CORONAVIRUS

Eastern Iowa auto racers are ready to wait

Track plan on opening next next month ... for now

Cars battle snowy conditions during an enduro race March 14 at Hawkeye Downs. (Caleb Slouha/Hawkeye Downs)
Cars battle snowy conditions during an enduro race March 14 at Hawkeye Downs. (Caleb Slouha/Hawkeye Downs)

With the future of many sporting events at the mercy of uncertainty, it’s business as usual for many Eastern Iowa racetrack operators.

At least for now.

“When you’re dealing with dirt tracks, you’re totally at the mercy of mother nature anyway,” said Jerry Mackey, announcer and public relations contact for Independence Motor Speedway and Benton County Speedway in Vinton. “The tracks are actually a little bit ahead of normal and definitely ahead of last year when we had that extremely wet, long-lasting spring. We didn’t get to start working the track until the end of April and we didn’t open until mid-May.”

If the weather were the only factor, it’s cooperating quite well.

“There isn’t nearly as much moisture in the ground as there has been the last few years and the tracks are all ready to go,” Mackey said. “If everything is a go, we should be racing by mid-April.”

Things work slightly different on the pavement in Cedar Rapids.

“We typically start having practices as soon as it gets warm,” said Caleb Slouha at Hawkeye Downs.

In fact, the track opened it’s 95th season with an enduro race earlier this month, although lately it’s been restricted to private rentals.

“Right now we feel a whole lot better about just giving the keys to two or three people and having them lock up when they’re done,” Slouha said, in reference to drivers practicing for the impending start of the season.

The local schedule already has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic with the Frostbuster tour canceling its three Iowa stops in Vinton, Marshalltown and Boone.

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The first event on the schedule now is April 10-11 at Tipton with Independence aiming for its Saturday night schedule to start April 18. Vinton is scheduled to start its Sunday slate the following night through the end of August.

Street Drags will return to Hawkeye Downs on Thursdays this summer, although the event will premiere on Sunday, May 3, with regular races beginning Friday May 1.

Until large groups are allowed to gather again, tracks will continue to improve their venues.

Vinton just installed a new public address system and did a lot of work in the pit area to improve parking while adding more spots, Mackey said.

“They are working on fencing and other things to spruce up the place and I assume they are working on the same types of things at Independence,” he said. “Before last season, Independence did a lot of those type of projects with the extra time given to us by mother nature. It lets us improve the facility and improve the experience for not only the race fans, but for the drivers themselves.”

As for the idea of racing to an online only audience?

“We can’t race with an empty grandstands,” Mackey said, “that’s absolutely not feasible for us. We have to be able to sell tickets to the grandstands, concessions and all of that for us to be able to pay the purse to the drivers. It’s a hobby, but it’s an expensive hobby on all fronts.”

Follow the tracks on social media for updates and changes to the schedule.

“Once they officially announce that we can go out in groups again, we need the entire public to come out and support your local racetrack,” Mackey said. “It brings in a lot of money for the community. Races bring money to the convenience and grocery stores, bars, restaurants and whatever else there might be. It takes it all for this to work.

“It looks like the season could be a little shorter than normal, but that puts even more of an emphasis on each night being successful.”

As for rushing back too soon?

“When you go to racetrack and put 300-400 people in the pits and another 800-1,000 in the grandstands, it’s extremely hard to control social distancing,” Mackey said. “Will that be what stops us? Your guess is as good as mine, but right now, we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves until we’re allowed to go racing.

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“The cars are ready and in place and as soon as the governor gives us the green flag.”

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