Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina has rebuked the operator of Ace Speedway in Elon, N.C., which last weekend conducted races at which fans packed the stands without face masks or social distancing, but he stopped short of blocking a race planned for Friday.
Videos taken by spectators and news crews showing a boisterous, largely unprotected crowd at the reopening of the speedway on Saturday went viral on social media.
North Carolina has banned outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people, but the attendance at the track clearly exceeded that limit. And the track operator’s determination to conduct the races without policing the crowd — and the local sheriff’s department’s refusal to intervene — underscored the confusion and conflict as sports navigate restrictions meant to slow the pandemic in their restart.
Cooper called Saturday’s event, at a small track off the major racing circuit, “dangerous and reckless” to public health. But he did not announce any specific enforcement action.
Terry Johnson, the sheriff of Alamance County, where the track is, about 60 miles northwest of Raleigh, called Cooper’s order banning outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people “vague” and “unconstitutional,” and refused to stop the event. He added, “I will not enforce an unconstitutional law.”
Last week, Cooper relaxed an earlier order limiting most businesses and public gatherings. He intended to leave some room to allow for church services, but opponents of any restrictions interpreted the new order as creating a loophole big enough to drive Ace’s 85 racecars through.
Cooper allowed NASCAR to operate racing events in the past week at the Charlotte Motor Speedway complex, but without fans in attendance.
The Alamance County government issued a statement this week supporting the operators of Ace.
“Alamance County government officials were puzzled by Governor Cooper’s comments regarding Ace Speedway during the media update on Tuesday,” the statement said, “since no one from the governor’s office has reached out directly to the county, even after the county requested guidance and input.”
The county’s statement concluded with a long list of precautions the speedway operators had taken.
Jason Turner, who co-owns Ace with his father Robert, declined to comment, saying they were “too busy getting ready” for Friday’s race.
He told reporters last week that Ace was going ahead with its long-delayed season because “this place does not operate on hopes and dreams — this place costs money to operate, and we need to operate.” The facility had last held racing in October.
Fans were asked to voluntarily practice social distancing and wear masks. But as Jason Turner told WXII-TV, a station based in Winston-Salem, N.C., “Not a lot of people showed up with masks on.”
The station reported that Ace, which can seat 5,000 people, announced it was at half capacity, or 2,500, even though it seemed full.
The track, a four-tenths-mile paved oval, has been in business since 1956, but it has struggled financially and gone through a succession of owners and operators, especially in recent years. More than 1,000 small tracks operate nationwide, counting on weekly programs in warmer weather to help them eke out an existence through the lean months.
NASCAR has emphasized that it has nothing to do with Ace’s events, though the track has held races sanctioned by the stock car auto racing association in the past.
“The races they’ve held with fans were not sanctioned by NASCAR,” said Mike Forde, a spokesman. “NASCAR continues to work closely with the many local track operators who host NASCAR-sanctioned races, but we will not resume sanctioned NASCAR weekly racing series events until we can do so in a safe and responsible manner that complies with federal, state and local guidelines.”
NASCAR was among the first major sports bodies to return to hosting live, nationally televised events, which were done without fans in attendance and, the organization said, with several health protocols in place.
Cooper’s office said the governor might relax restrictions further on June 24 if the virus seemed under control. As of last week, however, coronavirus infections and deaths in the state were still on the rise.
At least two other small tracks, in Pennsylvania, flouted social distancing guidelines, protective equipment directives and stay-at-home orders to run races last weekend. Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown and Penn Can Speedway in Susquehanna went ahead with at least a part of their traditional programs for Memorial Day weekend.
Pennsylvania government officials warned the track operators not to do it, but they went ahead anyway. Mike Heffner, the Lincoln track owner, said he had been threatened with revocation of his operating license. But he said he would fight any such effort. Penn Can operators were issued two citations; no one there would comment on any possible response.
Attendees, most of whom refused to wear masks, said they felt entirely safe to be there, despite the shoulder-to-shoulder seating in some areas of the grandstands.
“I was penned up in my house for two months because I’m not in the best of health,” Keith Ness, a spectator at Lincoln, told reporters. “If I’m to pass away from this stuff, so be it.”