To use an auto racing analogy, the ABC Raceway’s 2020 stock car racing season is under an indefinite red flag.
As is the case with so many recreational facilities, the award-winning northern Wisconsin speedplant has felt the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic by postponing many spring facility preparations and canceling events on its early-season race schedule. Race fans everywhere are being asked to stay home, practice social distancing, and embrace other proactive measures to minimize the spread of what has become a deadly, unpredictable worldwide disease.
And like so many businesses, the complete shutdown of stock car racing in the Upper Midwest has racetrack promoters wondering not only about the financial health of their facilities, but the very survival of their sport.
The ABC Raceway, which was scheduled to open its 56th season under the direction of the Ashland-Bayfield County Racing Association on May 16, will sit silent a little while longer, according to track officials. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has extended the State’s current “Safer at Home” public quarantining order until May 26, but the Raceway’s Board of Directors, taking a responsible as well as cautious approach, have decided to wait until sometime in June, or even later, for a possible opening night.
“First and foremost, as is always the case in racing, is the safety and well-being of our fans, our racers, and our track personnel,” Raceway Board president Eric Erickson said. “Before we even consider turning a competitive lap on our track, or open the gates to our fans, we need to be certain that our State and local governments can assure us that it is safe for fans to sit with each other in the bleachers, for drivers and crews to be in close proximity to one another, and for track workers to do their jobs, without fear of contracting this serious disease.”
Gov. Evers’ “Badger Bounce Back” plan, which was announced April 20, has outlined a phase-in plan for Wisconsin businesses to be able to re-open, but only when state health officials deem it is safe to do so for employees as well as customers. The phase-in plan could prolong the start of the 2020 stock car racing season until well into the summer, but race fans as well as track operators hope that the Governor’s plan will soon provide the “green flag” to get racing underway.
Once the state does allow businesses to re-open, it will then be up to racetrack promoters to make crucial decisions as to how aggressively they want to approach what is left of their 2020 schedules. Balancing the “business” aspect of operating a racing facility with the emotional “fan” side of the sport has weighed heavily into conversations Erickson has had with his ABC Raceway staff.
“We all want to get the season started here,” Erickson said recently. “That’s what we are in this business to do. But we also have to look at the potential impact that this pandemic has had and will continue to have on our sport, and on businesses in general.
“If the State’s phase-in program dictates how many people we can allow in our grandstands, or in our pit area, or if it won’t allow us to serve or sell food, then we have to decide whether it is feasible to even open our gates without putting ourselves in a financial bind.”
The health scare is forcing track operators to make other significant changes to their business models. Implementing additional public-safety practices - such as the supplying and use of appropriate protective devices like masks and sanitizers, new ways to safely serve food and beverages, and the extra effort to keep public facilities such as restrooms even cleaner than before - could create a financial strain on some tracks. Erickson believes that those kinds of decisions could stress those racetracks already running on a tight budget, but they may also become more important to the survival of the sport of short-track stock car racing as a whole.
“The balancing act that race tracks currently face is, we need to open soon so we can bring in some revenue, just like any business, but we also need to keep the health of our race fans as a high priority,” Erickson said. “We need to pay attention to the consequences either way.”
For now, the ABC Raceway will take a very measured approach to how it will proceed with the upcoming racing season. Its 16-program schedule has been put into flux, with no clear start to the season in sight, but Erickson and his staff are closely monitoring the decisions of the local, state and federal governments with regard to the re-opening of businesses, while still respecting the dramatic effects of the viral pandemic.
“It will take a lot of patience, a lot of planning, and a lot of cooperation among track promoters, racers, and fans,” said Erickson. “But somehow, in due time, we will all get through this.”
The ABC Raceway is located 3 1/2 miles south of Ashland. More information is available on the track's website, www.abcraceway.com.