In every bad situation, there’s always a silver lining to be found. In the case of the Covid-19 Coronavirus that has stopped the sport of drag racing quicker than any parachute or sand trap could stop a wayward car, there’s actually still quite a bit of good going on behind the scenes.
Despite the government-mandated closures, many tracks around the country – including Carolina Dragway, Virginia Motorsports Park, and Darlington Dragway – are blasting forward at full speed to make improvements to their facilities so that they can welcome racers and fans back with even greater hospitality and better amenities.
While the ‘Rona off-season’s shutdowns have certainly put a damper on drag racing around the world, enterprising track managers are doing everything they can to keep their staff employed and to their locations ready to go once the decision is made to green light social gatherings again.
At Carolina Dragway in Aiken, South Carolina, owner Roger Starrette and track manager Jimmy Owen have invested a serious amount of money into their “The House of Hook.” In addition to a new CarolinaDragway.com website from P.TEN Marketing launched in 2019, the guys have made some bold moves that show their commitment to the property.
New equipment, including a static drag from Kurt Johnson’s Total Venue Concepts, will be a tremendous asset for the staff when prepping the racing surface. In 2019, Starrette and Owen also had the track flattened and leveled, then had Johnson polish it up to the 60-foot mark in both lanes. “It was a dramatic improvement over what we had before, as far as traction and performance,” explained Owen.
If we can’t race, let’s at least go to work. We would be crazy to waste this opportunity. – Jimmy Owen, Carolina Dragway
With a pristine surface awaiting racers, Owen didn’t want to sit idle – nor did he want to lay off any staff. “Some places have closed up, but not us. We have our part-time employees come and mow to keep everything looking good, and we did some painting to dress up the place,” he noted of the fresh finish that was put on the bathrooms and the new tractor to keep the 300 acres of grass in check. Additionally, a new public address system was installed for clearer communication across the property.
The group added an extension on their equipment storage building to keep things out of the way of the staging lanes and to free up space in the pits. “We’re also doing some paving and redesigning the lanes to be able to get a few more cars in there and to reduce congestion – when people come back, it’s going to feel fresh,” Owen stated. “If we can’t race, let’s at least go to work. We would be crazy to waste this opportunity.”
Procrastination certainly isn’t a concern for Carolina Dragway’s team, as the work being done is actually just stuff that they had been planning to do when the season winds down naturally at the end of 2020. “Roger’s idea is to take the opportunity to do it ahead of schedule instead, and it keeps me and the other guys employed, which we all really appreciate,” added Owen. Looking “short-term long-term,” Starrette and Owen do plan to completely resurface the track itself within a few years.
Similarly, at Tommy and Judy Franklin’s Virginia Motorsports Park in Dinwiddie, Virginia, track manager Tyler Crossnoe has been hard at work maintaining the property. Although their year started well with events running as scheduled, they’ve since lost a substantial portion of their calendar – from major events to private test days – due to the unexpected downtime.
“Our motto is to create the best possible experience for everyone involved – employees, racers, media, fans, etc.,” shared Crossnoe, who refuses to shut the gate and take time off. “Keeping the facility as nice as we can, along with always improving ourselves behind the scenes, makes it quicker and easier for everyone to make your time at our facility as positive as possible.”
The pandemic lockdown has not stopped Franklin and Crossnoe, and the duo has already performed maintenance on the concrete racing surface to ensure more texture at the starting line to adhere maximum traction. Additionally, construction of VMP’s new winner’s circle has been recently completed, and new signage along the return road (including stop signs on the turn-off for the junior dragsters to keep them safely behind main traffic) has been installed.
We’re flexible with the schedule and can push it back as far as we need to, but we’re excited to have the stands packed again. – Rhett Gardner, Darlington Dragway
“One of the largest upgrades we’ve made during this time off is the installation of new light poles and LED light fixtures on all of the return roads so racers can have maximum visibility,” Crossnoe added of the work that was done in-house using the team from Franklin Electric.
The Hot Rod Grill concession stand has been addressed to reduce wait times on orders while the security program across the entire property has been enhanced. Everything has been considered, and many small changes that will ultimately make a big impact in the business’s future have been strategically implemented.
“We’re repairing equipment, installing photocell protection along the retaining wall as well as fire/safety containment boxes and interchangeable sponsor signage, streamlining ticket sales, working with local hotels, and much more,” continued Crossnoe, who will be pressure washing much of the property and who also had the new RaceVMP.com website redesigned by P.TEN Marketing. “The most important improvement of all is learning to use our time wisely – there’s always a job to be done, and the downtime has granted us time to accomplish it all while improving our bottom line and our employees’ skills.”
Meanwhile, at Darlington Dragway in Hartsville, South Carolina, owner Russell Miller has been working with Rhett Gardner to keep things moving in the right direction – forward.
A relative rookie working his second year as general manager, Gardner is actually a chemist by trade and left his former career as a microbiologist to focus on drag racing instead. The certified scientist is hopeful that the action will pick back up in late-May and be back to normal by late June, but isn’t allowing his track to sit dormant during the downtime.
“We’ve been doing things we hadn’t been able to do during normal operation, like fixing potholes in the pits, spraying new lines in the parking lot, painting what needs freshening up, mowing the grass, weeding all around the property…we even pressure-washed the stands,” noted the enterprising young man of the details he’s been focusing on so that Darlington can make a big impression when its gates reopen instead of looking like it’s been on pause for weeks. “Eventually, this will end and everyone will come back. We know the racers and fans are looking forward to that, and we want to make sure that they feel welcomed here.”
Combined with the fresh texture that Total Venue Concepts put on the track’s concrete during the real off-season to better hold rubber, Russell and Gardner are doing everything they can think of to help make the track better for racers and spectators alike both in the near and distant future.
Although there hasn’t been any revenue flowing and income has been significantly impacted as a result, Russell has graciously been having track employees work part-time at his other truck and trailer maintenance business, Pee Dee Fleet Services, which was deemed essential and is still operational. Thanks to the creative shift in management’s focus from racing revenue to protecting the track’s team and their families, no one has been let go and paychecks are still going out as usual.
Gardner can’t wait to get going again with racing, and is fully committed to having Keith Berry’s Woooostock! as Darlington’s first big hurrah back. “We’re flexible with the schedule and can push it back as far as we need to, but we’re excited to have the stands packed again,” he added.
Despite the financial setbacks of losing so many vital income-generating events, by taking measures to minimize operational changes, create employment opportunities, and hustle to keep their tracks in race-ready form, Starrette, Franklin, and Russell have proven that actions do speak louder than words and have shown their dedication to drag racing through commitment and investment for the greater good.
With uncertainty still the only certain thing on the schedule for 2020, tracks are being proactive in protecting their futures instead of risking getting left behind by being reactive instead. Owners and managers know that their businesses depend on customers – both racers and fans – and that those customers are being impacted by the global economic impact of the Novel Coronavirus as well, so it makes perfect sense to give them something to be excited about coming back to.