SULLIVAN: The Cork Is Out

Patrick Sullivan.

Several years ago, I wrote a column that suggested that interest in short track racing would go up if it ceased being a year-long enterprise.

Frankly, I never expected to get a real chance to test my hypothesis. Then came the COVID-19 crisis, and the entire world was turned upside down.

Like many of you, when the NBA decided it was time to halt the season I was stunned. Then more dominoes began to fall. What many of us felt would be an interlude of short duration stretched to months.

As the calendar continued to flip, it was clear that this would be the most unusual racing season any of us had ever experienced.

As the lid began to lift, interest was piqued. Suddenly, some who have never considered using a streaming service got a whole lot more interested in the product.

I confess, watching a streamed race was never at the top of my list, although I did enjoy catching some action on the west coast and an occasional USAC show.

As the spring became summer, and some series crept back into action, I became more intrigued. Overall the production of many streams have improved greatly. On top of this, when I realized I could toggle between multiple venues and series, I had a field day.

Several things became clear to me in the time I spent watching races as opposed to working at the track.

First, there is still too much down time. Some things are out of everyone’s control no matter how hard we try. At press time, I was fresh from working the Corn Belt Nationals at Knoxville, and the effort that the crew put in to recover the track from a near race time downpour was remarkable.

It was a big race with an out-of-town sanctioning body, and hence the extra effort was called for.

Other situations just seem avoidable with advance planning. I understand that preparing a track is both an art and science but, if push trucks are raising dust during hot laps, there was a pre-existing problem that was ignored. Watching at home displayed these issues in bold relief.

In the next phase of development, more pre-taped features, or so called “B-roll” footage, will add to the professionalism of the presentations.

Admittedly, some productions were barebones. Still, for what I pay per race, I’m not running to my computer and composing a strongly-worded post. I think it is time to remind everyone that the most sophisticated networks in America have technical problems. It happens all the time.

So, when races are being streamed in places far from a metropolitan area, with sketchy internet service at best, problems should be expected. Still, the overwhelming concern for track operators now may be how to get people off their couch and back into the stands.

However, when fans are present, the sure way to keep them away for good is to subject them to the road grader Nationals.

One other matter was also noteworthy. What I also saw, or witnessed firsthand, were huge crowds for some events. Did I see evidence of social distancing, masks, or other preventative methods? Not much. Is this going to prove to be a problem? We’ll see.

I just got off a social media site where a clear “doubter” once again posted a poll inquiring if others knew of anyone impacted by the virus.

I have seen about four of these, and in every single case people have posted that they knew someone who got very sick, and some have had friends die. That’s just the facts. Yes the flu kills people, but generally not in the summer.

My concern is this. Right after a round of Indiana Midget Week, a person with a long history in racing, and one who is politically connected, called me directly with concerns.

It was his contention that if a representative of the Governor’s office would have been present, the race would have been shut down. Then, at Knoxville, a low-flying helicopter circled the track both nights I was there. I don’t think they were just random people out for a night of fun, nor did the staff.

It is easy to ignore much of this. Maybe it is a matter of absence truly making the heart grow fonder, but to me the racing I have observed this year has been compelling. Indiana Midget Week produced riveting action nearly every night. There are new teams and exciting young drivers.

Pennsylvania Sprint Week had any story line you wanted – with Larson again front and center. Historic venues, passionate and knowledgeable fans, heroes and villains … it was must watch.

The Corn Belt Nationals at Knoxville allowed fans to see traditional sprint cars, as well as the incredibly quick 360 and 410 winged sprints. It was great stuff and made you thirsty for more.

At present, the cork is out of the bottle and, like a carbonated drink that has been shaken vigorously, everything is gushing forth. It is easy for one to delude themselves that normalcy has returned.

Therein lies the problem. It hasn’t.

I don’t care where you are on the spectrum, from a conspiracy theorist to those who think a worldwide plague is at hand. The existence of this virus is still causing schools to stay online, businesses to follow new procedures and, in some cases, behavior to change.

You can scream all you want about wearing masks, or social distancing, or any of the preventative measures that have been suggested or mandated. This is what I know. Longstanding race tracks have been closed for noise ordinances, dust, traffic, or any reason imaginable. It happens when a group with power uses their clout at the right time.

The health department can always make an unannounced visit and go over your concession stand with a fine-tooth comb. Have a few underage kids drinking at your track, and suddenly your liquor license is in peril.

You may not like it, but after decades in the sport I have seen all of this happen. So have you. Savvy track operators are in communication with city hall and the local health department. If they’re smart, they are going to do what is necessary to remain afloat.

It is rarely wise to poke a bear. This means they also need help from you too. If you are asked to do something to remain in compliance with the rules in place at a given locale, for heaven’s sake do it. Yelling at the promoter, competition director, announcer, or proclaiming the end of our freedoms is at hand on the internet doesn’t change a thing.

I missed racing too, and I want us to be able to keep going. When I drive by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway it is hard to fathom there was no true Month of May in the Circle City.

I have a hard time reconciling that in mid-July, there hadn’t been a single event at Bloomington Speedway. I think about some of my pals in California who may not see the track all year.

It’s awful, but if we aren’t careful it can get a whole lot worse.


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