SBS

A Late Model Series race gets underway in March 2016 at South Boston Speedway.

South Boston Speedway plans to carry on with its Saturday evening races with fans in the stands despite the announcement on Tuesday that Virginia will not enter Phase Three of reopening until July 1.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to postpone the next stage of reopening means outdoor professional sports venues must continue to abide by Phase Two guidelines, which limit capacity to whichever is lower: 50 total people or 50% total capacity.

Phase Three guidelines, which Northam released last week and repeated on Tuesday during a briefing, will allow sports venues to operate at 50% capacity or no more than 1,000 people, but that crowd size won’t be permissible until next week.

South Boston Speedway spokesman Joe Chandler said the track was not addressing the governor's comments. 

"There's no response or statement yet, and I don't know that they'll make one," he said. "I very seriously doubt that they'll make one." 

Two hours after Northam's briefing on Tuesday, the Facebook page for the track featured a graphic promoting the race and the phone number to buy tickets. 

A call to South Boston Speedway’s ticket office on Monday revealed that there was no cap on available tickets.

Track personnel declined to answer questions regarding the expected crowd size, though, preferring instead to refer to the initial news release that read, in part: “Speedway officials said COVID-19 safety plans will be in place for the event, and face coverings will be required for everyone entering the speedway facility.”

No other details regarding fan or driver safety were offered.

Ace Speedway in North Carolina experienced state backlash after hosting crowds exceeding 2,000 people in late May and earlier in June.

In that case, the track was found to be in violation of Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order regarding sizes of public gatherings. Ace Speedway was deemed an “imminent hazard” by the state’s Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, and a superior court judge issued a temporary restraining order two weeks ago preventing further races.

South Boston Speedway announced last week that it would begin its 2020 racing slate with a five-pack of races — headlined by a pair of late model stock car events — at 7 p.m. Saturday. The racing season was supposed to begin on March 21, but the track has been closed for the last three months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Southside Health District Director Dr. Scott Spillmann wrote in an email Monday that the Virginia Department of Health has been in communication with racetrack officials, though he had not yet seen any “proposal” for the track’s operations.

In an email on Tuesday, prior to Northam’s announcement, Spillmann cautioned potential racegoers about the lingering concerns regarding the coronavirus. He wrote that Virginia’s “Safer at Home” strategy has helped slow the spread, but residents would be wise to continue wearing face coverings, maintaining social distancing and remaining mindful of proper hand hygiene.

“During our gradual reopening process, we must keep up the vigilance that got us to this point,” Spillmann wrote. “Avoiding crowds where social distancing is difficult and where others may not be adhering to the mask requirement is another recommendation to prevent infection with COVID-19.”

Northam delivered a similar message during his briefing on Tuesday.

“I want to reiterate that everyone should continue to take this pandemic very seriously,” he said. “Cases are on the rise in many other states, as I said previously. I do not want to see that happen in our commonwealth. Be cautious, and take the necessary steps to protect yourself and the people around you.”

Olivia Epps, the executive assistant to the Halifax County administrator, said on Monday that the county had no official stance on whether or not it was a good idea for the racetrack to host a crowd, saying South Boston Speedway is a private entity and can determine the feasibility of reopening on its own.

Danville-based driver Peyton Sellers, who placed first and third in two late model features on June 13 at a fan-less Dominion Raceway, said on Friday that he supported and understood the decision to allow fans at South Boston.

“I think their hands have been tied to this point. The track couldn’t do anything, and they see a window right now and they’re trying to get a race in, so I’m behind them,” Sellers said. “You see on TV every week, NASCAR is fighting the same struggles with no fans. Fortunately they have TV deals. These local short tracks don’t have TV deals. Without fans in the stands, they lose money.”

He added that the race at Dominion was streamed on Facebook Live.

Sellers went on to say that he prefers racing with fans present, but he also wants everybody involved on race days to be in a safe environment. At the same time, he recognizes the public’s impatience regarding the reopening stages.

“I don’t want to do anything that’s not going with the law,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything to be rebellious, but on the same token, I think it’s time that life gets back to normal.”

Parker Cotton is a sports reporter at the Martinsville Bulletin and Danville Register & Bee. You can reach him at (276) 638-8801 ext. 215. Follow @ByParkerCotton. 

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