DOTY: A Long, Strange Trip

Brad Doty.

With the sprint car season over in the United States, I wonder what all the drivers who normally go down under to Australia and/or New Zealand – who now can’t go because of COVID-19 – are going to be doing during the off-season.

For many, it might be the first time they’ve had to shovel snow and put up with a cold winter in years!

For those fortunate enough to live where they don’t have to deal with the white stuff, it could still be a long off-season, even though the “off-season” is much shorter than it was at one time.

It’s been a much shorter racing season, as well, because of the pandemic shutdown that lasted for what seemed like an eternity, with many races postponed or canceled completely.

The World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series has the longest racing schedule in America. Last year there were 92 races scheduled, but they were only able to complete 55 races in 2020.

It took a lot of reshuffling the schedule, with teams criss-crossing all over the country – at least east of the Rocky Mountains – to fit races in wherever and whenever they could.

Normally, the Outlaws start in Florida in February and then a few weeks later they start racing their way westward toward California, where they usually arrive in late-March or early-April.

Then they race and enjoy the California sunshine for about a month before racing their way back east.

But this year the WoO teams made it to Texas and were literally within a few hours of racing when they got the news that, due to COVID-19 restrictions, not only was that night’s event canceled, but all of the races on the schedule leading up to, and including, every race in California were nixed as well.

Then it was like a domino effect, as more and more races got canceled and it looked like there wouldn’t be any WoO races, or any racing, at least through May.

As time went on, it began to look possible that there might not be any racing at all in 2020.

The Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All Star Circuit of Champions also started their season in Florida, but they don’t normally start their “regular season” until around April, and usually at tracks in Pennsylvania.

Like all tracks and sanctioning bodies, they too were on hold waiting to see what happened with the virus with the same uncertainty as everyone else.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

While all of us were trying to comprehend what was happening all over the world with the virus, sanctioning bodies, tracks, and promoters were scrambling and getting creative on how to continue racing, and to keep everyone safe doing it, in an attempt to keep the racing industry from financially imploding.

Iowa’s Terry McCarl, who promotes the Ultimate Challenge and the Front Row Challenge in Iowa every August, discovered that just north of him in South Dakota the COVID-19 cases weren’t as high as in other places, and that their restrictions might allow for a race to happen up there.

After talking with health officials and local government, he was able to announce that on April 25, the first sprint car race would be run since Florida in February.

The race would take place at Park Jefferson Int’l Speedway and, although he was originally to be allowed 700 fans in the stands, as the race drew closer McCarl was informed that no fans would be permitted to attend.

Losing paying fans was a hit to the bottom line, but he had already scheduled the event as a pay-per-view streaming broadcast, so he obviously was betting on having enough subscribers to make the event profitable.

He and track officials made sure they could adhere to all the health department guidelines and they also limited the car count to 32 sprint cars and 32 IMCA modifieds to allow for social distancing in the pit area.

World Racing Group owns the World of Outlaws sprint car and late model series, along with the Super DIRTcar big-block modified series.

With everything shut down, things looked bleak for racing to continue. But then WRG leased Knoxville Raceway and held a sprint car race on May 8 using strict health department and government guidelines.

Those included temperature checks of everyone who entered, spacing race rigs and teams far apart, mandating masks for teams and officials, and having no fans in the stands.

The race was live-streamed on DIRTvision, which is also owned by WRG, which meant that all income generated from people subscribing and tuning in went directly to WRG to pay the purse, expenses, and more, and hopefully generate some profit.

As I mentioned in a previous column, pay-per-view streaming was probably the saving grace to having any short track races in 2020.

After Knoxville things opened up a bit, with more races starting to be run in different parts of the country with the same strict guidelines: social distancing, masks, and the like. But some races also began to allow a small number of fans in the stands.

Depending on the state, and even which county within each state, some tracks were eventually able to open back up at full capacity.

Some of these tracks saw record-setting crowds, and I believe some of it had to do with the old saying, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone!” People took their track, and even racing, for granted and assumed it would always be there.

After being shut down, and people needing and wanting to be entertained, when racing resumed the fans showed up in big numbers.

I also wonder – since bars, restaurants, and movie theatres, for the most part, were totally shut down when racing resumed – if people who otherwise would have spent their money and time going to a movie and dinner or sitting in a bar were now showing up at race tracks.

Race promoters are always competing for that precious “entertainment dollar” and, with entertainment limited, it might have actually helped racing.

This year has been a long, strange trip in so many ways. To me, it seems like January was a year and a half ago.

With the shorter racing season (and in certain areas no racing at all) and with it looking unlikely anyone will be going down under, it has been tough on the pocketbook for many.

It’s also going to be a big adjustment for drivers and their spouses, with them being home all winter!


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