Crisis Presents Uncharted Territory For Promoters

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The second in a series of stories this week regarding industry reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, track, series and race promoters discuss how they see the slowdown in racing will affect their businesses and short-track racing:

Feeling The Pressure

Rodney Wing spent Monday afternoon in his shop welding, working on one of the many projects the 40-year-old promoter of Whynot Motorsports Park near Meridian, Miss., has on his plate. Tuesday afternoon was spent running errands, which included stopping by his local bank to make a deposit. Typical tasks during a not-so-typical week.

The former driver-turned-promoter is among those in the industry trying to juggle the responsibilities he has to both his family and the public amid a global pandemic. As of Tuesday, Wing was one of the few holdouts, still hoping to host a race this coming weekend as the Mississippi State Championship Challenge Series was scheduled to open its season with a $3,000-to-win event at Wing’s popular 3/10-mile oval. But while he hoped the show would go on as planned, Wing was doubtful it would happen.

“We’re going to look at it again (Wednesday), but I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to cancel it,” Wing said. “I don’t know how long they will want to keep this quarantine going, but our local Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency and the CDC, they’re strongly urging us not to have the race. Although I’ll end of having to be the butthole one way or the other, it really pains me to have to cancel the races for several reasons. But I worry more about when are we gonna be able to race? When will everything be OK? What’s gonna happen next spring when something else breaks out? Is the government gonna control everything we do? I don’t know where we’re at right now.”

Wing said he was torn in his decision whether to open Whynot or keep it closed per the county and state recommendations. The track and the handful of fabrication jobs he takes on are his family’s only source of income, so naturally, he’d like to see the gates swing open. It’s been a volatile situation. While weighing his options, Wing said he received threatening emails from locals who want to keep the track closed for now.

“I was still gonna (open),” Wing said. “I think a lot of people have some political views and stuff and I was one of them that wanted to still race and buck the system as much as I could. But, hell, I’ve been getting threatening emails and stuff like that from people that live around the area, you know, like I’m poisoning everybody by having a race. Everybody is so terrified around here, literally, I’ve gotten a few threatening emails wanting to know what was I thinking and have I not watched the news, like I was gonna hurt everybody in the community by bringing a lot of people in.

“It’s pressure on both sides. The race fans and the racers are definitely wanting to do it and some of their views are even heated because of their political views. But the fear-driven views on the other side are really intense and I’m definitely getting pressure to close. They haven’t told us for sure that we couldn’t (race) yet, but the fear is driven so high around here, that the people — not all of them, but there’s definitely a certain percentage of them — are very afraid of the deal and feeling like we would be putting them in danger by having people come into the area.”

That leaves Wing wondering just what’s in store for the future.

“To be totally honest, I think I’m in shock,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing right now. These are unprecedented times. Nobody’s ever seen times like this. Nobody’s alive right now that I know that’s ever seen times like this. And I really don’t know what to do. Dirt track racing in our area as a whole has been struggling the last several years and we dang sure didn’t need anything else stacked against it to make people not want to come out and support it. So it’s really scary for me to think about what the future holds. I really don’t know how doom and gloom I want to paint the picture for you, but it ain’t a good situation.” — Robert Holman

Sommer's Two Perspectives

Cody Sommer is both a Dirt Late Model event promoter and team owner, giving him a unique perspective on the coronavirus pandemic’s impact

“It kind of affects you a little bit differently,” Sommer said, “depending on which hat you’re wearing at that moment I guess.”

The founder and promoter of the Gateway Dirt Nationals at The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, Mo., and other special events — including the inaugural World of Outlaws-sanctioned Hawkeye 100 on May 1-2 at Boone (Iowa) Speedway — Sommer, 33, is also in his second year as co-owner of Scott Bloomquist Racing. He’s considering different worries about the current situation from his two viewpoints.

“As an owner (of a team), you want to race because that’s essentially your livelihood,” Sommer said Monday. “If you don’t race, it’s impossible to function as a business. So in that aspect, you want to just go no matter what and you have maybe a little less concern.

“But from a promoter-operator mindset, it’s quite a bit different than that. I kind of feel like it’s the same bag of goods but escalated, and by that I mean you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, which is kind of the situation for a promoter always. As a promoter a lot of times you don’t get that gratitude or you don’t get that thank you; there’s always something you’re doing wrong, all things are not good enough.

“In this case (with the coronavirus crisis), as a promoter-operator, especially for the people who have races, like, this weekend or next weekend, it’s even worse than for someone such as myself who doesn’t have to deal with it on a weekly basis. If you don’t race and try to follow suit with the rest of the world (not having mass gatherings), or you’re maybe that first track to close its doors, you have to deal with the potential backlash. If you do race, and you do have some type of issue and somebody does end up sick (from attending the event), then you have to deal with that backlash. So it’s like, as a promoter, you’re in the same situation that you always are, but it’s just escalated.”

Sommer said promoters must carefully consider the pros-and-cons of trying to race in this climate.

“At the end of the day, racing is a hobby, and this sickness has taken lives,” Sommer said. “And when it’s your hobby, you can kind of make some decisions on the fly, and if it don’t work out you can always kind of go back and go, ‘Well, I’ll do it different next time.’ As a business owner-operator, you can’t really think that way, or that loosely, when people’s lives are at stake. You really have to think about the big picture. When (racing’s) your livelihood, you really have to get serious about your decisions.

“As a promoter, I would think that right now it’s a pretty tough situation because they need to operate to make a living, but if nobody shows up (due to coronavirus concerns), there’s really no point in operating either because that’s actually worse.

“Thankfully, I technically don’t have my first promotion of this year until May 1 (at Boone), but that’s not out of the realm of the timeline here (for shutdowns) from what you can tell. This could potentially be a couple-month ordeal, and if that’s the case then we will be in May and I’ll probably be faced with the set of decisions of, well, we’re at the tail end of this … are we allowed to race now? Are we not allowed to race? And has anybody been racing, or will that be about the time we go back racing and do I have to be the guinea pig to be the first race back?

“So,” he added, “it is kind of crazy to think about it all.”

Meanwhile, from his position as the owner and manager of a high-level Dirt Late Model team that fields cars for his business partner, Hall of Famer Scott Bloomquist of Mooresburg, Tenn., and Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C., Sommer has other concerns.

“It’s one thing as a promoter to just put all your things on hold,” Sommer said. “You just kind of do everything as you are, continue to put it out there for people to know about. But as a team, we have employees, we have cars that we’re building and working on, and if you don’t know when you’re gonna race next, it really puts things at a halt.

“There’s some people (teams) who likely would be in a worse situation than us, but at the same time, we have sponsorship (from Drydene) and we want to go race and represent them. And I know that for us, (the crisis) has been the talk of the shop the last weekend and today. A lot of speculation. A lot of uncertainty of, ‘Should we do this? Should we do that? Should I order this? Should I order that?’ You’re really second-guessing every decision you make because you just don’t know if, in an hour, you’re gonna get told that the whole United States is on lockdown. We’re shipping stuff out right away today because it’s like, ‘Get it out,’ because if they start locking things down people won’t have it.

“It’s just really a bizarre situation. I’m younger, but even the older people I’ve spoke with, they’ve never dealt with anything like this either. This is kind of new for everybody, and there’s no other way to explain it than it’s absolutely bizarre and it really makes you second-guess everything you’re doing.” — Kevin Kovac

Wait & See Approach

Like many track promoters, Duck River Raceway Park owner Bob Harris has more than just a racetrack to worry about. Harris, who also owns Shelbyville, Tenn.-based Preferred Sandblasting, said his primary business has continued as normal, but he can’t say the same for his racetrack.

“It hasn’t affected my business at all. Water tanks still have to be painted,” Harris said. “The world has to keep going. But I don’t know what’s going to be the outcome of this. I mean, you take your precautions of course and just be clean … everybody should’ve been doing that to start off with. As far as going out in the public and having large gatherings, I don’t do that anyway. I went out Saturday and listened to a band in my hometown of Tullahoma and ate dinner with some friends, but that’s about it.”

His quarter-mile track in Wheel, Tenn., isn't scheduled for weekly racing until early April. The track that hosted a March 6 World of Outlaws event planned to kick off weekly racing in March 21. It’s a schedule adjustment that Harris said has as much to do with wet weather and events at nearby Thunderhill Raceway Park in Summertown, Tenn., as it does with the coronavirus. But unlike his sandblasting business, where Harris primarily uses small groups of subcontractors, he said he must proceed with greater caution in dealing with the public.

“When you have a large gathering like that, I don’t want to be the one to cause anybody to get sick," Harris said. "Actually it’s on the schedule for (Duck River) to race this weekend, Saturday. But it you look at the weather … I’m not looking at the sickness, I’m looking at the weather … it’s supposed to be (a low) of 37 degrees Saturday night and I ain’t doing it. To be honest with you, I’m just not gonna do it and it don’t have nothing to do with (spreading the coronavirus). I just don’t think anybody’s gonna show up due to what’s going on. I know there would be some race cars there, but you’re not gonna have what it takes to have a successful night whatsoever. I think a lot of people’s gonna stay at home, like what they’re doing.

“I’ve told everybody, that we’re supposed to fire off April 4. I think Thunderhill is gonna start and then next weekend (March 28) he’s supposed to have a Southern All Stars $4,000-to-win over there. I told (Thunderhill promoter Jason (Walker) if he was gonna do that, I was just gonna stay off until he got his big shows done. I think it’s best to just take a couple weeks, don’t fire off right now and see what the outcome’s gonna be. There’s no need in starting off losing (money) right off the bat.” — Robert Holman

Curveball For Promoters

For the most part, dirt racing track and series promoters deal with relatively mundane problems. Encouraging drivers to compete. Stocking enough hot dogs for the concession stand. Making sure a dirt oval is raceable.

And then comes something like the coronavirus pandemic that throws a curveball no one expected, said Chris Kearns, USAC's Western director and promoter of January's Wild West Shootout at FK Rod Ends Arizona Speedway.

"I kind of feel that there's been a time in our lives where it was like, ’This kind of stuff only happens in the movies,’ " Kearns said. "But I told my wife Jolene this, ever since 9/11, everything I watch at the moves, I'm like, ’Eh, that could happen. Yeah, that could happen.’ ... now that we've had 9/11, I believe anything's possible. Can a virus shut down the entire country? Apparently."

In watching how promoters handle the decision to continue racing or heed governmental recommendations and go on hiatus, Kearns follows the lead of the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I think (shutting down) is the right thing to do. I think it's the right thing to do. Conforming to the CDC recommendations is just the right thing to do," Kearns said. "The sooner everybody conforms and they've got it contain it the sooner we can get back to normal and the sooner we're all racing again. And if we're over-reacting, so what. This is a virus that can kill people, right? We're talking about something that can actually kill people. ... If I had a choice of over-reacting or under-reacting with something that kills people, I'm going to go with over-reacting.

"I hope that everybody conforms and they contain it and things can get back to normal. That's really the best I can say."

Kearns is concerned that tracks refusing to go on hiatus damage the sport's image, echoing comments he heard from Peter Murphy, the promoter at Keller Motor Speedway in Hanford, Calif.

"(Murphy) said here we go against the grain and some tracks continue to operate, and maybe this is the kind of stuff that keeps (dirt racing) out of the mainstream," Kearns said. "I think Peter's right. That's the kind of stuff that keeps us from having the persona that keeps us out of the mainstream ... I think it does give us a black eye." — Todd Turner

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