Coronavirus Crisis Puts USAC in 'Wait-and-See' Mode with 2020 Campaign

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Just like the rest of the sports world, the USAC Racing organization has been silenced by the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it finally set in this weekend that, yeah, our hands are tied. There’s nothing we can do,” USAC executive vice president Levi Jones said late Monday afternoon. “As a group of racers — the racers, the tracks, us — we’re all used to being able to work together and say, ‘Let’s fix it. Let’s fix it and make it happen tomorrow.’ Well, I think that we’ve all faced that there’s no real way to fix (the current situation) other than to do what your mom and dad told you never to do: just sit on your butt in the house.”

Indeed, with governments and health experts telling Americans to remain at home as much possible in an effort to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the resumption of the 2020 USAC Racing schedule is as uncertain as everything else about daily life. As of Monday the coronavirus crisis had prompted USAC to cancel only three events at California tracks — March 14’s West Coast 360 Sprint Car Series race at Keller Auto Speedway at Kings Fairgrounds in Hanford, March 21’s Western States Midgets Series stop at Bakersfield Speedway and March 28’s AMSOIL USAC/CRA Sprint Car show at Perris Auto Speedway — but decisions on a host of upcoming races in April were looming.

Jones and the rest of the USAC hierarchy understand the likelihood of an extended break from competition. On Wednesday, in fact, they moved on an early April race, canceling the USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car Series April 4 visit to Indiana’s Lawrenceburg Speedway.

Beyond that cancellation, Jones said USAC is taking a "wait-and-see" approach.

“I had a conference call with all the promoters of national races on Friday and our view of it is to keep a two-week rolling outlook on races that are coming up,” said Jones, a 37-year-old native of Olney, Ill., who joined USAC’s front office in 2015 after retiring from a driving career that saw him win seven USAC national championships. “It’s just, stuff changes every day right now, and we’re not really in the position of, like, Monaco (Formula 1’s Grand Prix) or a NASCAR race where there’s hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars invested in travel and setup and planning and all that (necessitating early postponements or cancellations).

“I think with us, two weeks out, if a track promoter knows, or we all combined know, that yeah, there’s no possible way (to race) and things are not gonna happen, then we can announce stuff at that point. Or if it gets to the point where we can wait until a couple days before to make a decision, we’ll look at that. We’re just trying to have an open mind and be conscious of everybody’s situation in life, not just a dirt-track race.”

This is, of course, uncharted territory for the motorsports world. USAC as a sanctioning body is trying its best to navigate the uncertainty.

“I think this situation is totally different from any other situation that we might have to have a conversation about an event,” Jones said. “It’s not weather, it’s not something you can see, it’s not, ‘Oh, I don’t think we’re gonna have the grandstands done yet.’ Many of these tracks, the (promoters) have another business or have employees that work for them at other stuff, and it’s been tough there for a lot of them too. They’ve had to halt that business and lay people off in a lot of cases, and it’s not like any of us can call someone and say, ‘Hey, what should we do?’ Everybody’s in the same boat. Nobody has an answer.”

Jones said USAC has engaged in some preliminary discussions concerning rescheduling races that could fall to the crisis, but it’s difficult to reset dates until it becomes clear when mass gatherings such as motorsports events can resume.

“That’s what we looked at early last night,” Jones said. “We were like, ‘OK, let’s say we can’t race any in April — well, what races can we make up and what races wouldn’t be made up? Then let’s look at that same scenario through May 16, and then look at that same scenario through June 1.’

“Obviously, if we’re looking at a June 1 (resumption of racing nationwide) scenario, it gets pretty devastating for everyone. At that point, you’re hoping that it can resume in June like normal with the races you do have on the schedule.

“Hopefully, if it gets back going sometime in May … like with our stuff, if (the hiatus) was through (the end of) April, it would be like seven (missed) races (for the national Sprint Car, Midget and Silver Crown series), through the middle of May it would be another seven races, and then if you get in through the end of May it would be another five.

“And if you get into June it’s scary territory for everybody, not just racetracks and race teams,” he added. “If that happens, everybody and their dog would be ready to go to a dirt race when it opens, but, most likely, salaries are gonna be less, jobs are gonna be less, people are gonna have less expendable cash for entertainment, so that’s the scary part.”

Jones is trying to keep a positive attitude about the cards USAC and motorsports in general have been dealt.

“We were just talking about this,” Jones said. “The only consolation (of an extended break) would be if, in April, Monday through Thursday it can be sunny and 70 so all the farmers can get everything done they need to do, but Friday, Saturday and Sunday it better be about 48 degrees and rain. Then I might be able to cope with it.”

For the moment, with Jones’s next racing trip uncertain (he attends every national Sprint Car, Midget and Silver Crown with a small staff of officials), he’s tending to business by phone and spending time offering his insight to USAC throwback videos that are being produced for FloRacing to help race fans through their stay-at-home orders.

“We were in the office today,” Jones said. “We were trying to film some of those voiceover shows (of old USAC races). That’s about all we can do right now.”

FloRacing offers subscribers live coverage of USAC’s national Sprint Car, Midget and Silver Crown tours as well as the Western States Midgets, West Coast 360 Sprint Cars and USAC/CRA series. During the coronavirus-imposed hiatus, FloRacing subscribers can view special USAC content featuring historic races and the first FloRacing “Themed Week” starting with archive footage of USAC’s Indiana Sprint Week.

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He certainly wants to remain as positive about racing as he can be, but he knows the opposite will likely be the case with the series, which in 2020 has all of its events slated for live broadcast to FloRacing subscribers.“Yeah, we’d love to race,” Walls said. “But when reality sets in, let’s be honest, we’re not gonna race till May probably.”Walls is monitoring the ever-developing landscape on a “week-to-week basis,” keeping open a sliver of hope for competition to happen if the spread of the coronavirus were to slow enough for government and health officials to relax existing stay-at-home and mass-gathering orders that are keeping racetracks shuttered. 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We got to the point where we knew we needed to race and Speedweek was a unique opportunity (with teams in one general area), so we started reaching out to racetracks and saying, ‘Hey, it’s not gonna rain there … do you want to race?’ We just took the schedule and moved it all around and got as many races in as we could.”Calling what has come up this year “a challenging time for sure,” Walls anticipates that he will have to do some creative scheduling once again this season. Adding races at tracks that are already bringing the series back later in the season? Extending the season past the planned finale on Sept. 26 at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio? Everything might have to be on the table.“It will certainly be a unique year,” Walls said. “I think from not only our series but other series as well, including USAC and the (World of) Outlaws, you’re gonna see something different that no one’s ever seen before.“Our schedule’s a little bit unique. We go to a lot of the same racetracks at different times of the year, and we can certainly throw in an extra date here or there. But just looking down through our schedule late in the season, there’s not very many open weekends. And the open weekends we have built in, they’re for bigger races so our guys can go travel to race with different series. That’s something we built in there this year for our guys to go race for some bigger money in between during the season.“To lose some big money races this early on, it’s gonna make the season rough,” he added. “But I think we’re gonna motor through it and hopefully we can get to racing by the end of April or the first of June and everything goes smooth from there on. It certainly will not just be a flip of the switch (to return to normalcy for the country), that’s for sure. If I had to guess, it’ll be a slow process of going back to full time, but we’ll be ready when it happens.”

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