NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thursday Morning Thunder, Vol. 5: 1 Commandment for Racing in 2021 — Love Thy Neighbor

The first time I was ever subject to a rain delay while working at the track for Frontstretch came during a Friday night Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway. Sitting through the endless hours of questioning whether or not they could dry the track, the PA in the media center came out and said, “we’ve got lights and no curfew. Don’t you worry, our neighbors know we’re loud.”

Most racetracks aren’t so lucky. Like any good neighbors, racetracks bring plenty to the table and better their communities. But their relations are, well, complicated.

Even before COVID turned the world upside down, most racetracks have long been subject to curfews (my home track in Winchester, Va., being one). Business licensing in many communities will restrict a racetrack to holding events only on weekends or certain days of the week. For tracks closer to residential or urban centers, mufflers are a common fixture (I-30 Speedway just outside Little Rock comes to mind). 

That such measures are a necessity don’t make racetracks bad neighbors. Of course, as a race fan I’m partial to having a dirt track in my hometown; it’s a blessing to be able to drive a mere 15 minutes to see late models slinging clay. But said blessings go beyond keeping my favorite sport within arm’s reach. Racetracks reliably bring in tourists and their disposable income. They put locals to work.

As our esteemed Matt McLaughlin has recounted dozens of times writing for this site, giving gearheads young and old alike places to race off street means they’re less likely to be racing on them. And in tons of communities from Pennsylvania to California, racing provides revenue necessary to keep public assets like fairgrounds active and solvent year round. As has previously been discussed this season, the Bloomsburg Fair in Pennsylvania is rebuilding their dirt track after a 30-plus-year hiatus for that very reason.

Despite all those factors, there’s plenty that are hesitant to look their local bullring in the eye and ask, “won’t you be my neighbor?” And objectively, there are real reasons for that. Anyone that’s been to a packed local track knows full well just how much of a traffic hazard they can be. I’d get specific, but the statute of limitations hasn’t yet expired on illegal acts I’ve used to park my car scrambling to get a seat before New Smyrna Speedway’s World Series goes green. Paved or not, racetracks put on events that will send dust and debris flying for literal miles. And they’re really, really, REALLY loud. Even with mufflers.

These realities have put an end to plenty of racetracks from coast to coast. The old Tulsa Speedway was abandoned in the mid-1980s thanks to noise complaints. Weekly dirt racing at the former Union Field Raceway in Alaska ended in 2010 for the same reason.

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Dirt doesn’t have a monopoly on this; the renowned Mesa Marin Speedway met its demise in 2005 after encroaching development led to residents complaining about the volume. Our drag racing brethren lost the same battle in Savannah, Ga., just this summer. And just this week, one of the newer racing facilities anywhere in America is now facing a noise ordinance threat despite being located off an interstate highway in New Mexico.

There’s also the economic reality to be considered here. The old saying goes that to make a small fortune in racing, start with a big one. That applies to race promoters just as much as it does car owners. And unlike NASCAR, where juicy TV contracts mean that running with empty grandstands is still profitable, the same can’t be said for the vast majority of the nation’s 500-plus dirt tracks. Running a weekly racing program, margins are about as tight as they were for Ford and GM to build the 4-bangers that make up much of their race fields. 

It’s not an easy living making money off racing. Thus, it’s no surprise to hear that racetracks, when confronted with developers or industry and their big pockets, often opt to take the buyout. It doesn’t matter if the track is an unknown, like the 250 Speedway in Cadiz, Ohio, which is now a mining property after trying to come back for a summer. It doesn’t matter if it’s famous, like the East Bay Raceway Park that is hosting its 45th Winternationals this week, which has been all but sold and will close in 2024 to make room for a mining plant. It doesn’t matter if it’s paved and historic, as the Myrtle Beach Speedway that gave rise to one Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be generic beach housing in short order. Billy Joe and Bobbie Sue are hardly alone singin’ go on, take the money and run.

This dance is already on the floor in 2021, with Lancaster Motor Speedway in Georgia looking the latest caught between the geometric order and an insulated border. 

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What’s more, all of that is not related to the ongoing COVID pandemic, which has further tangled the complicated neighborly relationship that racetracks already had to navigate. As previously discussed in Thinkin’ Dirty numerous times this season, COVID-19 has already claimed two oval track victims in 2021, with Southside Speedway south of Richmond, Va., and now Cardinal Speedway in Eunice, N.M., citing the pandemic as cause for permanent closure.

Depressing? Yes. Surprising? No. As mentioned above, without a fat TV contract, the crowd restrictions that have become reality for many tracks are a legitimate economic impediment toward keep a racing business going. Promoters have bills to pay and mouths to feed. Having said that, racetracks rely on large crowds of people from near and far jamming themselves into grandstands for hours at a time, queuing in line for everything from snack breaks to bathroom breaks. Not exactly responsible behavior to encourage in our current climate.

What’s a good neighbor to do?

The genesis for this article came from reading a recent column in Area Auto Racing News by resident NASCAR apologist Dave Moody, who opted to take a printed shot at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for allowing the Buffalo Bills to host fans for their recent playoff game after prohibiting Watkins Glen International from doing the same for their scheduled NASCAR race weekend this past August. 

It’s not that Moody doesn’t have a point. He does. Cuomo allowing the NFL to host fans for an outdoor event in December, when COVID-19 was more of an issue for New York than it was back in August, is an about-face. And it’s not justified when one considers that NASCAR, for its many faults, has proven to be a true face of corporate responsibility when it comes to COVID response. When NASCAR hosted its first race with socially distanced fans at Bristol Motor Speedway last summer, it took steps to ensure contact tracing could be practiced to ensure the safety protocols worked. Masks have been required, not encouraged, in NASCAR event spaces. And despite having the blessing of Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis to operate business as usual, NASCAR will not sell a full allotment of seats for next month’s Daytona 500.

I hate giving the France circus ringleaders credit for anything, but in this regard they’ve been consummate professionals. 

No, the problem I had with Moody’s column was not his argument, it was his tone, closing in snark with “at a time when it’s awfully easy to dislike politicians, Gov. Cuomo makes it easier than most.”

Try talking like that to your next door neighbor and getting them to turn their music down.

Being a combative neighbor does not work when trying to host a barbecue or trim a tree straddling a property line. And it has proven counterproductive for the racing community as well.

Case in point, North Carolina, the home of NASCAR. Despite having a blue-state governor, NASCAR came to the state government with a plan and a protocol. As a result, the Coca-Cola 600 ran on its scheduled date, even back in May when far less was known about COVID-19 than is now.

The track owners of Altamahaw, N.C.’s Ace Speedway took the opposite approach. Relying on a sheriff that acted every bit as dictatorial as the governor he opposed, the bullring made international headlines for jamming 4,000 people into its grandstands while its PA announcer asked fans not to cough on each other. Threatened with closure, Ace two weeks later deemed its race a protest to keep the track open on First Amendment grounds.

The results spoke for themselves. NASCAR proactively came up a with plan, behaved responsibly and got a full 36-race season contested. Ace had three weeks in the spotlight, throwing a finger to the man with record crowds before being deemed a public health hazard and shut down. The track lost its entire summer, a summer during which tracks coast to coast enjoyed record car counts and reinvigorated interest, and when they finally re-opened in the fall, it was utilizing a plan that capped capacity in grandstands and marked six-foot increments for social distancing on the ground. All mitigation efforts that were available back in May. We don’t live in England, but ever heard the saying “penny-wise and pound-foolish”? And we’ll visit England in a minute.

While Ace was the most visible example of racetracks playing rough with their states, it wasn’t the only one. Up in Cuomo’s New York, Fonda Speedway promoter Brett Deyo opened his grandstands for the 4th of July by applying a court ruling relating to churchgoing to his racetrack. That certainly got the state’s attention. Barely a week later, Deyo was facing what Area Auto Racing News reported as a $10,000 fine and explicit orders to close every part of his facility but the pits.

There’s a reason the song goes, “I fought the law and the law won.” And anyone advocating for the return of racing to New York state has to acknowledge that such behavior mere weeks from the Watkins Glen race date gave Cuomo plenty of ammo to say no.

Let’s rewind. That mess at Ace made international headlines. Yes, I said international. I had college friends from London text me to ask, “OMG, what is NASCAR thinking???!!!?” 

Not London, Conn. London, England (told you we’d visit). These friends of mine can’t tell a late model from a bikini model, but that was the impression they got of the racing industry last spring. 

That story was a telling one on multiple fronts. For one, the fact that those friends of mine referred to those races at Ace this spring as “NASCAR,” despite the fact that NASCAR no longer sanctions Ace and had nothing to do with those events.

That they referred to the short-track race as NASCAR, as if it was a Cup Series race, spoke volumes as to how little those friends of mine know about racing. But their opinion of the sport matters in a big way. The reality is that for every race fan racetracks have for a neighbor, they have more neighbors that know nothing about the sport. Neighbors like nearby residents and public health officials. 

Short-track racing is a niche, not the NFL. It’s at best a well-kept secret, at worst misunderstood. So when stories go viral about racetracks behaving with blatant disregard for public health, state law and even common sense, the industry as a whole pays for it. The neighbor with 20 dogs and two junked cars on his front yard drags the whole neighborhood down.

There’s no reason for racetracks to be that neighbor. There have been more than enough socially distanced sporting events hosted in this country to demonstrate that sport, motorsport included, can be competed safely in 2021. Economic realities have even lockdown leaders in New York and California loosening restrictions in their respective states. Responsible racing is a realistic expectation for all 50 states this year. (Make that 49; Rhode Island needs a racetrack.)

Community relations even before COVID19 were a minefield for racetracks. My old Thinkin’ Out Loud column documented in 2019 how concerns about noise had local government officials demanding that the I-70 Speedway include noise barriers as part of its renovations, despite its location on the frontage road of an interstate highway. But no community knows that story better than the fans of Fife Lake, Mich. There, the Cherry Raceway saw its 36-year run come to a close abruptly when a local man wanted a quieter time in his retirement lake home. So he bought the racetrack and left it to rot.

Racetracks must often be better neighbors than their neighbors. Their survival depends on it.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

  • Wednesday night saw the Short Track Super Series season opener at Bubba Raceway Park canceled due to rains in the Ocala area that afternoon. Truck regular Stewart Friesen will be in the field, seeking to make his first feature of 2021 after failing to qualifying in Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model competition at All-Tech Raceway over the weekend and East Bay Raceway Park on Monday.
  • Speaking of the LODLMS, its residency at East Bay has gotten two features in (the Wednesday night program was rained out after heats were completed). Youngster Hudson O’Neal won a wreckfest on Monday night, while Wild West Shootout runner-up Tyler Erb survived a final-lap restart to hold off Brandon Overton for the $5,000 prize Tuesday. Public service announcement: the remaining LODLMS features at East Bay and Bubba Raceway Park during Speedweeks are being streamed for free both through the Lucas Oil Racing TV app and the MAVTV Facebook page. Take advantage.

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