By KEN BRUCE
The world of dirt modified racing was off to a great start in 2020. The STSS ‘Sunshine Swing’ at All-Tech Raceway in Florida was a huge success as was the annual DIRTcar Nationals at Volusia Speedway. Both events were well attended and put on some fantastic racing back in February giving the sport a well-deserved boost as we headed towards the Northeast portion of our season.
The Northeast season kicked off with the Melvin L. Joseph STSS opener at the Georgetown Speedway the first weekend of March, and despite being delayed a day due to weather, was a very successful event to get the season underway.
Fast forward to one week later and the racing season came to an abrupt halt as the Coronavirus has taken its hold on the racing world as it has with most of the United States. The word COVID-19 has become the keyword of 2020 and it will be a long time before anyone will ever forget it, if ever.
I know racing is probably not the foremost thing on everyone’s mind right now, but racing does generate quite a bit of money here in our area. From promoters, drivers, car builders, townships, counties and states who rely on tax money generated by tracks, to many involved in the industry itself, it is a big hit financially for the industry.
I wanted to get an idea on how this shutdown has affected the racing community and what might happen as we move forward in 2020. I didn’t want this article to be just about the drivers but wanted to see how this is affecting all aspects of our sport.
Dirttrackdigest.com reached out to drivers, track owners/promoters, a car owner and one of the owners of this website to hear their thoughts on a variety of questions dealing with the coronavirus and what lies ahead. I hope you enjoy their answers as much as I did. Trust me, they all have very thought out and sometimes different answers.
DTD: When racing resumes, do you expect the schedule to be busier than normal?
Billy Pauch Jr. (driver of the Kid Racing No. 15, the Holsten Racing No. 96): “No, I don’t expect it to be busier than normal, but I expect it to run until Thanksgiving. We can’t really race anymore than we do already. I am fortunate to have the capabilities to race a ton, but I think this would not be a good idea at all if we did that. My honest position is we should just run regular shows this year through the end of the year to mitigate the risk that tracks are taking on these events and focus on the weekly racing. Social distancing isn’t going anywhere in 2020 and if a track can run a regular show and get 700 people in the stands so we can spread them out and pay the purse and they can make a little bit of money. 2020 is not going to be a homerun for any business but if we can get them some revenue coming in this will help us get fully back to normal in 2021.”
Tina Rogers (co-owner and promoter of Grandview Speedway): “I guess this depends on how long the season is put on hold for us. I’m sure our traveling series such as all the Thunder on the Hill events, along with our own third division series we added to the 2020 schedule such as the East Coast Sprints, URC, ARDC Midgets, etc. They will be scrambling with tracks to make up their dates. We may not be seeing some of those series this year and will just have to move forward with only our regular events.”
Glenn Hyneman (owner of the iconic and legendary No. 126 modified): “I think that depends on the restrictions the government puts on tracks. The bottom line is tracks must be able to navigate the rules and still be able to make a profit. If they make money, they will want to make up for the lost races. If they can’t, they will not add races so they can lose more money.”
Mike Mallett (co-owner and editor of the dirttrackdigest.com website): “Anyone listening to their local governments, this is uncharted territory. My hope is that some of the bigger events I usually attend like the Kings Royal, Knoxville Nationals, Super DIRT Week and Eastern States are able to resume, but I also think that all decisions on racing and what happens isn’t up to me. I’m hoping to see local races as usual as well, but that all depends on when the government gives everyone the go ahead.”
Brett Deyo (owner/promoter of Georgetown Speedway and Fonda Speedway, owner of the STSS): “For us on the STSS, I am really not sure. It all depends on when we are able to return to racing. So far, we have obviously only rescheduled one event, the Speed Showcase at Port Royal to October 18th. All other events have been postponed with no firm make-up dates. Our dirt modified schedule is already jam-packed from March through basically November now, so I am not really sure where we will be able to fit some of these shows. The other unknown is if the entire Northeast will open at once or is some states will open before other which could be a determining factor.
“For Fonda, we have looked at the idea of Sunday make-ups or a few additional midweek shows. Again, it all depends on the timing of opening day.
“Georgetown is one of the southernmost modified tracks in the region. We have the opportunity weather-wise to race deep into the season, even December, and we will take that opportunity if we can.”
Ryan Watt (driver of the Roberts Racing No. 14W): “I feel when we do get back to racing it’s going to start off slow. It looks like only certain areas will open up first and be limited on car counts and crew. I don’t see it getting too busy until fans are allowed to attend the races.”
Doug Rose (owner of Bridgeport Motorsports Park, co-owner of Action Track USA): “It’s hard to tell at this moment. We technically have only lost six races, that is not a reason to make drastic changes. The unknown is when will we get back to racing.”
DTD: Has the delay in opening changed your plans at all for 2020?
BPJ: “Yeah, the delay has definitely changed my thoughts. Our whole schedule is up in the air right now. We are kind of waiting to see what the next move will be, if it will be PA or DEL that opens first. Just based on what you can see I expect NJ & NY to be the last to open. Heck, we are even talking about a trip to the Midwest in a few weeks to get the ball rolling.”
TR: “This something we have discussed amongst us. Although nothing has been decided. Again, this really depends on when we get the green light to go racing. If we could get a green light to go racing in May or even the first week in June, we will most likely pick up our season right there, possibly try to throw in my dad’s race (The Bruce Rogers Memorial). There is so much unknown right now until we can at least have some information as to when we are close to opening.”
GH: “Yes, I don’t think anyone was planning to start their season in May or June and even that might be aggressive. We have cars and engines ready and nowhere to go.”
MM: “My plans remain the same. My goal is to go racing as normal, whatever that normal ends up being for this season. I normally do 100 to 120 races a year. Sadly, that is not happening this year.”
BD: “I am sure it will change things. Right now, it’s probably too soon to say. We are relatively early in the season and don’t have much direction as to what our timeline will be. We are still going forward but the goal post keeps moving away from us.”
RW: “It certainly has, I don’t believe any tracks or series this season will be running for points titles. It will open up where we will go once racing starts.”
DR: “As the delay for us goes into May, it does force us to look at some changes. May 19th we have the World of Outlaws, May 23rd & 24th we have Monster Trucks, and May 30th we have the STSS series. As we get closer to these dates, we have had to discuss postponing and looking for later dates in the year. At this time the unknown is, how far do you push them out to ensure we are back to normalcy?”
DTD: Do you foresee tracks and/or series possibly working together to avoid conflicting race dates?
BPJ: “This unfortunately, I do not see happening. I wish it would, but it definitely won’t happen. There are only so many dates now, so a short season makes it even worse. I just hope people don’t get greedy, let’s run reasonable shows and make it the best we can. As the old saying goes, you need to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.”
TR: “I would like to think tracks will work together as much as they can. I know we are anxious to get the season started. I’m sure most promoters have the same concern. What will the fan base be even after we are allowed to open? How much has this affected the average fan who lost their job during all of this? Is there money for entertainment? Also, the fans who are concerned about being in large gatherings.”
GH: “If the stands can be full, I think every track will want to have as many races as possible to make up for lost revenue and that will make it hard for them to work together. If there are restrictions on fans, I think it will force to limit races and work together. Several factors are yet to be determined. Will there be crippling restrictions, and will the fans come back to pre-virus numbers? Older fans and fans with underlying conditions might not return in numbers.”
MM: “I think everyone is going to have to work together. There has been a lot of hardship as a result of the COVID-19 situation. I know racers want to race and fans want to go to races, but we all have to think about the impact that people losing their jobs has had. I don’t think it’s going to be as simple as opening the gates and going racing. I hope I’m wrong.”
BD: “Promoters have been talking a lot during this downtime. My phone rings all day long with fellow promoters touching base, sharing what we have learned, etc. So, I think we all understand we are in the same boat that is taking on water and we need to help bail each other out. There are exceptions of course. As far as the series, since Dean Reynolds took the Super DIRTcar Series director position, there is no honest communication between the SDS and the STSS. There isn’t any discourse or information sharing now like there had been in the past with others. Luckily, I have good relationships and friendships with many DIRTcar sanctioned track promoters, and I find out necessary information through them instead of directly from DIRTcar.”
RW: “I believe the tracks and series are going to have to with everyone missing out on big races already this year. They are going to want to get their money-making races in to try and recoup some of the money they have missed out on so far. It all depends on the regulations in place for the amount or race fans they can have.”
DR: “I would hope so, we are all in this to earn a living and for 2020 we are all in it to survive. I believe in working with tracks to make dates work for both. But as we know there are tracks that don’t. Heck, I have a knucklehead track going against Action Track USA on a regular basis in 2020. Not to smart of a business decision in my opinion especially when there are Tuesdays and Thursdays wide open, but that’s how some promoters think.”
DTD:What are doing to keep yourself busy during this unexpected delay?
BPJ: “Knock on wood, my job is crazy busy right due to the time of the year. This makes the days fly by and then I go to the shop for a few hours a day after work and play with my son. Honestly, I am treating it as I got injured and I am out for a little trying to recoup. Trying to make the best of it.”
TR: “I myself haven’t been doing much to keep busy. Ha-ha, not too much to do. I had my things ready and was prepared to go racing in March. Now the boys have continued to be busy working at the track. They took out the guardrail and put in a barrier in turn two, tightened all the cables along the fencing, the added new fencing, dug dirt out to get the walls straightened on the backstretch, turn one and turn three. They have replaced bleacher boards. We had some blacktop laid in the grandstand area; new flooring put in some of the buildings. All these things were planned prior to opening, now we just were able to get some of it done sooner due to the shutdown.”
GH: “I am very fortunate that my company makes parts for the electric companies, so we are allowed to work and really didn’t see any drop in business. Also, my car washes are allowed to stay open and surprisingly business is still good. I have 15 acres around the house, so I have plenty of work to do outside. Lastly, I had shoulder surgery in January and the other is scheduled for June, so a little downtime doesn’t hurt right now.”
MM: “Anyone that has paid attention to Dirt Track Digest, we promoted two very well sponsored iRacing events, the Lockdown Showdown and the Confinement Classic. They were a good time and got the racing juices flowing again. Other than that, doing what I can to support my real job and staying in contact with students that were in my class prior to the school shutdown.”
BD: “A LOT! I have been working at Georgetown almost every day on clean-up project, mowing, weed spraying, etc. There were several projects there that had been on our list of things to do but have been put on the back burner because of time. Ken Adams from the Melvin Joseph Companies was nice enough to loan me a large John Deere tractor to use at the speedway and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. I’ve also had the opportunity to do a lot of paperwork that had gotten behind and organizational things in my office. Up at Fonda, Craig Hanson and Michael Parillo have been hard at work on the track. Jamie and Denise Page have been getting the concessions repainted and ready while Angela Hanson has been working preparing the office.”
RW: “I started the first two weeks out with cleaning up and organizing the race shop. Then I moved onto working on things around the house that have been neglected over the years with our busy race seasons.”
DR: “Well, after building a whole new two tracks we had many odds and ends to tidy up. The plan was to do that throughout the season, but I’m pretty anal, so I have been thrashing to get those items done instead of relaxing.”
DTD: Are you concerned in regard to maintaining current sponsors or acquiring new sponsors because of the situation as it pertains to racing?
BPJ: “Well, this is a funny one. I would say out of ten sponsors, eight of them seem to be doing good and two that aren’t doing great, but they are sustaining. I think we just need to do a good job at keeping the ones we have happy. This may not be the year we all build new motors, etc. but if you race smart, I think we can all succeed. If you know anything about economics, companies are going to need to advertise and from what I see and who I talk too we are definitely going to have a slow 2020 but if this gets straightened out we will make it through.”
TR: “It’s always a concern, a lot depends on our sponsors businesses and how much they can do to sponsor. I had some conversations with some local businesses who wanted to do some things this year in early March with some doing signage, sponsoring a night and then this virus broke out and we haven’t reconnected yet to see if they are still interested. I know some of the businesses have been affected by this shutdown, so we will have to see once we get moving again if there is still interest in the 2020 season. Grandview gets sponsors from NASCAR, along with the sponsorship and support from TP Trailers and Truck Equipment who are just wonderful to us and our drivers by giving the extra contingency money to the drivers.”
GH: “I realize it is hard for a lot of companies especially small business (where most of our type of racing sponsors come from) so its hard to even ask for anything until things get going. Most racers are self-funded, so everyone needs to decide for themselves where to spend their dollars to make a profit.”
MM: “Sponsorship is a tricky subject. Some businesses have been hit very hard as a result of this shutdown and I just don’t know if they’ll have the extra income to continue to support racetracks. I know I’ve done what I can during the shutdown to support local businesses that have supported racing in the past. They all need our support. I always believe in the racing community; we take care of each other. We should all do what we can, if we are able, to give back for all that they’ve done for our enjoyment in the past. These businesses need our support now more than ever.”
BD: “Definitely, I think the chances of acquiring new sponsors in the climate are slim to none. The small businesses that support our sport are among the most negatively impacted by the COVID-19 situation. For current sponsors, we need to work hard to make up for the lost exposure during this downtime with posts on social media, sponsor spotlights, etc. Most of the current sponsors I have spoken with are very understanding that this is not an issue that myself or any other promoter has caused. We obviously will rollover sponsorships to next year to do whatever is fair for our partners.”
RW: “I feel with the sponsors I currently have we are in good shape but trying to attract new sponsors is going to be tough. This really has hit the economy hard and especially the local small businesses. The local businesses are what you see on most of our racecars at our local tracks.”
DR: “Again at this point we have only lost six races so nothing has changed at this point. The sponsors we have, have been great to us and did a lot of what they did simply to help me through all of this and they know how much I appreciate their support. New sponsor? I don’t think this is a good time to be asking other for money. I have put all marketing on hold. This is going to be a tough year for many and we all just need to survive until 2021.”
DTD: When we do get back to racing there will obviously be social distancing protocols in place for everyone who attends. How difficult will that be and/or do you have any thoughts or suggestions on how to make it work?
BPJ: “You have to play it smart here and keep your crews to a max of ten people to sign in and I plan to keep my distance. You have to put your faith in the American people that we will do the right thing. Like I said before, 2020 should not be the year where we see the big risk shows. I love the big money shows and this is going to hurt my wallet but let’s just run regular shows and so social distancing smartly. Keep six feet away. At Middletown you have a nice drive in where we can put people. Look, lets work together and figure it out.”
TR: “We, of course would fall under the large gatherings. Therefore, my thoughts after listening to our local officials and the plan they have put in place right now. When large gatherings are allowed all mitigation would be lifted. If we were allowed to race with social distancing, I do believe it would be very difficult to do. Trailers are not parked six feet apart in the pits.”
GH: “I can’t even imagine what things will look like with social distancing rules of any kind in place! How will races like Speed Week, the 76er, the Knoxville Nationals or any event that normally sells every seat to be held. If tracks must limit seating how will they make money? Who would want to run a business and say I hope we don’t have too many customers today! And what happens if a track reaches capacity with 500 or 1000 people and everyone else gets turned away, will they try again next week or just stay home? If fans are required to stay in small groups, what happens when they don’t and who is going to police it? What will be required of rest rooms, concession lines and ticket line? There is a lot to be worked out and it’s above my pay grade!
MM: “I think we are all accustomed to the “new” normal. We have to social distance; we have to wear masks and we wash our hands more frequently. Because we can go to essential businesses for food and other necessities, we already know the protocol that needs to be followed for social distancing. Tracks rely so much on fans, concession sales and merchandise sales as well as the back gate. It’s hard to have all that if you are limited on the number of people you can have at the track, or with no fans at all. I think tracks are going to have to work together to get the most out of what is available. I know that is a tough solution as everyone has bills to pay and without racing those costs come out of pocket. I can’t even imagine being a promoter and being forced to watch everything you have worked for sit idle.”
BD: “There is not going to be a light switch flipped and all goes back to normal. Gatherings like ours are going to be the last to return, unfortunately. I’ve had conversations with local official in both our states (DE & NY) and there are going to be a lot of measure taken to get it reopened. In Delaware, the Cathell family and I sat down and submitted a safe reopening plan for both tracks (Delaware International Speedway and Georgetown). In New York state, a number of tracks, including Fonda, are working together to do the same. We definitely cannot approach our state government alone. We need to do it as an industry. It will be a challenge, I think there are tracks, especially in New York state, that will opt to take the 2020 season off entirely. Depending on restrictions, that may be a more viable option financially. I hope fans and racers will understand and be patient with all promoters and respect the decisions they have to make during this time.”
RW: “The biggest problem for our team is going to be how do you ask some of your guys not to go to the races and stay home because of the limited crew members allowed to enter the pits. Some of the local tracks don’t have the parking capacity in the pits to park the trailers far enough apart.”
DR: “It will be what it will be. Whatever protocols are in place, it is our responsibility to follow them. In a perfect world the track shouldn’t have to monitor it. We all know what we are supposed to doing. At times you hear people expressing their views about it’s against their rights and so on. But the reality of it is, there is a virus out there, it could kill you, they are asking you to wear a mask and keep six feet apart. Yeah, it sucks, but they are not asking you to jump off a bridge. They are asking you to be courteous to others. So, I feel we should just do what is asked at this point. It’s not the end of world and it’s not forever.”
DTD: What are your thoughts to possibly racing without fans or with limited fan access and do you think pay-per-view is a viable option?
BPJ: “I don’t think we can do it at multiple tracks but to do the PPV, the PPV people are going to have to make it sweeter for the tracks where it’s a 50/50 deal between the parties. Unfortunately, drivers should not have to race for less because once we do it, we probably won’t get the money back but running for a weekly purse isn’t a bad thing. My opinion is we can’t sustain with this, but we can do it once in a while. However, we need fans in the stand to make this thing work. Tracks are gong to need to stream, there is not doubt, because the extremely at-risk population of about 10% will not be coming back this year. They will need the option to watch at home.”
TR: “PPV could be an option however, I’m not sure it would cover our expenses. Any social distancing that is still mandatory that poses an issue in the pit area. If limited fan access were allowed that would depend on the number that was given to allow in attendance and if we could over the night’s expenses. My thought are that it seems as though it would be very difficult to do as long as social distancing is required. I think we all know you can’t social distance at a race track. We have too many passionate people about the sport who want to socialize, congregate and catch up with each other. Especially after not seeing one another for months and now most being confined to their homes for the past six weeks. I highly doubt I could keep my parking lot fans one foot apart, let alone six feet apart. They love to be at the track early on a Saturday enjoying each other’s company, playing games and having a few of their favorite beverages.”
GH: “Just like shopping online or restaurant take out, there will be a new norm and PPV will definitely be part of the new norm. Fortunately, PPV has been around the last few years and has gotten much better. The foundation is already there and will only get better. I don’t think it is the single answer but definitely will be a component that makes up the profit center for racetracks. I don’t think they will survive without it.
MM: “I don’t see racing without fans for a whole season as a viable option. Fans are an integral partner. As far as pay-per-view, I’m a bit partial to the idea. Obviously, Dirt Track Digest has a major stake in that department. I think it is a very valuable solution in some cases, however it’s not a substitution for having a full grandstand every week.”
BD: “I believe it is a viable option for a one-off or novelty event run without fans if the right sponsorship is secured. I don’t think it is something we can do every week. A racing facility needs to be an entertainment venue (the actual racing – fans and racers), a restaurant (concession stands), a clothing store (novelty stand), a bar (beer booth), a gas station (fuel sales) to make ends meet. Taking away too many pieces of the puzzle will cripple our facilities financially. I believe the crew we have Dirt Track Digest TV is one of the best around and I know when the time comes to make it work, they will handle their portion professionally. That’s important. To answer your question: racing with a reduced fan capacity will be the only option for the long term rather than no crowd at all.”
RW: “I believe it can work having a race on PPV without fans at the track a couple of times but once other tracks start to open up, I think it will spread the audience too thin and then it won’t be profitable.”
DR: “I have looked into all of this. There are many variables that go with this question. 1. If you are the only show in the country, then PPV is an excellent option. As the country slowly starts to open up and other live feeds come available, this will dwindle the PPV market. 2. Running with limited fans? My gut tells me we will be doing that for the remainder of the 2020 season. I don’t see social distancing going away for the entertainment/sports businesses in 2020. First, let’s take no fans, well that’s very tough but it’s also very simple. How many tickets can you sell with no fans, what revenue does that translate to versus what you have to put out. That is simple math, whether you can race with fans or stay closed. Then comes in when they allow us to open with social distancing being enforced. That will vary from track to track. We will take my tracks and throw in let’s say Williams Grove. Action Track is a small facility (30 acres). I can only get X amount of people in there and properly social distance, then take Bridgeport, much larger facility (83 acres) I can get many many more people in there and properly social distance. But the way I have the facility set-up now to be more fan friendly with the driver, we have them sharing the front stretch grandstands and with the banking you can’t see from the haulers so that number becomes an X. Then we throw in Williams Grove who has pit grandstands, front and back grandstands, teams can watch from their haulers. You see my point, they can social distance much better than most and would and should be allowed more people than others.”
Bonus from Doug Rose: “My take on the season is simple. I am a positive person as is my partner at Action Track, Rich Tobias. The entire 2020 year is what it is. We all have to find our way through it, in a manner that we can survive. Not just in racing world but other businesses, our kids doing school from home. Our focus is what can we do in 2020 to ensure we get to 2021. 2021 will be a huge year for the whole United States and for auto racing. Just keep our heads up, don’t let this pandemic get you down, and know that the future is out there for us, we just need to get to it.”
I want to thank Billy Pauch Jr, Tina Rogers, Glenn Hyneman, Mike Mallett, Brett Deyo, Ryan Watt and Doug Rose for taking the time to participate in this article. Also, thank you to fellow Dirt Track Digest writer Bill Foley for helping me come up with the questions.
As always, I can be reached for any questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dirtracefan25