OPINION: Making “Cents” of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Atlantic Canadian Stock Car Community
By Tim Terry
These are some uncertain times we have been living in since March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America.
After everything came to a halt in the Spring, things are beginning to open again and are coming back to life. With government and department of health restrictions, some are opening slower than others. These restrictions have put several industries in Atlantic Canada, including ours, up against the wall. Each business owner is faced with a unique set of circumstances in times like these as they face questions as to when they can re-open and how that may look.
Yes, I said business. Motorsports facilities are businesses. After reading social media outlets the last couple of weeks from those within the motorsports community in the region, I think that has been lost on a lot of people.
Congratulations, you have poked the bear. Let me take the restrictor plate off my keyboard for a few moments.
First and foremost, everyone involved in this industry, whether you are a crew member, driver, official, car owner, fan or track promoter, you are in this sport because you love it. At the grassroots level, nobody is in racing to make a fortune though some do make their living, myself included, off seeing cars make laps. Sure, everyone would have liked to be back open by now. This weekend would have seen Sydney Speedway open their doors for the season, making them the last scheduled track to get rolling on the 2020 season. As we know now, not one track in this region has seen openings yet for racing. All but two pavement race tracks we cover at TCM have announced openings for private testing, which keeps gathering numbers low.
Speedway Miramichi will be the first to test the racing waters as they open for competition on June 20th. Miramichi, along with Petty International Raceway, are playing within the box of restrictions that the Government of New Brunswick has placed on them. The big one is the fact that they cannot have more than 50 people on the property at one time.
I’m not here to make this a political debate. There is plenty of that to find on social media these days. Like some, I don’t understand that if we can pack 200 people into a grocery or big box store that we should be able to have more than 50 people in an outside venue, but we’re not here to discuss that. That is for, in this case, Mr. Higgs and his folks to discuss and release as they feel it is safe to do so. Until they feel it is safe to lift restrictions, the tracks have to play by the rules, much like drivers do when they roll their cars through the tech shed. If they do not play by the rules, those tracks will quickly be shut down.
Now comes my first major gripe with many folks on social media. If we can only have 50 folks on the property, why even open the track? They can’t have fans, so what’s the point.
Back to the top of my post for the answer. Plain and simple, they are a business.
Even if the business of racing stops, there are still bills to be paid. The electricity has to stay on, the mortgage and property tax has to be paid, insurance on the facility has more than likely been taken out for the season already and ultimately the owners of the race track and any seasonal employees that are responsible for getting the track ready have to have food on their plates. A majority of tracks are not going to be eligible for any government grants or small business relief to get them through this pandemic. Some track promoters and ownership groups are in different financial situations than others. Sure, call a spade a spade, some tracks could sit idle this season and the revenue lost is minuscule in the big picture. For others, a season partially ran or lost could mean the difference between the lights turning on in 2021 or the track becoming bank property.
Simply put, if some race tracks do not open and lose this season, who knows if they will be there next year? I’m sure the armchair experts of social media have thought about that though.
We’ve seen this scenario play out at race tracks all across the United States. Their state to state travel restrictions are lighter, giving them a chance to go across borders and gathering limits are lifted in some places to accommodate based on a percentage of capacity instead of a hard number. A majority of those race tracks though started out with no fans or began hosting private practices, which is seemingly the plan here albeit a month or so behind their schedule in the South. Like here, each state has their differing restrictions and limits to abide by.
Without any front gate revenue, those bills become harder to pay. There is no return on general ticket sales, no refreshment stand profits and no merchandise sales. You can do the math as well as I can, there are thousands of dollars right there that go to offsetting those costs above that are not there right now. Some track and series sponsors have pulled back partially or completely on their commitments for 2020, leaving less budget to work with for sanctioning bodies heading into the middle of June where most would be getting into full swing.
Some tracks feel like they need that profit to make the business numbers work and that is completely their decision. Each track has a different business model that works for them that ultimately will see them survive through who knows what else 2020 will throw at us.
So, for those tracks that want to open, they need to make the numbers works for them that they are not in a losing venture. Race day expenditures bring added expenses including race day staff (fire and rescue, race operations, any payouts, etc.) that are outside those typical costs you would incur during a season. Like any business, they need to try to make X amount of dollars to pay that mortgage payment or to keep the lights on and they need to set their per event budgets to achieve that.
Of course, on the other side of this is race teams. One of the things we brought up at the Maritime Short Track Summit in November was that this industry as a whole is a circle, no pun intended. Without race teams and race fans, race tracks do not exist. Without race tracks, those race fans have no place to watch a race and teams have to travel further or get out of the sport because their local track becomes a parking lot or a part of a sub division. With limits on amount of folks that can gather in public, that eliminates race fans right now from the equation for those that want to attempt to produce a race card. After all, race fans watching an empty track doesn’t sound like a ton of fun for anyone, does it?
This is a hard time for some race teams. That sponsorship pinch we mentioned earlier will ultimately put a dent into the budget for some teams. With the pinch felt by tracks, chances are purses and tow money will take a sharp dive, if they are even there at all. Remember, outside of several major Pro Stock and Sportsman events, there isn’t a ton of purse money to begin with for weekly shows so some teams and divisions aren’t as affected, though it is nice to get a check or extra gas money in their pocket at the end of the night. After working with Greg and the folks at Sydney Speedway last year to draft purse and tow money structures, it is difficult for tracks to try and ride that balance of rewarding teams for their hard work and making sure all the bills are paid so there is a next season.
For those that have their cars ready, have the drive to compete and can make the dollars make sense to go racing, at least in New Brunswick, they have two credible venues to do so.
Back to Speedway Miramichi and Petty International Raceway’s opening races. Both tracks are working within the box to put cars on the track for those that want to go racing. With that comes staggered division times based on interest for each class. Essentially, one division “mini shows” you can call them where a division rolls in, has a set amount of racing to do and then rolls out for the next division to come in. Speedway Miramichi is offering this in the form of a practice session, “dash” (heat) racing and twin feature events for the two stock car classes set to compete on June 20th. Petty Raceway is offering a Friday practice, so when their divisions roll in at their scheduled times they can roll into heat racing and a feature event.
This allows the track to operate with gatherings of less than 50 people under the “Yellow Phase” from the New Brunswick Government. Speedway Miramichi has announced that two people per car (one driver and one crew) would be allowed in the facility with Petty Raceway operating with four per car (one driver and three crew). These numbers, plus with the addition of adding essential track staff to the numbers, should see Petty being able to accommodate 10-15 cars per “mini show” with Speedway Miramichi announcing previously that their cap is 20 cars per time slot, depending on how many crew each car brings.
If there are no fans in the stands, why not live stream the event? Well, looking back to above, there are costs associated with that to do it right. From being at the track with various streaming companies, it is not just as simple as plugging in and going live. There is pre-production work to be done, setup at the race track the day of and people that need to be in place in order to make the show happen. You would need to buy equipment to do it in house which is a cost most tracks that are just trying to make the ends meet cannot absorb right now. There are no dedicated motorsports streaming companies in the Maritimes, yet, and most basic streaming platforms will want thousands of dollars to work an event. With limited sponsorship revenue coming in to those tracks, even with charging the end user to view the show, the dollars and cents simply don’t add up for most tracks at this point.
Sure, you could hold a phone up and stream the event, it would work in a pinch but again, there are data costs associated with it. Add to the fact that the cell and internet infrastructure at Petty International Raceway isn’t the best based on their location and even the phone option is nearly impossible.
Speedway Miramichi has included in their back to racing plan that the event would be recorded and available on demand and I’m excited to say that thanks to Brittany Hoyt and Denver Matchett, our plan is to have a camera at both Speedway Miramichi and Petty International Raceway to record races and get interviews with the winners. As much as I’d like to be there in person, border restrictions prevent me from being there, so we’ve made arrangements to send equipment to New Brunswick to hopefully deliver our race fans content if all works out.
Speaking of borders being closed, everyone asks me whether we will see any Touring Series race this year. The first answer, above all of those other business points we have already discussed, is that provincial borders need to be open so traffic can flow freely. Without an Atlantic Canadian bubble, there is no touring series. If it does happen, when does it happen? Early July, late July, sometime in August? Is there enough time to put together a couple of races or is there a season to put together? Nobody knows that answer until the borders are welcoming traffic to flow freely.
In short, here is my advice. If you have a car ready in a province that has a track getting ready to race, head to that race track and support them at least once through this. Like any business, a race track only survives if folks are coming through the gates, whether that is for a private test or a racing event. If you are a keyboard warrior that is on social media complaining that tracks should close their gates to racers because fans are not allowed to watch, take a little step back, take off the blinders, dump the “poor me” mentality and try to look at the big picture. This is tough on the entire racing community. We’ll all get through this as long as we support each other. Bashing race tracks, much like before this pandemic, is not going to help anything.
Restrictor plate back on the keyboard. Back to your regularly scheduled social media surfing.
Until next time (and the borders allow us to travel), keep the hammer down and we’ll see you at the track!