Racing is scheduled to return this weekend.
It won’t be on a national scale or in a major metropolitan area. If the race goes off as planned, it will occur in the farthest southeastern corner of South Dakota near Sioux City, on a spur of real estate wedged between Iowa and Nebraska.
Without a state executive order to prevent large gatherings, Park Jefferson Speedway will hold the Open Wheel Nationals on Saturday, April 25. The race will allow fans in attendance, making it one of the only sporting events since mid-March with a crowd.
The race has the potential to be a test case for how a dirt track might be able to resume operations.
It also has the potential to be a cause célèbre for both sides in an argument about how and when to relax social distancing.
This will not be a standard weekend. The 3/8ths-mile dirt track in North Sioux City, South Dakota (pop. 2,731 as of 2016), has a grandstand that holds 4,000.
Promoters have capped the sale of tickets at 700 to allow for social distancing. Cars counts for the sprint and modified classes are typically much higher for this race, but they, too, will be limited to 32 in each division.
The track quickly sold out its tickets. The modified division maxed out their entries with notable NASCAR veterans Kenny Wallace and Ken Schrader scheduled to be part of the field. The sprint car field still had five slots open as of Wednesday.
“We intend to go overboard on following CDC guidelines,” race track promoter Adam Adamson told the Argus Leader earlier this week (the track didn’t respond to interview requests from NBCSports.com). “We’re just a small racetrack in rural South Dakota trying to give some entertainment and a little bit of a break from some of this madness that’s going on right now. We think we can do so in a safe environment.”
All tickets have been pre-sold and the track will operate on a cashless basis. Concessions will be available with the use of a credit card only, and the single building on the property capable of holding more than 10 people will be closed for Saturday’s event.
Not everyone agrees that this is a safe option.
In a Tuesday news conference about the COVID-19 outbreak, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem encouraged fans to stay away from the track. The first question asked of Noem in the conference (at the 8:15 mark in the video embedded below) was: “What can you do about the races happening this weekend?”
“I can encourage people not to go,” Noem said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for them to attend. I still recommend that we follow the plans I have laid out for South Dakota where we don’t gather in sizes of over 10 and that folks continue to social distance.”
— Governor Kristi Noem (@govkristinoem) April 21, 2020
“There is a lot about my job that I chose not to take personally, but I am going to strongly recommend to the people of South Dakota that they not go and that they stay home,” Noem said. “It is wise and smart to continue on the plan that we have laid out for South Dakota for several more weeks.”
South Dakota does not have a stay-at-home order in place. Union County commissioners also said there is nothing they can do to prohibit the track from racing.
“We did, during the legislative session, attempt to bring a bill that would give counties some of the authority cities would have, but the legislature did not support that bill,” Noem said. “I think the county is probably accurate in saying they wish they had a few more tools to deal with the situation. But from the state level and what I’m recommending is that people not go.”
Wallace spent much of Tuesday engaging people on Twitter about why he decided to race Saturday.
Park Jefferson Speedway officials just called me.. Governor of South Dakota and all county officials including the sheriff. Say that the race this Saturday, April 25. WILL GO ON .. The race is SOLD OUT.. You can watch on @SpeedShiftTV .. pic.twitter.com/YX28dtFm60
— Kenny Wallace (@Kenny_Wallace) April 21, 2020
Only 300 miles north on Interstate 29, World of Outlaw sprint car driver Donny Schatz will not be in attendance, and the Fargo, North Dakota, resident said he couldn’t race because he’s a World of Outlaws platinum member.
“I do not have any plans (to race at Park Jefferson) whatsoever,” Schatz told NBCSports.com emphatically earlier this week. “I’m contracted to the World of Outlaws … we’re not sitting home not racing because we don’t want to. We’re doing it because it’s what we have to do. It’s out of our hands. It’s not even an option. We put our status as platinum members in jeopardy.
“I’m curious to see how it goes because the last time I looked, there were no gatherings of more than 10 people, and it sounds like that is not within the realms of what (the race) is actually going to be.”
As of Wednesday, South Dakota reported fewer than 2,000 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases with nine fatalities. Union County accounted for seven cases and two fatalities.
The track’s geographic position makes the track easily accessible to Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota (which does have a stay at home order). And as the only race happening this week, it is garnering a lot of attention.
The race will be broadcast online at SpeedShift.tv.
After racing on Saturday, Wallace, Schrader and other modified drivers will make a short drive north to Jefferson, South Dakota where the IMCA Modifieds will headline a $600-to-win race at The New Raceway Park.
“If this goes well, if the governor and state doesn’t find a way to try and put the kibosh to it, I think we’re going to see it spread across the country and have people coming in and watching and seen and reporting how this went,” track promoter Steve Kiraly said on SpeedSport.com. “I would think it could have a positive impact to get this type of activity going again.”
The track has limited this race to 500 fans with 30 cars racing allowed in the modified class. Everyone in attendance will be required to have the temperature taken with no-contact thermometer and wear face masks. Drivers will not have to wear face masks while in their cars.