Mitch Swinton, Main Library
During the summer, you will find Mitch Swinton sitting behind a booth at the West Liberty racetrack most Saturday nights, handing out coloring books and juice boxes to kids who’ve come to watch cars zoom by on the dirt track.
The University of Iowa Main Library custodian, who received a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from the University in 1997, started the Lil’ Racer Car Club in 2005. Most members are from Iowa, but many come from surrounding states such as Nebraska, Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Some come from Kentucky and the Carolinas. The club has its own web site, collects pop tabs for Camp Courageous, and, at one point, boasted of more than 700 members.
fyi managed to catch Swinton on one of his less busy days—he also tends lawns and is engaged in many civic duties when he’s not working at the University—and talked about how the club is helping children have fun and what he typically does when he has a rare day off.
What is the Lil’ Racer Car Club?
The Lil’ Racer Car Club is a club for kids under the age of 14. We don’t discriminate against older kids—we thought they probably wouldn’t be interested in kid’s stuff after that age. We have fun activities almost every night there’s a race. Kids also can come to my booth throughout the night and pick up a free juice box or coloring book, and sign up for a lucky draw where I give away about 25 prizes each night.
We average about 110 to 120 kids on any given Saturday night. The first two years, we signed up 780 members, though not everyone shows up every week. We realized some members were probably too old to come to events anymore, so we started a new membership drive a year ago—we’re back up to 420 members. Membership is free to all children. Kids should not pay to have fun!
Why did you start the club?
I took my son Ross, who was 6 at the time, to a race at West Liberty, and he sat there, bored out of his mind. There was nothing for the kids to do. I looked around and saw that there were lots of kids in the stands. They were falling asleep and cranky, waiting for dad to finish racing. My father used to take me to the races in my hometown of Nashua, Iowa, when I was 4 or 5, and there was always something for the kids to do. I approached the Muscatine County Fair Board and asked about starting some activities for the kids. After obtaining the board’s approval, and with much help from my wife, Lori, I started the Lil' Racer Car Club. There aren’t many clubs like this in the Midwest.
What kind of activities do you have for kids who come to the races?
We’ve had lots of activities over the years. We’ve had Nickel Scrambles—this year we spread out about $1,100 in nickels on the track and the kids ran to pick up as many as they could.
Boxcar racing is something I’ve been trying to get going at West Liberty. The children make racing cars out of cardboard boxes—cutting little holes in the sides as handles—and fold them up over themselves. They run with the boxes towards mom or dad halfway down the track, and take off their boxes once they reach them. Mom and dad serve as the pit crew, taking off their kids’ shoes and socks, and then putting them on again—that’s the tire change. Then the kids have to drink out of a water bottle—that’s the fuel stop. When they’re done, the children put their boxes back on and run to the finish line.
How do you come up with these activities?
I look at other racing web sites that have kids clubs. I’ve also posted on www.iowastockcars.com, asking people what they’d like to see their kids do at the racetrack, and what they think would be a fun event. Drivers e-mail me their suggestions. A lot of great ideas from great people make this work.
Where does the club get its financial support?
I have 25 sponsors, mostly businesses from around Iowa City and eastern Iowa. The club is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization so all donations are tax-exempt. Families who race also bring us money—they realize what we’re doing for their families. We have a donation jar on the table where kids walk by and drop in a quarter or two; every bit helps. I’m trying to apply for grant money this winter and would like to get a corporate sponsor. I also have a board of directors that helps out a lot with the club. I have lawyers, secretaries, and accountants—people from different backgrounds who bring something unique to the table.
Why is the club meaningful to you?
I care about other people—I try to make them happy. I see kids at the track who don’t have much. I can see it in their faces and their actions. If I can give that child a prize and make the child feel good while they’re at the track, that makes me feel wonderful. I know what it’s like to be a little kid who doesn’t have any toys. I try to make all the children who come to the track feel special.
Where would someone find you on your day off?
I have very few days off, probably by choice. I get up at 3 a.m., drive to the Main Library for my job, which begins at 5 a.m. and ends at 1:30 p.m. I also take care of 15 yards, and am normally mowing in the afternoon until 6 or 7 p.m. I’m the vice president of the Lone Tree Community Foundation, which raises money to do projects around the city, and am on the Lone Tree Planning and Zoning Commission.
When I’m not doing any of those things, I’d probably be doing things with my son, who’s now 9. He likes baseball, soccer, flag football, and basketball. There’ll be a lot of school activities coming up. I also like to go to Barnes & Noble to sit and read books.
by Po Li Loo