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Race tracks give fans ‘a chance to get back to living our lives’

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    Pine Hall, NC (News & Record) — Racing was still an hour away, and the drivers’ meeting was about to start when Matt Wilson stopped at the top of the grandstands to talk about the new red-white-and-blue trucker’s cap on his head.

On the front, it read “Freedom to Assemble,” and on the mesh to the left of the bill was the logo for 311 Motor Speedway.

The ball caps, which sell for $20 apiece at the track, dotted the grandstand at the half-mile, red-clay oval in rural Stokes County. There were easily three times as many caps as masks among a “Ladies Night” crowd growing steadily in the final hour before the first race tonight.

It was 311’s Speedways first race of the season with fans in the grandstand at $15 a head and in the pits at $30 a pop. 311 Speedway was one of more than 25 tracks or drag strips in North Carolina advertising the opening of grandstands to spectators this weekend, likely drawing crowds that exceeded the outdoor limit of 25 spectators specified in Gov. Roy Cooper’s Phase Two order during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s absolutely about more than just racing. Absolutely,” said Wilson, a truck driver from Thomasville. “I’ve got 10 people here with me that I get to see about once a month. We’re getting to go out as a family — finally — and hang out with other people. And we’re thankful to 311 for doing this.”

Mike Fulp, 311 Speedway’s owner, didn’t know what to expect, but he hoped for 500 to 700 paying customers.

“On a regular night,” Fulp said, “we can get 800 to 1,000 in the grandstand and another 300 to 600 in the pits.”

Forty-one miles away in rural Alamance County, Ace Speedway opened to fans for the second Saturday night in a row, and the crowds turned out.

The 0.4-mile asphalt oval in Altamahaw had learned some lessons from a week ago, when Ace became one of the first sports venues to open to fans.

Some journalists were turned away at the gate, and the main gate itself had a manned contact tracing station set up in front of the ticket window.

One track staff member took digital pictures of each adult’s photo ID while another took a reading with a digital thermometer and supervised as patrons wrote down their names and phone numbers before buying a ticket.

“This worked a whole lot better than last week,” said Ernest “Smokey” Bare, who checked coolers at the main gate as fans handed him their tickets.

Opening week, the contact tracing station was two unattended legal pads on a table inside the gate, and most people simply walked by.

“This isn’t quite as big a crowd as last week,” Bare said, noting that more tracks had opened and people had more options. “You can look up there in the grandstand and see for yourself there’s some more space between people.”

The crowd of perhaps 1,500 to 1,800 was still bigger than a typical race night at Ace, Bare said, although smaller than Ace’s reported 2,550 of a week ago for its opener. But Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem remains closed, and Ace is a draw for those fans.

“I don’t come here a whole lot, but some,” said Drake Moore of Eden, a fan in shorts and a T-shirt, carrying a seat cushion. “The first group of modified cars that ran actually come from Bowman Gray. … So there’s a few more classes than normal and a bigger crowd than normal for here.

“There are people here who come to see the race, some pretty loyal fans. But, yeah, it’s more than that. The kids come to see other kids, people come to see friends.”

And that’s the draw at 311, too, Wilson said.

He has waited impatiently through the coronavirus pandemic, champing at the bit to see live racing again. He and the thousands of other people at the two tracks had no qualms going against Cooper’s executive order.

“The racing community, we’re all a family,” Wilson said. “We all have drivers we love and drivers we hate. The last race I was at, I was standing next to a guy that was pulling for a driver I can’t stand. But we stood there having a conversation, and enjoyed our time together, regardless of which driver was winning. That’s how it is out here. Some guys I see once a year when we’re at the same track, but we remember each other. We pull for our guys and enjoy each other’s company. …

“We like to come out here on the weekend and watch the racing with our families. And we haven’t been able to do that because of the pandemic. Tracks like 311 and Cherokee and Friendship are opening back up, and it’s giving us a chance to get back to living our lives, doing what we like to do.”

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