South Boston Speedway announced Wednesday afternoon it will not be conducting its Saturday night race as planned. The track planned to sell an entire grandstand full of tickets, in defiance of statewide mandates from Gov. Ralph Northam.
The track said fans who have purchased tickets will be given a refund.
“We are extremely disappointed in having to cancel the event,” the track wrote in a press release.
“Unfortunately, circumstances over which we have no control make it impossible for us to proceed with the event. We very much appreciate the support we have received from competitors, fans and sponsors as we have attempted to start our 2020 season.”
Under the Commonwealth’s Phase 3 re-opening plan, the speedway would be limited to a capacity of 1,000 patrons, which it said is still not enough to conduct business.
“The Phase 3 guidelines still make it impossible for us to hold our exciting events for the race fans and to employ the 100 people in our county every weekend," the track wrote. "We hope to be able to open our 2020 season soon.”
South Boston Speedway plans to carry on with its Saturday evening races with fans in the stands despite the announcement that Virginia will not enter the third phase 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 second-phase guidelines, which limit capacity to whichever is lower: 50 people or 50% of total capacity.
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."
The track is about two hours southwest of Richmond.
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.
Third-phase 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.
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 Mandy Cohen, the state’s health and human services secretary, and a superior court judge issued a temporary restraining order two weeks ago preventing further races. A decision regarding Ace Speedway’s ability to continue races is expected on Wednesday, according to The News & Observer in Raleigh.
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 past three months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Scott Spillman, the Southside Health District director, 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, before 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.”
Olivia Epps, the executive assistant to the Halifax County administrator, said on Monday that the county had no official stance on whether 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 with no fans at 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.”
Sellers also said 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.”