Other auto racing tracks in the Triad have opened their doors to fans, but Bowman Gray Stadium has no immediate plans to start its NASCAR-sanctioned series anytime soon during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Ace Speedway on Saturday night defied Gov. Roy Cooper’s Phase 2 guidelines calling for no more than 25 people at outdoor gatherings — allowing about 4,000 in attendance — the city of Winston-Salem has no plans to do the same.
Ben Rowe, Winston-Salem's assistant city manager, reiterated his earlier stance that the city plans to follow the governor’s guidelines, which are expected to last for most of June.
“(The) city staff spoke to an official with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services this past Friday,” Rowe wrote in an email.
"We confirmed that the Phase 2 order allows racing with no spectators. The mass gatherings requirement is no more than 25 for outdoor gatherings.”
In allowing fans to far exceed the limit on outdoor gathering at the speedway near Elon, Alamance County government and law officials cited the right to gather peacefully.
Cooper said today during a news conference that it is "dangerous and reckless to try to draw a crowd. I hope and pray that no one gets sick or even dies from that gathering."
Cooper said he and his administration "is deeply concerned about that kind of activity ... and people who live in an area where this thing draws people from potentially surrounding states and surrounding counties. It ought to be concerning to them that this occurred."
When asked about the actions taken by the track's owners, and Alamance government and law-enforcement officials not enforcing Phase 2 restrictions, Cooper said "it is a dangerous situation that ought to concern all the local officials."
"All of the options are on the table, and we are examining those options now," Cooper said. "If you have local law enforcement who won't enforce the order, the state has to look at other options."
Rowe said that the city is losing about $5,700 each Saturday night, with six missed to this point.
"Our facilities manager (Robert Mulhearn) and I kind of crunched the numbers, and it's about $34,000 that we've lost in revenue without the races," Rowe said. "We haven't taken any rent from WSSI since they haven't been racing, but we've also not had the expenses such as cleanup and the police presence that we have each Saturday night."
Gray Garrison, the promoter of Bowman Gray Stadium racing, has said there would be no interest in opening the season without fans.
Garrison, who is part of Winston-Salem Speedway Inc., which runs the racing season that usually goes from April to late August, has been in contact with city officials on a regular basis.
“We’re still going to follow the governor’s rules on these different phases and the protocols that are there with the city,” Garrison said. “The city is going to stay firm with the governor’s guidelines and the rules that are in place. Like I’ve said all along we want our fans and drivers and crews to be safe, so that’s what we are constantly talking about.”
The city leases the track for races, but no rent has been due, Rowe said. The city also profits from concessions from crowds that can total 15,000 on a good night.
Ace Speedway breaks the dam
Ace Speedway and 311 Speedway in Pine Hall have opened and are allowing fans.
Garrison says that just because it’s happening in smaller cities with smaller race tracks doesn’t mean it can happen everywhere.
“What people have to look at is this is uncharted waters that we have never been in before in this country,” Garrison said. “You have to kind of look at each individual community, and each model is going to be a little different.
“We have larger crowds and a bigger stadium, and that’s going to look different than what they have over at Ace Speedway. Each community is just trying to figure out what to do and there are really no clear answers right now, but the dam has been opened a little bit.”
Many of the familiar names at Bowman Gray Stadium racing took their cars to Ace Speedway and said they would continue to do that until Bowman Gray opens.
Garrison realizes that drivers have commitments from sponsors who want spectators to see their brands.
“Everybody is sacrificing through this pandemic,” Garrison said. “You look at somebody like Bruce Hayes (a key sponsor of Bowman Gray Stadium racing and driver Tim Brown), and he’s making a sacrifice as are the drivers, the track personnel and so many others.”
Garrison said he’s not concerned about the lost revenue.
“Money’s not everything,” Garrison said. “You can make all the money in the world, but health is more important, so we aren’t really focused on that. Sure, money is important, but we also love the sport of racing and we want all of our fans to be safe.”
Ace Speedway’s entry fee for adults went from $12 to $15 with the addition of the Pro Modified Division that had a heavy dose of Bowman Gray drivers. Ace will continue to run on Saturday nights, according to owner Jason Tuner, until Bowman Gray Stadium racing begins.
A family-run business
Garrison has long been associated with the NASCAR-sanctioned track because of his family history. Bill France and Garrison’s grandfather, Alvin Hawkins, who started to hold races at the track in 1949, are credited with getting it all started 72 years ago. Garrison and the Pinilis family are related and own the series but have rented the track from the city since the beginning. Dale Pinilis helps run day-to-day operations and handles sponsor relations with Dale’s son, Loren, the head of media relations for the track.
Jonathan Hawkins, a grandson of Alvin Hawkins, is the general manager of Winston-Salem Speedway Inc.
“We’ve talked about it extensively (as a family) and we miss seeing everybody out there on Saturday nights because when you’ve done it for as long as we have you get to know a lot of folks,” Garrison said. “My grandmother and grandfather used to run the operation a long time ago, so it’s always been a part of my life.”
Unlike Ace Speedway, which is not sanctioned by NASCAR, Bowman Gray Stadium has always been associated with NASCAR for several reasons.
“It helps us with national sponsorship and it helps us with making our insurance and liability a better fit for us,” Garrison said.
The state's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose 8 percentage points from March to April to 12.2 percent. So Garrison sees more significant issues in the state.
“It’s not only losses for us, but it’s a trickle down to the tire dealers, the guys who supply our gas, concessions and like I said earlier the sponsors of the various drivers,” Garrison said. “Everybody is taking a financial hit but it’s going to be OK. It’s a bump in the road and we’ll be back. We always come back.”
What about Phase 3?
With Phase 2 expected to last four to six weeks, the next question is whether Bowman Gray could open during Phase 3.
“That’s a good question,” Garrison said. “There’s a lot of hypotheticals we can kind of look at but maybe since the dam has been broken at Ace Speedway we can look at different things involving our stadium.”
One of the Phase 3 guidelines is increased capacity for entertainment venues. But that point could come too late for a track to open and have enough racing nights to determine division champions. A track also could open, not compile points and race until late August.
Bowman Gray Stadium racing usually ends at least two weeks before Winston-Salem State’s first home football game. The stadium has to be converted for football, although whether that season begins on time or is played remains a question.
WSSU’s home football opener is Sept. 5 against UNC-Pembroke.
“We are working closely with the city and they are in turn working with the state to figure out when we can go racing,” Garrison said. “I think there is a glimmer of light, and just maybe it’s gotten a little brighter.”
Staff writer Richard Craver contributed.