SELINSGROVE, Pa. — A sneeze guard was erected by the concession stand, its menu reduced to burgers and chicken fingers. Pieces of red tape marked off social distancing for the skeleton crew in the old wood grandstand that overlooks a straightaway. Racers wearing helmets and gloves planned to rip around Selinsgrove Speedway’s half-mile circle of dirt like most Saturday nights in the spring and summer.
Fans would cheer, from home.
With Snyder County moving into the yellow phase of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 restrictions on May 8, race promoters at the 74-year-old speedway by the Susquehanna River thought they’d figured out a surefire plan to get racing again: a streaming pay-per-view event with no live audience. Other racetracks in rural America had pulled it off over the last month.
A hundred or so people would converge on Selinsgrove instead of the typical 4,000, mostly the 48 racers, their crews, and workers. Supermarkets and home improvement stores have seen larger crowds in more confined spaces on recent Saturdays.
“We did everything we could to make this event as safe as possible,” general manager Steve Inch said on the track in Penn Township Thursday afternoon.
Inch said the speedway had approval from the state to race, but said Harrisburg changed course just days before the event.
“This crisis happened at the worst time possible for racing,” he said “This is the beginning of our season.”
According to Inch, the speedway sent an email to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) on May 4, seeking permission to hold the race May 9. The department, which has been handling business-opening waivers for the state, replied the same day, Inch said.
“DCED is good with approval" from the state police, the email stated.
Inch and the speedway team had already met with the state police, who told the track to get approval from DCED, so the speedway began prepping for the race, which would be dubbed “Posse Unleashed." Buyers would pay $24.95 to watch the race from home through the internet.
Inch said the DCED sent a follow-up email May 5 that offered advice on how to properly conduct the event.
“Please review and practice the guidance provided in attachments. Additional resources can be found on the Department of Health’s website,” the email read.
Inch hoped the night would pave the way for the dozens of other racetracks in the state that hoped to get moving again. On May 6, however, Inch and the team were told by the DCED that racetracks were considered “entertainment” and would not be permitted to operate until Snyder County entered the green phase. Selinsgrove promoters believed there was a late revision to the rules that specified yellow-approved businesses, though DCED spokesperson Casey Smith said that wasn’t the case.
“These restrictions are in place to protect Pennsylvanians by mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” Smith said in an email. “Please note that the administration did not reverse any decision; the speedway believed that it had approval from PSP to operate. Notably, neither DCED nor PSP issued any exemption or waiver that could permit the facility to operate.”
As of Friday afternoon, Snyder County, population 40,327, had 33 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and two deaths. It currently is in the yellow phase, which means many retail stores can be open and stay-at-home measures are loosened.
While a racetrack would seem to fall squarely in the nonessential category, promoters say it provides a small economic turbo boost on Saturday nights from March to September in the small rural economies that surround it. Rooms and camp sites are booked. Fans and race crews buy food at local restaurants. In Selinsgrove, population 5,900, the connection is even closer: a local fire department is a majority stockholder in the track.
“I don’t know of any other fire company that has a racetrack. Every night they race, money comes back to us," said Colin Rice, assistant fire chief at Dauntless Hook and Ladder Fire Department, of the approximately $30,000 it makes a year from the track. “This is a huge sport in Pennsylvania.”
Inch said the track costs about $1 million a year to operate, spending about $40,000 on each show. He wouldn’t provide specifics of his financial situation but said his profits are marginal.
State Rep. David Rowe (R., Snyder-Union) tried to intervene on the racetrack’s behalf, noting that pay-per-view races had gone off without hitches in Tennessee and Iowa. Last month, a Pennsylvania racer traveled to South Dakota to compete in a no-fans face and won.
“You see what other states are doing, and it’s been going fine,” Rowe said. “There’s been no outbreak.”
Doug Rose, owner of Bridgeport Speedway in Gloucester County, N.J., and Action Track in Kutztown, Berks County, said he’s hoping to get a more concrete date for lifting restrictions. He doubts any track in Pennsylvania or New Jersey will be racing with full crowds this year. New Jersey, he knows, will open much later than Pennsylvania.
“I’m sitting here with nothing but lots of bills," Rose, 49, said. “If you tell me it’s August, I can take a break for a week. I don’t need to pay someone to cut the grass for a week.”
Rose said Bridgeport Speedway, just off the Delaware River in South Jersey, sits on 83 acres and would be fairly easy to socially distance a few hundred racers, crew, and employees. Selingsrove has more than 100 acres. Smaller tracks, however, could be hurt the most.
“They’ll have to decide whether it’s even feasible for them to open,” Rose said.
Inch said most racetracks across the country are “mom and pop shops," operating more as a labor of love and gasoline than for profit. A smaller track, Port Royal Speedway, is just 35 miles to the west in Juniata County.
“We don’t have any full-time employees here,” Inch said of Selinsgrove.
Sharon Breen of Montgomeryville, Montgomery County, was planning to watch the Selinsgrove race, one of the first live sporting events she’d see in months.
“I don’t go out, I’m really trying to adhere to this stuff. I was planning to buy it, watch it on television, and then, nope, it’s not going to happen," she said. “I was sure ready for it.”