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I’ll be the first to admit that I need to start watching more movies like Mary Poppins. I need happy in my life right now.
I’ve probably watched too many shows like the Walking Dead, Into the Badlands or the short-lived NBC show Revolution. Post-apocalyptic science fiction television is always a great escape from the mundane weekly grind. While it’s always kinda neat to fantasize about what life would be like if we were one of the characters on a show like that — you know, just nomadically roaming the planet in search of food, electricity or another normal human — most of those TV shows skip over the chaos that likely ensued leading up to the pilot episode.
That’s what I thought about this week as I watched the events surrounding the coronavirus outbreak unfold. I wondered, were we smack in the middle of that chaos without realizing it? Could we soon be destined for black leather outfits with matching masks, driving around in an old Ford Falcon XB GT coupe, searching for fuel like Max Rockatansky in the Road Warrior? One trip down the toiletry aisle of any major supermarket would certainly suggest so. It was madness indeed.
I likened searching for a pack of toilet paper to actually hunting. I went out, didn’t see anything, but managed to nab a couple small critters like frozen chicken strips and Buffalo chicken bites. I planned to try again in a day or two, hoping to bag that elusive four-pack of TP. I even considered setting up trail cams along the entrances to local Dollar General Stores so I’d know when a supply truck comes by. It’s laughable. Sort of.
I’m not sure where we’re headed with the coronavirus. I’m not sure anyone knows and that’s the biggest problem, the uncertainty itself. We’ve spoken to dozens of racing industry insiders over the last 10 days, from drivers and crew members to track promoters and parts dealers. For the most part, they all shared the same concern: What’s gonna happen four, five or six weeks down the road?
A common theme that kept coming up in the conversations with the people I talked to was simply that “It’s scary.” I’ve heard that time and time again. The last week or so has served as a somber reminder that while we live in a free country, we’re not always free to do what we want. And it reminds me a little of 2001.
It amazes me when I mention 9/11 to my children and they barely bat an eye. The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., that took place on Sept. 11, 2001 — and the political policies and the war that followed — helped shape the way we live today. I was born in 1970, near the end of the Vietnam War. Though I was only 5 when it ended, I was fully aware of what it meant to our country by the time I was 20. I’m not sure I can say the same for the generations that have come since 9/11.
Like most everyone that day, I remember where I was when I heard about the terrorist attacks. I was working at National Dirt Digest in Murphy, N.C., and heard about the attacks on the radio on my short drive into the office. It was a Tuesday morning and we were preparing to finish up the paper, put an edit on it and get it set for Wednesday’s printing.
As the news of the events began to filter through, it was still unclear how the tragedy would affect Dirt Late Model racing. I was scheduled to go to Texas Motor Speedway’s dirt track in Fort Worth for a UDTRA race that coming weekend. I was driving from North Carolina, so I was leaving early on Thursday to be there in time for Friday’s on-track action. The UDTRA race was being held in conjunction with a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and Indy Racing League doubleheader at TMS.
As more and more professional sports organizations began to cancel their events, I made a number of calls — along with the rare email — to Texas Motor Speedway officials to see what the word was, and each time they assured me that the event was on go. We all pretty much knew that if the plug was pulled on the IRL and truck series races that there was no way the UDTRA tour would make the trip to Texas. When my deadline for hitting the road arrived, they still hadn’t cancelled any events, so I headed out.
I was about 11 hours from home — still three hours from Texas Motor Speedway — just across the Texas state line near a little place called Marshall, Texas, when I started meeting NASCAR haulers. I immediately pulled off at the next exit, called the office and had someone call TMS to verify that the event was indeed cancelled. Of course it was. I definitely wasn’t surprised. According to reports later, they made the call to cancel the events at 1 p.m. Thursday, more than 48 hours after the terrorist attack.
Calling an audible, I wheeled my Honda Accord back eastbound and with the help of National Dirt Digest editor Todd Turner plotted a new plan for the weekend. I headed to Chatham’s Louisiana Motor Speedway on Friday night for a $3,000-to-win Southern United Professional Racers race, then rolled nine hours north on Saturday to I-55 Speedway in Pevely, Mo., for the 19th annual I-55 Pepsi Nationals.
The mood was understandably somber at each track. And amid the uncertainty, both events were almost cancelled. At Chatham, SUPR founder Donald Watson had considered cancelling the show, but ultimately left the decision up to the track promoter, telling me at the time, “if it was up to us, we probably would have canceled.” But Watson himself was among the 38 entries in an event won by Rob Litton of Alexandria, La.
“I’ve been so depressed watching and seeing this that I actually turned the TV off; my mind needs to be somewhere else,” Watson said of the countless news reports following the attack.
At I-55 the following day, a packed grandstands watched Billy Moyer of Batesville, Ark., slip by Bob Pierce of Danville, Ill., to win his fifth Pepsi Nationals. Pevely co-promoter Kenny Schrader didn’t want to talk about the terrorist attack specifically, but did tell me they “did consider” canceling the Pepsi Nationals. “We had a lot of people call ... and none of them were complaining; they were all thanking us for not rescheduling,” Schrader told me.
Those were hardly the only races that weekend.
There were a dozen that paid $3,000-to-win or more, along with a bevy of weekly shows around the nation. Among the biggest events that weekend, Chub Frank won $21,000 in a STARS-sanctioned race at Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Motor Speedway; Denny Eckrich won the $15,000 Yankee Dirt Track Classic at Farley (Iowa) Speedway; Shannon Babb pocketed $12,000 at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield; Rex McCroskey earned $6,600 at Joplin (Mo.) 66 Speedway; and $5,000 winners included Kevin Claycomb at Barren County Speedway in Glasgow, Ky.; Audie McWilliams at Brushcreek Motorsports Complex in Peebles, Ohio; and Pierce at Paducah (Ky.) International Raceway.
The Southern All Stars, Deery Brothers, SUPR, Northern Allstars, Rick’s Racing Series, ALMS and WDRA were among the regional tours that kept plugging along, though they all did so with a heavy heart. At I-55’s UMP-sanctioned Pepsi Nationals, $6,328 was raised for a New York City-Washington D.C. disaster relief fund through donations and a raffle.
Thinking back about the events of that weekend and the weeks that followed, it’s so easy to make comparisons to what is happening in America right now. That’s until you factor out the unknown, which, unfortunately is the part that primarily drives fear. Immediately post-9/11, we had no idea what would happen next. Government officials were still gathering information and trying to formulate a response. This week, government officials are still gathering information about Covid-19 and the responses seem to change by the hour. But that’s really where the similarities end.
I can’t tell you if races should’ve been held this weekend or held next weekend or the next. That’s the unknown and it could be months down the road before we can factor that part out of this equation. In the hours after the 9/11 attack, officials grounded all commercial flights in an effort to keep people safe while trying to get a grip on what had just happened. That’s kind of what they’re doing at the moment as many states have issued bans on public gatherings over a certain number of people. I really think they’re just trying to protect as many people as possible until they can get a grip on the situation.
I know that I didn’t take a commercial airline flight for about a year or so following 9/11. And that was my choice. I believe if patrons do not feel safe attending events right now, whether it’s a movie, a church service or an automobile race, then they shouldn’t. That’s their choice. When it’s the right time to return, then return. If that means attending a weekly show at some off-the-beaten-path track this weekend, then have at it. If that means waiting until the all-clear horn has been blown, then by all means wait.
Another word kept popping up when talking about the recent events this week also: resilient.
Racers are a resilient bunch and I believe they’ll weather this storm and hopefully the fans will stream through the gates in support just like post-9/11. For now, we’re all likely to have some free time to get reacquainted with our families. While I’m waiting, I wonder if I can find Mary Poppins on Blu-Ray?