With as many as 17 states currently under stay-at-home orders and the nation as a whole adhering to federal social distancing guidelines due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, drag racing as we knew it has ground to a complete halt. The stoppage, the first in the history of our post-WWII genre of motorsport, came at a most inopportune time for so many racers — those in the drag racing hotbeds of the central and northern states, saddled by frigid weather and snowfall for the better part of the last six months, were prepared and full of anticipation for the coming season, unaware that a biological pandemic, of all things, would soon cross a still-unknown number of race weekends off their calendars.
Already suffering from an offseason case of cabin fever, racers have been vocally champing at the bit to turn money into noise in recent weeks as tracks and organizations from coast to coast have cancelled or postponed events, first through the month of March, and now April. That cry led one man, accomplished California bracket racer and chassis builder Jesse Adams, to seek a creative solution.
California was one of the first states in the nation to institute a “lockdown” of its citizens and businesses and abolish public gatherings — it seemed the last place that anyone, anywhere in the country, would pull off a drag race.
Call Adams a pioneer or perhaps a rebel, but his effort to turn lemons into lemonade during a time of crisis to provide starved racers with some semblance of normalcy — noise, burning rubber, the smell of race fuel, and socially-distant camaraderie — was a surefire success. And it could well serve as a blueprint for other tracks around the country as they navigate the weeks of uncertainty ahead.
“At first, this was just a joke, because I was tired of seeing all the political posts and fake news that gets passed around,” Adams says. “I was fishing one morning and thought, ‘I’ll put a post out and say I’m doing a 32-car secret deal.’ And immediately people went crazy about it, they loved it. Everybody wanted in. Ten minutes later I realized this was a genius idea….there’s nowhere for people to race. I called up my partner, Tony Trimp, we put a track rental together, put the race together, and in five days, we had it set up.”
Adams submitted a plan to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, to the District Supervisor, and to the Sacramento County government directly. Those three entities forwarded his plan to the Sacramento County CDC, all of whom gave it the green light.
We’re mindful of the situation with COVID-19, we kept the car-count low so we could control people in the pits, in the staging lanes, on the starting line, and keep everyone separated. – Jesse Adams
The event would be a private track rental, limited to a maximum of 40 cars, and Adams additionally requested that racers brining minimal crew along for the ride. The tower personnel, all of whom live together in the same home, operated as normal. All other essential employees were assigned stations and remained in their own personal areas. Racers were requested to pit a minimum of 20-feet apart, and reminders of spacing and social distancing were routinely announced throughout the event. The gates were locked to spectators, and while the concessions were closed, food and drink were served in a controlled space.
“The restrictions put in place, technically, are recommendations only,” Adams explains. “That means we could hold this event without the chance of someone coming in to shut it down. And because it’s a racetrack that operates regularly, we don’t have to get permits for each event like a concert might. We’re mindful of the situation with COVID-19, we kept the car-count low so we could control people in the pits, in the staging lanes, on the starting line, and keep everyone separated. We had gloves and masks for everyone and took all the precautions to keep everyone safe.”
In the end, through Adams’ efforts and the cooperation of the racers, the event was both successful and safe.
“Thursday people definitely followed the rules better. Friday there were a few racers who brought a few more crew than desired, and at times, there was more gathering than desired, but we regularly reminded and spread people out over the P.A., in person, and even during my live feed videos I asked people to give each other more space.
“We had medical-grade Sani Wipes, and I was constantly cleaning surfaces — I’m talking starter switch, mop and broom handles, water spray nozzles, tower handrails, tractor, and equipment grab surfaces,” Adams continues. “I did tech cards individually, with mask and gloves…threw probably 20 pens away after being touched, and my kid passed out time-slips wearing gloves, with a 3-foot long grabber stick. The text time-slip method proved to be unrealistic at the moment, but we tried. We posted specific safety information on every portable restroom, each restroom door, and additional hand-wash stations were brought in.
“Ask anyone who was at the event….we were very mindful of the situation. Everyone was there of their own free will, and safer than going to the grocery store, guaranteed. I’d say even safer than the tens of thousands of attendees at other events across the country just three weeks ago.”
“We did our due diligence prior to renting the race track. This was not a secret. Racers are begging for a place to test or race. A few racers who were invited but not comfortable with the idea simply said “no thank you,” and even appreciated the offer.
“I have seen hundreds more positive comments than negative comments,” Adams goes on to say. “I understand that people may not agree with a race being held, but it’s also obvious that many people don’t know the preliminary planning, cautions, and steps that were taken to maximize the safety of the people who were begging to get out and race. So, from the outside looking in, it may not have seemed like we took any extra precautions, but if you ask some racers who were in attendance, I believe they’ll all tell you that we were not reckless.”
Adams initially made 50 phone calls to invite participants, raking in about a 30-percent success rate. From there, he permitted in others who had inquired about participating.
Adams and Trimp charged $250 entry and a $100 re-entry for a $3,000 winners payout, along with round money through the semifinals. Thirty entries showed up on Thursday, and 34 on Friday, averaging it out to the 32 cars that were initially desired. Box and no-box racers competed separately until the final round. Adams notes the higher-than-usual entry was necessary to create the attractive pot and turn a profit for the track. No-box racer Herk Ursley won on Thursday over Randy Cloud, and on Friday, no-box racer Robin Crowton ousted John Victorino in the finale. Mostly California racers, they were joined by three cars from Las Vegas, one from Washington state, and Ohio’s “Disco” Dean Karns traveled out to drive a borrowed pickup.
Adams’ two-day event, despite approval from the county, certainly had the feel of an illegal, underground activity given the current crisis across the country, and that notion was made all the more real when a pair of deputies and even a sheriff’s helicopter descended on the raceway at one point. The department, responding to a local shots-fired call — Adams quips, “Someone in the closest neighborhood can’t tell the difference between gunshots and a bad nitrous tune” — were aware of the event and cordial, even jokingly asking to come in and make a pass with the cruisers.
In the end, Adams pulled off what no one else thought was possible, during an unparalleled (in our lifetimes) moment of crisis, in a state rarely sympathetic to motorsports, proving that when extreme measures are necessary, outside-the-box thought can win out. And Adams hopes that his efforts will inspire other tracks to follow suit in providing hope — and a little drag racing — in a difficult period.
Ask anyone who was at the event….we were very mindful of the situation. Everyone was there of their own free will, and safer than going to the grocery store, guaranteed. – Jesse Adams
“I definitely would hope it inspires other tracks to put something together,” he says. “For the people at Sacramento Raceway, this is their livelihood. Shutting it down isn’t an option, and the track needs racers and events in order for the owners to pay their bills and keep the gates open. This private rental is a hands-off way to keep their bills paid. Any little bit we can bring in is helpful to them, and there’s a lot of tracks across the country like that. Some people lease tracks, and they still have to make the payment — if they can’t open the gates, they’re going to lose the track. If tracks operators or owners can’t pay their bills, tracks may close forever.”