Track president Jason Fiorito has a work crew replacing grandstands along the drag strip at Pacific Raceways, near Seattle.
He’s strategizing how to space the pits for social distancing among his 320 acres nestled in the tall stands of Douglas fir in the shadow of majestic Mount Rainier.
Preparations for the July 31-Aug. 2 Northwest Nationals are charging ahead, and Fiorito is sensing a hopeful mood coming from the NHRA headquarters at Glendora, California, as well as “a level of importance with our event” in the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
“You get a gut feeling sometimes that people are waiting for that question: Is there a date after which they scrap the whole season? We have not heard word one about scrapping the whole season, nor have I felt that energy,” Fiorito said. “I think everybody is focused on ‘When’s the date of the first event, then how do we reshuffle things to get as many events as we can in by the end of the season?’”
Fiorito said it “mirrors what we’re feeling, which is, ‘Hey, let’s do whatever we can to get these things in the books.’ I think the NHRA is being open and objective about what’s going on. But the energy we’re sensing from the NHRA and the competitors is, ‘Let’s get movin’.’ I’m relatively optimistic that our event goes on.”
Fiorito also knows, however, that the ultimate call on whether an event is a go or a no-go is going to fall with state governors who have been setting restrictions on business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re all waiting for our respective governors to tell us what is and isn’t acceptable,” he said. “We’re forging ahead, knowing that our race is on Fox network and not FS1. We’re one of the few live-covered events on Sunday. We’re coming up with contingency plans in case there are still social-distancing protocols in place, in terms of shuffling seating arrangements in the grandstands around to accommodate that. We don’t expect that we would be even close to a sellout if we’re able to put on the event. So I think we can accommodate social distancing.”
The track boss is also not concerned that his event’s lack of a title sponsor may make it a race easier for the NHRA to cancel entirely this season.
“The NHRA is planning on hosting the event,” he said. “It’s never been contingent on title sponsorship. Putting on the series is what’s most important to everybody this year, including the competitors. So we’re just hanging tough, and we’re spending money right now, forging forward in anticipation of putting on the event,” Fiorito said.
“Our interaction with the NHRA to this point assumes the event is going to take place. What we’re trying to wrestle with is assuming the event takes place, how do we fit it in with state restrictions that may or may not be in place at that point? We’re just going through the exercise of if we needed to maintain 6 feet (of distance between fans) in our grandstands, how many spectators would that accommodate? How do we get people in and out of there and maintain some social distancing? What, if any, would be our ticket-sale cutoff to be able to maintain that social distancing?”
Waiting for permission from the governor in California is a stumbling block for Sonoma Raceway president Steve Page, whose national event in the San Francisco Bay area is slotted one week before the Seattle race date.
“Our NHRA event is not until July,” Page said, “but it’s increasingly unlikely that a gathering of that nature is going to be practical. And you have government directives, then you have people in the state who have said, ‘Don’t get close to anybody for a couple of months’ suddenly being invited to sit next to thousands of strangers in a grandstand. I think that the psychological hangover from this is going to make it challenging to put on an event of that nature in the near term.”
So while Page is not quite as optimistic about his race going forward as his neighbor to the north in Seattle, he’s moving forward.
“We haven’t officially pulled the plug,” Page said. “We’re talking to the NHRA all the time. They have a larger challenge of trying to juggle all the events on their calendar and find homes for them. So I would say we’re staying open to the idea that it might be postponed until later in the year when the conditions would be more favorable. But we really couldn’t say when that would be.
“We still show the event on our calendar. I’m just trying to be realistic about the factors beyond our control that may interfere with that. This year is challenging for everybody. As much as we enjoy what we do, and as much as we want to provide a good event for our fans, we are a small piece of a very big world that is struggling with this.”
While Fiorito is in a different state, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has acted in tandem with California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Should Newsom fail to sign off on the NHRA event at Sonoma, Inslee could follow suit for Seattle.
Fiorito has worked well with Inslee for the past few years, so he feels comfortable lobbying for “participant-driven events.”
Fiorito said, “And so is our entire industry up here in the Pacific Northwest. (With) the participant-driven events, like our weekly drag-racing series and our club events on the road course, we are more likened to a golf course than we are the Mariners’ (Major League Baseball) stadium.
“If you open up a racetrack, you’re positively affecting a hundred businesses for each one of us.”
“We have 320 acres, and we can space our pit spots far enough apart, and we can limit the number of people in a pit spot to those who already live with each other. Most of our drag racers come as a family. Those folks are living under the same roof, anyways. If the you give them a pit stall and then give two pit stalls in between pit stalls, we can socially distance and accommodate much more than 50 or 100 people on the property and host those events.
“We do have an industry discussion going with the governor’s office and our local elected officials on how to reopen participant-driven events in a socially responsible manner. And I think we’re making some progress there,” he said. “If you open up a racetrack, you’re positively affecting a hundred businesses for each one of us: tire shops, speed shops, safety-gear (companies). We’ve got such a huge, positive economic footprint when you open up a racetrack that the bang for your buck is large when you reengage our industry—unlike many other industries that are myopic when you focus on just that business. We have a pretty sizable footprint—negatively when you shut us down, positively when you open us up. We’re making that argument, as well.”
Fiorito adds that he has no insight into when restrictions will be lifted.
“He’s pretty tight-lipped about what any time frame will be beyond what he’s putting out to the public—which is that we need to start seeing there’s a decline (in virus cases). There needs to be a two-week decline in cases before he institutes Phase One. Entertainment will be included in Phase Two, then spectator events probably in Phase Three. But he is offering no definitive timeline on when any of those phases will start beyond Phase One, which is after a two-week decline in cases in the state,” he said.
The decline as of April 26 had not begun, Fiorito said, citing Inslee’s data.
Fiorito said, “They give us the pat answer: ‘Well, we’re going to do the socially responsible thing while protecting lives with the understanding that the economy needs to open up. We can’t trade the economy for lives, and this will all be based on science.’ You go, ‘OK, thank you very much for the recording.’”
What would happen if Fiorito or Page were asked to host their respective races with no spectators?
For Page at Sonoma, the idea was unpalatable.
“The challenge with an NHRA event is that a no-fans event doesn’t work economically—unlike our NASCAR race, which has a hefty TV rights fee. For our drag race, the bulk of the revenue comes from spectator admissions and the money the spectators spend while they’re here,” the Sonoma boss said. “If you tried to put on a race with no spectators, then you’d have all of the expense and none of the income. That’s a model that just doesn’t work.”
Page added, “We’re taking the long view on everything, but I’m just saying when you look at the overall economics of a spectator-less event, it’s a lot more challenging for an NHRA race than a NASCAR one. You’re heavily reliant on the on-site revenue, admissions and hospitality.”
Fiorito took a completely different approach regarding Seattle, saying, “You have to remember that although the NHRA’s TV model is pay-to-play at this point and although the TV production costs may exceed the TV advertising revenue, it also is enormously important to their series sponsors.
“In a direct cost analysis of the event, spectators are enormously important. But I wouldn’t downplay the importance of the number of eyes watching the TV show, which may greatly increase at the point where people are unable to show up to the event by either restriction or personal fear. Some people aren’t going to show up to a crowded stadium, regardless of whether it’s legal, because they are in high-risk groups or are immune-compromised or are elderly (which is a significant portion of our fans). So those numbers of eyes watching the TV show becomes more important to the series sponsors.
“If I’m Mello Yello, what do I want right now? I want my name in front of as many people as I can get. NHRA gets exactly what’s going on, and they’re going to do whatever they can to keep their series sponsors happy, to keep the race-team sponsors happy,” he said. “My gut tells me that the race-team sponsors associate more importance with the million people that are watching it on TV rather than the 30,000 people in the stadiums watching. Just the numbers dictate that. It’s enormously important to both race teams’ sponsorship and series sponsorship to get this thing in the books and get it in front of the eyes watching on TV— which I think is going to greatly increase during this pandemic.”
Fiorito said his track would incur substantial costs to host a race, even if no fans are present. He said they include security—“You still have hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment on the property, and you have to secure the facility”—what he called “opportunity costs” (lost revenue) and “pretty significant track-prepping costs.”
There’s also shutting down for about 10 days before the event, then hiring a support staff for the event.
Depending on whether Sportsman classes run, he said “there’d be no reason not to if you’ve got folks running down the track; hosting a few hundred Sportsman cars and up to 64 or more pro cars is still a pretty big production. You’re going to be in the $200,000 range of eating it if you didn’t sell any spectator tickets at all. And that would be a pretty significant expense to eat.
“Now, look at it the other way. If you scrap the event and don’t have any spectators show up, what do you do with essentially 50% of the tickets that you’ve already sold? We presell close to 50% of the tickets, as do most tracks. So it’s an expensive endeavor not to host the event, because now you’re either crediting those guys for next year or you’re refunding the money, which is not an attractive deal either way.”
“If I’m Mello Yello … I want my name in front of as many people as I can get.”
Both Page and Fiorito describe themselves as glass-half-full fellows. Fiorito said, “We as track operators are inherent gamblers and inherent optimists. Otherwise, none of us would be doing what we’re doing.”
Page called himself “a universal optimist, also a realist. I’m looking at the calendar, and there are going to be some significant challenges that will present themselves in sticking with our original, current date. That doesn’t mean we can’t make it happen. I’m just being realistic that we have to be mindful of alternatives.”
Fiorito said that “from our interactions with the NHRA, I think the NHRA is willing to be flexible and creative in terms of following an ever-moving target when it comes to state by state and nationally what’s going to be allowed.
“There’s an open dialog between the NHRA and each individual track on how we can get as many events in this year as possible. That’s the feeling we’re getting. They seem to be optimistic about the potential of getting events in and flexible in terms of how those events are structured, with no definitive decisions made on anything, because we don’t know what the individual states are going to do. It’s just the way it is.”
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