Longtime auto racing fan Jon Schwarzkopf admits he was a little concerned about attending Thursday’s season opener at Gondik Law Speedway in Superior.
Schwarzkopf had seen the “free-for-all” going on in some places since the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order last week, which was intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and he lives with his 79-year-old mother at Zenith Terrace in Duluth.
“I don’t want to pick something up over here and bring it back over there,” Schwarzkopf said through his Minnesota Vikings-themed mask.
Schwarzkopf was pleased with what he saw when he arrived at Gondik Law Speedway. Green X’s were spaced out six feet apart, reminding fans to keep their distance as they came through the ticket line, and Kim Gilbertson checked everyone’s temperature before they could enter.
The second and final day of the 15th annual Minnesota Modified Nationals, originally scheduled for Ogilvie (Minnesota) Raceway, is Friday. Featuring five classes, Thursday’s opening night went late and complete results weren't available when this edition went to press but Dan Ebert of Lake Shore, Minn., defended his title by winning the main event, passing for the lead on the final lap. The fans got a good show.
“This is important,” Schwarzkopf said. “They need to set a good example, that this can be done safely, because if they don’t, this will get shut down.”
As fans entered the facility, yellow signs with black lettering stating “Maintain Social Distancing” were posted along the front straightaway reminding them to space out, and they did. Those who came together could sit together, families and groups, and masks were available for purchase at the concession stand, which track announcers continuously mentioned between heat races. Sixteen hand sanitizer locations were sprinkled around the facility.
While almost no one wore a mask in the pits, many more fans in the grandstands did. Speedway promoter Joe Stariha estimated the crowd in the grandstands to be about 700, with another 200 if you counted all the fans encircling the track, watching from their cars or the pits.
Shanna Lynch of Hibbing sat with her sister, Kira, and two nieces. They were there to watch Kira’s boyfriend, Rick Andrews, a Hornets driver.
Shanna Lynch moved back to the Northland in January from Washington state. She said it felt good just to do something normal again, just some good Midwestern fun. Starting time temperature was in the low 60s and sunny.
Lynch was asked if she felt safe.
“Oh yes, of course,” she said. “I think everybody feels the same way. It feels good just to get out of the house. It’s beautiful out here. This is perfect weather for it.”
While it was easy for fans to attend the races, for the drivers, it was a scramble. They went from having nothing but time to having little time.
Andy Grymala, 33, of Superior, has been racing since he was six and races in the Super Stock class. He said he was itching to get out there, and he said racing takes on even greater importance during times like this. It’s a release when there are fewer releases available.
“It’s been a long offseason with all this stuff going on,” Grymala said. “The car has been ready since about April. I think it’s important to still be safe, but at the same time, getting things to open back up.”
ABC Raceway in Ashland opens up next week. While Superior won’t get the Canadian crowd it’s known for — the border is still closed — you can bet it’s going to be a popular destination with Minnesota slower to open things up. He was actually surprised they didn’t space it out in the pits more (he was at a popular pit location, right by the entrance onto the track, and right by where tires are changed if they go flat during a race).
“They should have good car counts, and the people are filing in,” Grymala said. “Looks like it’s getting full over there (nodding toward the grandstand).”
While Grymala was excited to get back out there, he would have preferred another week to get ready.
“It was a rush the last four days to get ready,” Grymala said, laughing. “It was a busy week. We didn’t put stickers on it till Saturday, and we were out in the garage until about 10 o’clock last night getting it ready. I didn’t make the practice session, but as long as you remember to tighten down the nuts and bolts, you should be pretty good. It shouldn’t take me long to get the feel and footwork back in place. It does feel normal out here. You got the lake breeze, but this is comfortable.”
Veteran driver Darrell Nelson, 51, of Hermantown, said the same thing. Nelson just picked up his new Modified on Wednesday from Mars Race Cars in Menomonie, Wisconsin, and hit the track for practice a short time later.
“I got about eight to 10 laps in,” Nelson said. “It’s different. It’s tough to come right out of the gate to a big race. We could be swatting flies with it, but I never spun out last night, so we should be good. You try to figure it out. It’s kind of a chess game, but it’s not easy. Everybody’s fast.”
The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling was so shocking, Nelson said, that it caught everyone off guard.
“You get caught with your pants around your ankles,” Nelson said. “It just came on so quick. A lot of guys are scrambling right now. Nobody figured they’d be open right now — nobody.”