanted to help the racers.
“When Cappy came to you on any matter, you got exactly what was on his mind and what was going to happen. That’s all you can ask for in a promoter. He did what he said he was going to do. He enforced the rules and didn’t treat anybody differently.
“He treated me the same as Terry McCarl or Danny Lasoski. To come here as a nobody in the 360s, that meant a lot.”
Capitani was a rare breed. A renaissance man.
Before Capitani was the man pulling the strings at Knoxville Raceway, he played football at Iowa Teacher’s College, now known as Northern Iowa. He was a fullback and became the first player in school history to earn NAIA First Team All American honors.
Capitani had an offer to play for the Chicago Bears, but the Army came calling in 1956. After finishing his military commitment in 1957, he went into the classroom, teaching at Parkersburg and Ida Grove in Iowa. He moved to Knoxville in 1961.
At Knoxville High School, Capitani taught Government and coached football, baseball, basketball and track. He also took a part-time job with the Marion County Fair Association, the group that oversees Knoxville Raceway.
Capitani took a more active role with the speedway in 1969 and became the promoter in 1978. It was the beginning of a career that made him one of the most powerful and influential men in all of Sprint Car racing.
“He was everything,” said current Knoxville Raceway promoter/race director John McCoy, who was a student of Capitani’s and later worked under him at the speedway.
“We had many disagreements on racing, and he was good about letting you earn your point of view. I appreciated that. But he also made you see things the right way. He won a lot of those arguments, I guess. I just didn’t know it.”
Continued McCoy, “He was there so long. He was the rock or foundation of the sport. It wasn’t because he was an expert in racing. He was just one of those guys who could pick up on anything. He learned it because he liked it, and he will be missed.”
Capitani continued to teach until 1992. But it’s what he did at Knoxville Raceway that captured the attention of race fans across the country.
When he took over the speedway, it seated 8,000 and featured a $51,000 purse for the sport’s biggest race, the Knoxville Nationals. By the time Capitani retired in 2011, the facility boasted 24,000 seats and the Knoxville Nationals paid out a $1 million purse. He also helped bring 360 Sprint Car racing to the region in the early 1980s.
“Cappy could see past the end of his nose,” said Danny Lasoski, the leading 410 Sprint Car feature winner at Knoxville Raceway. “He knew where he wanted Knoxville to go and believed it in his heart.
“In my opinion, he was the single best promoter for drivers, owners, fans and the fair board. At the end of the day, there are few people like that.
“I’ve always believed that with anything, you need a chief. Ralph Capitani, along with Ted Johnson, was that chief. You might not agree with them, but they had the balls to follow what they believe in. I respect that.”
Capitani possessed qualities that made him born for a leadership role. He was stern, but he was fair. He was a thinker and didn’t make rash decisions.
That demeanor served him well. It allowed him to juggle what was best for fans, drivers and owners while answering to a fair board. Other promoters noticed around the country and respected Capitani enough to go to him for advice.
“I would call him when I got riled up, and he would calm me down,” Lincoln Speedway co-promoter Alan Kreitzer said. “He would say, ‘Calm down and think about this. It will work out.’
“He had a tough job. He was a promoter, but he also had to worry about having a fair board. He had to walk the line with his opinions and his ideas, but he was able to manage that year to year with drivers, fans and the fair board.”
There was a time when heat races for the Knoxville Nationals featured a full invert, meaning fast time started in the back. When more parity filtered into the sport, drivers started to complain about the Nationals format.
Kreitzer said with a chuckle, “I was in a suite during a qualifying night, and Lasoski came through to qualify. Capitani got up, walked to the back of the suite and lit up a cigarette. He looked at us and said, ‘Well, Lasoski qualified.’ ”
That was Capitani … A smart visionary who was a quick study. He was genuine, and there was no hidden agenda. What you saw is what you got.
A true Sprint Car legend.
“Knoxville is the gold standard, and he made it the gold standard in the sport,” Kreitzer said. “He was really a steady hand at the wheel, not only at Knoxville, but for Sprint Car racing in general. He will be missed.”