Imagine hosting one of the biggest annual events in the world, the type that is circled on the calendar months in advance. Tens of thousands of people from countries across the globe travel to the destination each summer, pumping money into the small community that welcomes the spotlight for that one magical weekend.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars are tied up in event costs and the pressure to top the previous year’s show builds like an awakening volcano as the spectacle is planned for at least 364 days.
Then, a global pandemic hits and everything is shut down around the world for several weeks before slowly reopening in the spring. There are meetings upon meetings, phone calls upon phone calls and emails upon emails only to be met by resistance.
That is this year’s storyline for arguably the two largest winged sprint car events in the world — the Knoxville Nationals hosted by Knoxville Raceway in Knoxville, Iowa, and the Kings Royal at Eldora Speedway near Rossburg, Ohio.
“One thing I’ve definitely learned is that the state of Ohio has no idea how big motorsports is and the industry as a whole has done a horrible job representing itself in Columbus, in the capital; what the value of our speedways are to our communities,” said Roger Slack, general manager of Eldora Speedway. “Eldora is worth — and this has nothing to do with the economics of Eldora — Eldora’s events are worth $107 million to our region’s economy annually. None of us had a clue it was that big. When you’re learning from Walmart that our major events are right up there with their Christmas, holiday shopping days, it’s pretty mind-blowing.
“At the beginning (the government officials) made it clear that spectator events would be the very last thing (to open). And then there’s been lawsuits. Ohio is different. There are very few what are called home rule states,” Slack continued. “So the actual state government depends on the sheriff, and the local prosecutor and the local health district to enforce their orders and prosecute if they are broken. And just getting approved on the local level to hold events, but not lifting mass gathering restrictions has just been frustrating. Now Governor DeWine, I managed to track down his cell phone number and he could not be more pleasant to deal with, and he communicates quickly. He’ll give you an answer. It’s been the rest of the bureaucracy where we struggled.
“Right now, every event that is a grandstand event is limited to no more than 15 percent or 1,500 people and it’s based on your actual permanent seating capacity,” Slack said in September. “With the (Cleveland) Browns and (Cincinnati) Bengals, they gave them a variance and they are treating each side of the stadium as four isolated, self-contained zones so they can have up to 6,000 people. That is something we proposed in June and July. We’d do the main grandstand as a self-contained grandstand. The turns one and two grandstands and then the same with the turns three and four grandstands. I think we had 7,500 people. At that time, they weren’t approving.
“We have 20 motion-activated sanitizer stands,” Slack added. “We have two pallets of sanitizer, 30,000 surgical masks. We ramped up everything we needed to have events, but we never got the OK to have any fans.”
This year marks the first in the history of the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series, which was established in 1978, that Eldora Speedway won’t showcase a series event. It also snaps a 58-year streak of hosting at least one USAC race, Slack noted.
“It is extremely difficult,” he said. “We’re losing a lot of money, a lot of sponsorship dollars. The events that have been rescheduled to 2021, we’re not sitting on a bunch of dollars. The way the accounting works is when you renew tickets and sell them in October, November, December of 2019, that’s part of your 2019 revenue so you pay income tax on that. It is tough. We haven’t laid anybody off. There’s been government programs we’ve been able to try to get some help on.”
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