While drivers are grateful that Skagit Speedway held a 2020 season, they say it was an odd experience to race with no fans in the grandstands.
“When they’re not there it’s not the same,” driver Bill Rude said. “Last year was some of best racing we’ve had in years, and there was no one there to share it with.”
It will be a different this year. Skagit Speedway opens its 2021 campaign Saturday under state COVID-19 safety guidelines that will allow about 2,500 fans.
This season, which is slated to run to September, follows an unusual year where races were shown on pay-per-view. Though this allowed races to be seen by fans throughout the country and even internationally, drivers said it was odd to compete in front of empty grandstands.
Rude, who will drive the No. 33 this season and also owns Kelsey Carpenter’s familiar 79K, said he missed waving to a friend in the stands during slower track-packing laps and meeting fans after races.
“It’s not the same not having the fans in the stands, having kids come down afterwards and sit in the cars,” he said.
Rude said the odd feeling was compounded by 2020’s racing being especially exciting. That’s backed up by Justin Youngquist, a longtime driver who worked on the pay-per-view broadcasts last season and will return to competition this year in the No. 95 car.
Youngquist described the season as “surreal.”
“The part that was the hardest was that there were so many good races,” he said. “If there were people there, they’d be jumping up and down, screaming and laughing, hitting their buddies on the shoulder like, ‘Did you see that?’ The racing was so good but nobody was there to see it. But if it’s a preview of what we’ll see this year it’s a good thing.”
Speedway owner Steve Beitler said he expects more good racing this year. The pay-per-view broadcasts will continue, but he said staff has been working hard to comply with safety requirements for the fans who show up.
“It’s been a tremendous amount of work for the staff. (We’ve installed) hand-wash stations, plastic shields. It’s created a lot of extra workloads. We’re not that different from restaurants or other businesses.”
Beitler said fans will need to exercise patience and care, especially while waiting to get through the gates and in line at the concession stands. They’ll also be expected to follow guidelines such as social-distancing requirements and the wearing of masks while not eating or drinking.
Beitler said the patience will pay off.
“It’s like a family reunion. I’ve got fans I’ve become friends with over the years I didn’t get to see last year. It’ll be nice to see families having fun together again,” he said.
Drivers say that’s how it is for them, too.
“I think that’ll be a highlight of my season, is to see fans back in the stands. We love racing, but we love to put a show on for fans as well,” Rude said.