The ‘Burg Speedway’s new promoters face uncertainty under COVID-19 crisis
LUXEMBURG – New promoter, new name, new night, new enthusiasm. Next Sunday, May 17, was supposed to be a new beginning for The 'Burg Speedway.
It still might be, but uncertainty over the COVID-19 pandemic might dull the shine.
Many other race tracks across Wisconsin were planning to open this weekend or next. But they're on hold as well as they, and the state government, determine when it is safe to have public gatherings, with hundreds of race team members in their pit areas and hundreds more race fans in their grandstands.
But May 17 was to be a special season opener night at The 'Burg.
A new group, the Kewaunee County Racing Association, was named by the county to run the third-mile clay oval at the Kewaunee County Fairgrounds. The past few years saw track operators financially strapped with rained-out races and low turnout of racers (who pay for crew members to get in) and fans, hitting tough times last year with an estimated average attendance of 250 to 300 and 64 race cars, compared to between 516 and 1,207 fans a week since 2012 and an average car count more than 100 each of the previous three years.
But even though the KCRA would become the third promoter in three years for the struggling track, it came in with high hopes to revitalize racing there.
With racing experience in its portfolio, the group worked to make and grow relationships with racers and track sponsors. And it changed the track's race nights from Fridays — when it would compete for cars and fans with tracks in nearby Seymour and Chilton — to a 12-race schedule on Sundays, when it faces no competition. It also changed the name from Luxemburg Speedway to The 'Burg Speedway, which is what many racers and fans call it.
Things were looking up, said KCRA public relations spokesman Joe Orsini. He said between 70 and 80 teams paid to reserve pit spaces for 2020, already indicating an increased car count over last year, and he expects anywhere from 100 to 140 cars to compete across the track's five classes. Plus, the season opener would try to draw fans by offering $5 grandstand admission, compared to the regular $10 for ages 14 and older.
Then came COVID-19. Now, the KCRA isn't sure if The 'Burg will open its 2020 season May 17 or at a later date, or what it will be like for fans and racers if it can open this summer.
"It's really just a downer on everything," Orsini said. "As we discussed all the potential pitfalls and stumbling blocks (of taking over the promotion), this was certainly not anything in our wildest thoughts. It's really put a negative spin on a lot of things we were trying to do."
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The big problem is the uncertainty. It's not known as of this writing when the state will relax or lift its safer-at-home orders, nor to what extent they'll be relaxed when it happens, especially the guidelines on gatherings.
Orsini said the KCRA hoped to open with a bang and draw as close to a sellout as possible to the 3,500 seats in the grandstands. Now, even if the track is able to put on a show next Sunday, concerns would remain over the possible social distancing in the stands, whether voluntary or by state order, and how close spectators would want to get to each other.
"The goal was to really pack the stands for opening night," Orsini said. "Now, even if we end up having our opener in the summer, we still gotta look out for the safety of the fans. Having them packed in our grandstand might not be the best thing. (And) it could be kind of a crapshoot how many people show up … We'll have to do some adjusting, making the fans feel safe."
Some tracks in the state have begun holding events, although with no fans allowed on the premises.
Mississippi Thunder Speedway in Fountain City held "The Race to be Essential" for five classes May 1 that was livestreamed on the RacinDirt.tv website, and Gravity Park Speedway in Chilton held test-and-tune sessions last weekend with a limit of one or two cars at a time on track. Mississippi Thunder is in Buffalo County in the far western part of Wisconsin; the county has reported five positive tests for COVID-19 and one death as of Monday, while Calumet County, home to Gravity Park, had 19 positives and no deaths. Slinger Superspeedway, in Washington County (106 positives, four deaths) in the southeastern part of the state, hasn't run yet but announced plans to open May 17, although it hasn't said if or how fans will be admitted.
All three tracks are privately owned while The 'Burg, like other tracks on county fairgrounds, is rented out by the county to the promoters.
Across the country, some weekly local tracks that would be open by now or usually open in May plan to do so later this month with fan restrictions. On a national level, NASCAR and the World of Outlaws dirt trackers expect to restart their series next week, both with no fans in attendance, and IndyCar hopes to begin June 9 in Texas although it's not decided whether fans will be able to attend. The professional drag racers of the National Hot Rod Association will resume their season in August, with fans, after the sanctioning body postponed rescheduled events for June and July on Tuesday.
To bring some clarity to the situation, the KCRA is one of 11 tracks in eastern Wisconsin, stretching from Wilmot to Door County, working together to figure out how and when to open and come up with ideas for it. The informal coalition includes all tracks in northeast Wisconsin, with The Hill in Sturgeon Bay, 141 Speedway in Francis Creek, Outagamie Speedway in Seymour, Shawano Speedway and Gravity Park among them.
The group released a joint statement April 27, posted to their tracks' Facebook pages, that said in part, "We are working together (to) assure all 11 tracks get up off the ground together and not leave even one behind … to bring racing back to Wisconsin stronger than ever."
Orsini said the group hopes to have all its tracks open on the same weekend so no one claims an early advantage with fans and racers by opening before the others.
"Mostly, it's just making sure we're all on the same page," Orsini said, "making sure we're all working together when things open up. We want to make sure we all open on the same weekend."
Also, the goal is to open with more or less the same guidelines for crews and attendance in place across all of the tracks. Paid admission usually is needed for promoters to make the finances work, and Orsini said attendance of at least 500 is needed just to break even.
One idea under consideration if gatherings aren't allowed is holding races as pay-per-view events. The agreement KCRA has with the county calls for the promoters to pay $1,500 rent for each race run (which includes the cost to prepare the track), with no rent charged if races are canceled by weather or other events outside the track's control.
"We're trying to figure out different ideas, different plans," Orsini said, "if we can run without fans in the stands, if that's even feasible, if a pay-per-view is feasible."
Another issue in a shortened or canceled season is track agreements with its sponsors, the businesses (some of who may be having their own economic struggles during the pandemic) and patrons who financially back weekly shows and special events.
Orsini said support has been good from sponsors so far — Green Bay area-company Holtger Brothers Inc. donated equipment to improve the concession stands — and the KCRA is considering ideas to give them the exposure they pay for when the track begins to hold races.
"So far, everyone's staying on board," Orsini said. "We have to look at how we're continuing if there's a shortened season or no season … We're just trying to maintain healthy relationships with them (sponsors), get them good exposure."
In the meantime, track personnel are making improvements to upgrade the fan experience. Some are what Orsini called "curbside appeal," such as whitewashing the fences and installing a new sign in Victory Lane, and others are to improve amenities such as the concession stands.
"While we have the extra time, we're doing some remodeling that I don't know if we would have been able to do during the season," Orsini said. "So if there's a silver lining in all this … There's a lot of stuff we can do with elbow grease and small amounts of capital. There's a ton of stuff behind the scenes to improve the experience for fans."
Even with all these obstacles, magnified for a first-time promoter, Orsini is optimistic the KCRA can make The 'Burg succeed when it's ready to open.
"When racing does get started, I expect solid car counts, exciting racing for whatever fans feel safe to come out," Orsini said. "A ton of people continue to offer support. They're still really positive about the future of the track. This is just another hump we have to get over."
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: The 'Burg Speedway's new promoters face uncertainty under COVID-19 crisis