Doug Hobbs is planning to fire up the barbecue Sunday afternoon and settle in to watch the first NASCAR Cup Series race in more than two months.
The Real Heroes 400 takes place Sunday at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. It’s NASCAR’s first live race since March 8 as the series was postponed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The race will be held without fans in attendance, but will still be televised nationally, giving racing fans a long-awaited outlet.
And Hobbs, the president of Monroe’s Evergreen Speedway, is hoping his track isn’t far behind.
Evergreen Speedway and the rest of Washington’s racetracks, while not given the green flag, have at least been allowed to start their engines with an eye toward a resumption in racing.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced during his press conference Thursday that motorsports have been added to the list of outdoor activities allowed to open during Phase 1 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan.
That means Evergreen Speedway will be allowed to begin practice sessions for drivers immediately.
Evergreen Speedway was getting ready to begin its 2020 season when Inslee instituted a ban on public gatherings of more than 250 people on March 11, thus forcing the track to postpone its scheduled March 28 opener. Evergreen has been dormant ever since, but that’s about to change, and many of Evergreen’s drivers are itching to get back on the track.
“I think we’ve got to get going as soon as possible,” Pro Late Model driver Jeff Knight said. “I don’t think we should wait. I think Evergreen Speedway is too valuable to the county and the community. There are thousands of racing fans throughout the Northwest and I think we need to get this going sooner rather than later.”
The majority of Washington is currently in Phase 1 of the reopening plan, with a handful of less-populous counties having advanced into Phase 2. The hope is the rest of the state, including Snohomish County, can move into Phase 2 beginning June 1.
Under the updated guidelines, the move from Phase 1 to Phase 2 won’t have an effect on Evergreen Speedway. Prior to Thursday’s announcement the newly-formed Washington Motorsports Coalition, citing the sport’s ability to easily create physical distance for its competitors in pit areas, was pushing for racetracks to be allowed to reopen on a limited basis in Phase 1, but failing that to be allowed to reopen in Phase 2. The new guidelines allow the tracks to open to participant-only motorsports during both Phases 1 and 2.
Hobbs said the plan at Evergreen is to open for limited practices for drivers during Phases 1 and 2. When Phase 3 is implemented, the track plans to run races without fans in the stands, with the races streamed live online for free.
When Phase 4 is reached the track will open races to fans on a limited basis, with physical-distancing measures taken in the stands, such as closing every-other row and taping off the bleachers into groups of four to create distance.
Super Stock Figure 8 driver Mackenzie Deitz said she’s ready to get back to racing and is not worried about contracting the virus at Evergreen.
“Personally, I have no concerns,” Deitz said. “I get in a race car with a full race suit and helmet and a full roll cage, and I go through an intersection knowing it could be a health concern.
“For me, I would be more cautious around fans, if that is introduced back this year,” Deitz continued. “It’s hard to balance between people being concerned, and people just ready to get out and race and be a part of that community.”
In the meantime, the track is preparing for the eventual resumption of racing. That includes installing hand-sanitizer stations, training employees in best practices and scrubbing down the spectator areas.
Hobbs said the best-case scenario had races without fans beginning in late June and races in front of fans resuming in mid-July.
One big question for Evergreen concerns the financial viability of running races with limited or no fans. A national series like the NASCAR Cup Series can survive without fans in attendance because of broadcast revenue. Smaller tracks like Evergreen depend on gate receipts to operate.
“That is a great question,” Hobbs said when asked about financial viability. “But 25-50% capacity is better than the zero that we have now. Every track will do the best they can to survive this season. But for safety reasons we want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. While we’re trying to open up, like a lot of small businesses, it’s safety first, and we’ll be prepared for whatever numbers we’re allowed to serve.”
Hobbs has also gotten creative with uses for the track. Knight, who is the pastor at The Rock Church in Monroe, is conducting a drive-in service at the track Sunday at 11 a.m., and the facility is also being offered to local schools for graduation celebrations.
And now there at least appears to be a path forward for racing.