DOTY: Non-Virtual Racing

Brad Doty

Terry McCarl and the people at South Dakota’s Park Jefferson International Speedway pulled off quite a feat recently when they ran a sprint car and modified event.

Obviously, everyone knows there hasn’t been any non-virtual (real) racing for way too long now, and when McCarl and the race track scheduled the race, South Dakota had no stay-at-home order in place.

McCarl limited grandstand tickets to only 700 people in an effort to keep people at a safe distance. Tickets sold out almost immediately.

From the outset, the race was scheduled to be broadcast live on the pay-per-view internet streaming service Speed Shift TV, which was a big part of the plan to help make the event financially viable.

As race day drew closer the South Dakota Governor informed them that no fans would be allowed to attend. I’m sure that was a big blow to all involved, but they went ahead and ran the race anyway with the hopes that a large number of people would buy the stream.

On top of the bad news that no fans could be in the stands, the weather forecast wasn’t exactly in their favor either, with there being a chance of rain. But it could have been worse, because at this time of the year in that part of the country they could have easily been forecasting heavy snow.

Although they did get a couple light rain showers that delayed the show somewhat and kept the track tacky and fast, the racing was very good.

The one good thing about not being allowed to have fans in the stands was that they didn’t have to worry about the weather forecast hurting ticket sales. I say that as a joke, of course.

Promoting a race is always a financial risk, and when you have to do it knowing that no grandstand tickets can be sold, you really have to hope that enough people purchase the live stream to at least pay the purse and expenses.

In order try to keep people at a safe distance in the pit area, they limited the car count to 32 in each division, with no more than 10 people per car. That way they could try to keep people somewhat spread out and away from each other.

Of course, each team had to be working in close proximity to one another, which is what workers all over the country in other businesses that have been able to stay open have been doing all along. So there was a precedence already set on how to work together while trying to be as safe as possible.

There were people who didn’t agree that the race should have even been scheduled because of the risk to people’s health. Some worried that it might look bad for auto racing, especially for short track racing. But there were certainly enough people who were excited that there was going to be a live race that the limited tickets, as mentioned above, sold out very quickly, and teams traveled from all over the U.S. to have a chance to race.

And, there were also many people watching to see what the reaction would be within the industry, and if it could be done successfully and be financially feasible.

I don’t know if it was worth it financially to McCarl and the track, but they pulled it off and they had the only live sporting event held in the U.S. in months. I’m sure Brock Zearfoss, who won the sprint car feature, and Ricky Thornton Jr., who won the modified feature, were happy when it was all said and done!

There are sanctioning bodies and tracks that are considering trying to do something similar.

At press time, the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink sprint car serious announced that after working directly with the state and local government to adhere to all regulations, they will be running at Knoxville Raceway May 8 with no fans, but the event will be broadcast on (EDITOR’S NOTE: The event was a success, with David Gravel winning.)

I could see a few races done here and there without paying customers sitting in the stands, but even for a local race with a much lower purse than a WoO payout, where the back gate (pit passes) go a long way toward paying the purse, it could be tough to be profitable.

Even with pay-per-view income, I don’t think the math adds up to where the track can make enough money to cover all the expenses – like staff, insurance, electric, etc. And with no fans, there is no concession income either.

Unless the tracks or sanctioning bodies can find a large sponsor, or sponsors, even with the pay-per-view revenue, I don’t know how it could be sustainable long-term without fans.

The tracks with large seating capacities would have a better shot at being successful because they could still have paying fans in the stands but spread them out to meet guidelines.

Here in Ohio, we’ve had a stay-at-home order since March 24 that was originally scheduled to end on April 6, but was then extended to May 1. Things have now started to open.

Many feel that means only certain businesses will open back up and that groups of people who can gather in one place will be very limited to small numbers and gradually increase over time.

Summit Motorsports Park, the renowned drag strip in Norwalk, Ohio, has been in the Bader family for something like 40 years. Any business that was forced to shut down is anxious to open back up, but especially family- and privately-owned businesses. They desperately need to get back to work to not only feed their families, but to try to save their business!

Summit Motorsports Park had announced that they would be opening back up, with fans in the stands, even if there is still a statewide stay-at-home order! It will be very interesting to see how the state reacts and, more importantly, how many fans and participants support it when they swing open the gates.

I closed out my last column by saying I hoped by the time this column came out that the corona virus would have peaked and we would be getting closer to seeing some racing soon. The virus has peaked in certain parts of the country and things are starting to look better, but we still have a ways to go.

We can only hope that when it’s time for my next column that I will be talking about even more races that have taken place.


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