The ‘Burg Speedway aims for safe large gathering at June 14 racing opener
LUXEMBURG – Once upon a time, race tracks were touted as a proving ground for automobile technology.
Now, the Kewaunee County Racing Association hopes the first few weeks of its 2020 season at The 'Burg Speedway turn out to be a different kind of proving ground — that people can gather and have a good time without passing around the COVID-19 virus, while simultaneously proving short-track racing is alive in the area.
The one-third-mile dirt oval at the Kewaunee County Fairgrounds will hold its first race of the delayed season Sunday night, the "COVID Crusher Season Opener," under far different circumstances than the association envisioned when it was named track promoter over the winter.
The safer-at-home orders issued by the state in March at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down spectator sports by banning gatherings of more than 10 people outside an immediate family. That caused race circuits across the state to postpone the starts of their seasons, which normally happen in early or mid-May.
With the end of safer-at-home via a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in May, local tracks, many located on county fairgrounds, began working with their county health departments to set guidelines and policies so they could open the tracks to hundreds of spectators and race team members on a weekly basis without setting the stage for a surge in the virus.
Such is the case at The 'Burg, where the association developed a COVID-19 safety plan, following guidelines issued by the county health department after safer-at-home was ended, and had the plans approved by the county.
"For the most part, working with the county was pretty easy," said Joe Orsin, the association's public relations spokesman. "They sent us their guidelines and we put together a plan to meet them. There weren't any major objections."
The track's main goal is sanitizing and encouraging social distancing of six feet between people, with signs around the track and reminders by the track announcer during the races. Anyone who has symptoms of a respiratory illness or has been in contact in the past two weeks with a COVID-19 carrier is asked to not come to the track.
Among the things implemented by the track, every other row of the grandstands will be blocked off from use by spectators, cutting capacity in half from 3,500 to 1,750.
Spectators are strongly encouraged — although not required — to wear masks and practice social distancing, and only one ticket and concession window will be open. Groups going to the windows are asked to have just one member stand in line for everyone else, and marking on the ground indicate six-foot spacing. Concession stand workers will wear masks, cooks will wear gloves, and hand sanitizer will be available at key locations. Restrooms will be monitored and sanitized regularly.
In the pits, drivers and crews are asked to practice distancing and stay within their own pit stalls.
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With other spectator sports still postponed because of the concern of spreading the virus, motorsports is among the first in Wisconsin to find a way to get its season going. It's also kind of the proverbial canary in a coal mine, because the tracks don't want to see a surge in COVID-19 cases happen to their fans or racers.
That concern is real for the county health departments with which the tracks work. The Hill Raceway in Sturgeon Bay was asked by the Door County Board to cancel its season last week because of its recommendations against large gatherings.
Orsini said he believes if everyone cooperates and follows the guidelines, people can attend races at The 'Burg and remain safe and healthy. And he hopes that will show state leaders that it's possible for other postponed gatherings to be rescheduled.
"We are one of the few events going on in the state with larger gatherings." Orsini said. "(If people remain healthy) that'll help the whole state maybe open up some more, loosen some of the restrictions."
Promoters in recent years at the 'Burg have struggled mightily to draw fans and racers and make ends meet, at because the association is a first-time promoter, it's looking for a strong first year upon which to build. Losing the first month of the season is a concern, and it remains to be seen how many fans will feel the track guidelines will keep them safe from COVID-19 in its first few weeks.
But Orsini said the track can do well at half-capacity, so the grandstand restrictions shouldn't be an issue.
"I don't think it'll cause a huge impact for us," Orsini said. "Ideally, we want a crowd of at least 1,000 to be financially feasible, but we can float with crowds of 500. If we have 1,000, we can be successful … if we're close to 1,750, that means we're having some really good nights."
And he believes fans, hardcore and casual, will turn out to cure the cabin fever that's affected them for the past three months.
"Fans are really looking for something to do," Orsini said. "Race fans have been waiting for a season opener, casual fans may go because it's something to do."
The lost month gave the association extra time for track improvements, although Orsini said that silver lining was tainted by not knowing if the track would open this year.
"It's been a double-edged sword," Orsini said. "With the extra time, we were able to get some projects done. But there's been a negative impact because of the uncertainty whether we'd be able to open at all. That left a lot of stuff as a last-minute scramble, especially for a first-time promoter."
However, he said the improvements will be noticeable to those in attendance.
"The track looks a lot prettier than it has in years," Orsini said. "We did some odds and ends to make the track more presentable … something the county can be proud of."
Another problem caused by the pandemic was that it came while the track was chasing sponsors for its season. Orsini said none of the sponsors that signed on before the pandemic have asked to get out of their deals, but it became difficult to ask businesses to become sponsors during such an uncertain time for the economy, especially those that were closed or severely curtailed by safer-at-home.
On the other hand, several former track sponsors have returned, such as Robinson Metal of De Pere, which Orsinisaid is back after not sponsoring the track for the past two or three years.
"Before March, it was much easier to get sponsors to sign up," Orsini said. "We haven't had anybody back out, but finding those new sponsors after March was made a lot harder, especially service-based businesses like bars and restaurants. A lot of businesses that supported the track in past years have come back. We've gotten some that kinda went by the wayside, others (that) never sponsored us before."
Even though the track is starting its season under conditions it's never seen, Orsini said he and the other association members are looking forward to presenting enjoyable Sunday nights the rest of the season, and he hopes drivers and fans find out for themselves on the first night. The track also will offer a few special events for fans on various weeks, including Big Wheel races, a Hot Wheels toy giveaway and a June 23 coin drop for kids.
"It'll be really exciting to see all our fans, drivers and supporters," Orsini said. "We just want everyone to have fun again. I don't think anybody had much fun racing here the last couple of years.
The 'Burg Speedway at the Kewuanee County Fairgrounds, 625 Third St., Luxemburg, is presenting stock car races Sunday nights through Aug. 30 (except July 5). Five classes of cars will compete: IMCA Modified, IMCA Sport Mod, IMCA Stock Car, Street Stock and 4-cylinder Sport Compact. Grandstands open at 4 p.m., racing starts at 5 and is planned to be finished by 9. Admission is $10 for ages 14 and older; pit admission is $25 ages 14 and older.
For more information, visit "The 'Burg Speedway" Facebook page.
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 aims for safe large gathering at June 14 racing opener