It was a weird experience, Brock Zearfoss will readily admit, after making the tow from his native Pennsylvania to win the Open Wheel Nationals at Park Jefferson Int’l Speedway in North Sioux City, S.D., on April 25.
The event was held with a strict social distancing protocol and no tickets were sold to the general public.
Will this event be remembered as a unique, bizarre temporary event? Or will it be looked upon as an indication of the new normal, a new way of doing business until the COVID-19 nightmare fades into memory?
Only time will tell.
“At first everything felt a little different,” Zearfoss admitted. “No fans in the stands, everybody wearing masks, it all felt weird. But as the night went on you kind of get into the zone and focused on doing what you’re supposed to be doing, and you don’t notice it as much.
“Honestly, it wasn’t as bad as you might think. Once the crew members and families got up in the stands, that helped. At least there were some people up there.”
For Zearfoss and the other 31 drivers and teams, it was a matter of everybody pulling together to make something good happen during a bad time.
“It was out of the comfort zone for everybody right now, I think,” he said. “To show up to the race track and have to wear a mask, that’s just the way everything is right now. If we wanted this race to happen, that’s what we had to do.
“Everybody followed the rules, everybody worked together. It was good to see that.”
It’s often been said that winning cures almost anything. In this situation, when we’re surrounded by uncertainty and lots of negative news, maybe that’s the best time to win a race.
“Winning was great,” Zearfoss said without hesitation. “With everything that’s going on in the world, nobody is able to do anything right now. To be able to race, it gave us a sense of normalcy in our life, if only for a little while. We got to go racing, and under the circumstances that was good. It was definitely good for everybody involved to be a part of the race.
“Maybe this is just like a first step, something that will allow us to take the next step toward getting back to racing. I hope so.”
Pennsylvania has experienced a significant number of COVID-19 cases, but like many states, it has been a regional experience. Zearfoss’ home of Jennerstown, for example, has not been as hard hit as other urban areas in the Keystone State.
“We have a stay-at-home order here, but no curfew,” he said. “We’re like most other places in the country. Our county is doing pretty good compared to the counties around us.”
From the time Zearfoss and his crew left their home, they immediately noticed that things were different. All they had to do was look around.
“The first thing we noticed was that traffic is way easier right now,” he said. “There just isn’t as much traffic, and that made getting through the big cities a lot easier than normal. We got through Chicago in 25 minutes, which is unheard of.
“The rest areas were packed with trucks, especially once we got to the Midwest. It seems like the Midwest was a little more laid back on things, they don’t seem to be locked down as much. The farther west we went, it got easier to travel.
“You’re really limited when it comes to food and restaurants. Pretty much fast food is the only option, most everything was closed except for carry-out. When we got there we ordered some takeout from a restaurant down the street and then just hung out at the track.”
What was especially memorable for Zearfoss was that this was his first visit to South Dakota.
“I had never been there before, and I had never heard of (Park Jefferson) before,” he said. “It’s a nice facility, and I’m thankful the people involved were willing to stick their neck out and give us an opportunity to race.”
When Zearfoss and his crew loaded their car and prepared for the 19-hour ride back to Pennsylvania, he said it was a different feeling than the trip coming west.
“Once we got out there and raced, all the way home we had the itch to go racing again,” he said. “For a little while, it just felt like life was normal again, and that felt good. But then we got home and had to sit around again, so it’s just a hard situation for everyone.
“All we can do now is wait on the next chance to race. It depends on what states open up first, and when that happens. It’s starting to happen, and it’s going to happen. We’re probably like everybody else, we’ll be ready to go racing as soon as things open up.”