When the pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders were issued in March, motorsports events – just like everything – came to an instantaneous halt. Everyone knew the shutdown wasn’t going to last just a few days, but what was America facing? Two weeks? A month? A year? Everything was a guess.
Fortunately, motorsport was among the first to get back to business, among the early returnees the Sports Car Club of America, which led a steady and safe march back into the world of amateur competition.
In fact, it was an SCCA club race that would help turn the tide for professional road racing, and specifically for IndyCar’s doubleheader this past weekend at Road America.
SCCA’s first motorsport event as shelter-in-place restrictions eased was an autocross in Palmer, Alaska, hosted on May 3 by the club’s Arctic Alaska Region, with the weekend abounding in face masks and social distancing.
As the month progressed, several more autocrosses and track events emerged; and then at the end of May, SCCA’s road racing program jumped into action.
Memorial Day weekend was a hotbed of road racing for SCCA, with events held at La Junta Raceway in Colorado; Pacific Raceways in Washington; and MSR Houston in Texas. As SCCA’s first road races since the shutdown, this trio of events stood more as “proofs of concept” rather than attendance breakers, but their leadership into the unknown proved invaluable.
“Those first few road racing events were so encouraging because you just don’t know –- you don’t know what the long-term impact will be on drivers and workers,” said SCCA Director of Road Racing Deanna Flanagan. “Everybody has been impacted by this in so many ways.”
For SCCA’s regions choosing to host events during these challenging times, SCCA’s national office assembled a guideline package (available here) offering insight into hosting a competition weekend during the emergence of a pandemic. The guidelines covered everything from autocross to track events to road racing, running the gamut from corner worker safety to polycarbonate barrier recommendations.
“A lot of work went into those guidelines for the return to safe racing,” Flanagan explained, pointing out that those guidelines were then further expanded by the host regions. “The regions worked with the tracks to make sure they were implementing the guidelines correctly, and the tracks worked with local and state officials to get the events to happen.
“It’s important to note that all of the events were non-spectator events – they were participant only,” Flanagan said.
Safety guidelines were only one aspect, though, as SCCA also began to reevaluate every aspect of a competition weekend. “We looked at all of our processes and tried to come up with ways to socially distance or to perform remotely online before the event; and we’ve had a variety of event operation changes with that,” Flanagan continued. “I was at the Hoosier Super Tour at World Wide Technology Raceway that happened over the May 30-31 weekend, and they did a ‘fast pass’ entry for drivers. The registrar did the legwork upfront. Any driver who had an annual waiver and had prepaid for the event could skip registration and go straight to tech to get his or her event credential and tech sticker. It reduced the contact point for the drivers and crew members converging on registration.”
Timing and scoring, another crunch point during any road racing weekend, also saw modifications during these events: “In the case of the Hoosier Super Tour, we created a QR code that went directly to a shared folder where Timing and Scoring would drop provisional and official results, timecards, and other files,” Flanagan says. “Timing would print one copy and post it outside so people could take a picture with their phones; and this way no one was going into a building or transferring paper between people. We basically went paperless.”
The process-changes happened quickly, Flanagan observed, because streamlining event processes is something the SCCA has been working on for a while. “We’ve known that the process of checking into an event on site could be improved upon. Some of the lines (became quite) long – and then you’re going from the registration line to the tech line. This was something we’d talked about for years,” she explained. “SCCA already had a ‘white paper’ on how to streamline these event processes, and part of the process of getting there involves annual waivers, payment processing, and things like bar codes on membership cards that can be scanned.
“The pandemic and the implementation of the fast-pass system showed that we can do it, and it created no disruption. People can get in quickly; we’re getting the information we need as an organizer; and everything is happening quicker. The pandemic certainly served as a catalyst to getting that ball rolling.”
In fact, Flanagan continued, there’s little reason why many of the lessons learned won’t be applied going forward.
The Big Test: June Sprints
While U.S. Majors Tour and Hoosier Super Tours were getting underway, the calendar was growing ever nearer to the June 12-14 WeatherTech Chicago Region June Sprints at Road America. Prior to the pandemic, the already popular SCCA club racing weekend was expected to draw an impressive turnout thanks to the SCCA National Championship Runoffs returning to the venue in October 2020 for the first time since 2013.
Once registration opened, the event showed demand was still there: Entries flooded in.
“Chicago Region has put on large June Sprints races in the past, so there wasn’t any concern about the logistical ability to pull it off – we had comfort there,” Flanagan said of the 2020 June Sprints that drew an impressive 466 entries.
“However, this was the first event back for many racers and workers since the virus hit, and everyone had been cooped up for months; so you never know how things are going to work out.
“But everyone showed up ready to execute the best event possible – drivers, workers, crew, they were all really excited to be there.”
Anyone who spent time outside during the pandemic knows not everyone has the same comfort level when it comes to being out and about around others. To that end, Flanagan said, it was key for the SCCA to be clear and concise regarding its requirements.
“We needed to set expectations using the SCCA guidelines, the track guidelines and the local government guidelines; and then do the best we could to create an environment that people would be comfortable coming to,” she explained. That meant indoor activities like Timing and Scoring required masks and social distancing, as did tech. Other worker specialties saw ample sanitizing.
As for competitors and crew, though, SCCA couldn’t possibly expect to police social distancing and masks around Road America’s massive facility, but it turned out that most in attendance were respectful.
“At the June Sprints, it seemed like people were comfortable not wearing a mask when they were away from others, but there were mask wearers as well,” Flanagan observed, adding, “Road America had lots of signage reminding people to social distance. The Region had invested in sanitizer and wipes, as has the SCCA national office; and concession stands had sneeze guards up. Basically, there were reminders everywhere you went.”
In fact, it was specifically the success of SCCA’s June Sprints Super Tour that led to a turn in professional racing at Road America this past weekend.
“It’s important to know that, starting this past weekend and going forward, almost every weekend we will have a public event open to the fans,” Road America’s General Manager Mike Kertscher told RACER shortly after SCCA’s June Sprints weekend at the track. “We had a very successful June Sprints – one of the biggest June Sprints we’ve had in modern times. For us to get that one in, it was big. It was very encouraging to see folks come out and support the event.”
Indeed, it was the success of the June Sprints that led to the July 9-12 running of the NTT IndyCar Series at Road America with fans on site.
What’s Next: The Runoffs
Mid-July was far too early for Flanagan to commit to statements regarding what SCCA members should expect to see during the Oct. 3-11 SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Road America – SCCA’s winner-take-all championship mega event – but she was confident SCCA’s workers and drivers would be able to host a successful and safe event.
“The June Sprints was a really great dry run for what’s going to happen in October at the Runoffs,” she said. “Of course, it’s early and we have no idea what the landscape will look like come October; but we are preparing for the Runoffs to look a lot like the June Sprints. We’re prepared to mask our workers and volunteers, and to provide sanitary options for radios and any other shared equipment. We also have clear dividers that can be used by the indoor specialties. Everyone should expect social distancing.”
Beyond that, what does the SCCA expect of its drivers and workers in attendance at the 2020 Runoffs? “Everyone should recognize that others may not have the same comfort level you do,” Flanagan concluded. “Please respect that space and follow the recommendations that will be in place at that time.”
Despite what the world may be facing in October, Flanagan is confident a safe Runoffs will emerge through this pandemic for one simple reason: “The one thing that has been consistent since we got back to racing in May is that that no matter what the changes have been, everybody has been flexible and accommodating,” Flanagan said. “People are ready to do whatever they need to do to get back to the track. The Runoffs will be no different.”