Gondik Law Speedway promoter Joe Stariha plunked down 25 bucks to watch some good old-fashioned dirt-track racing on pay-per-view last weekend, and never mind that the action was coming from Missouri, Stariha was just happy to watch something go fast and turn left.
“We’re race fans at heart, no matter what,” Stariha said. “My wife (Jodi) and I, we play some cards and watch racing. That’s the other part of quarantine. We haven’t played cards in 15 years. Now, all of the sudden, we’re playing cards every night.”
Stariha will gladly trade his nightly games of gin rummy for live racing action, and next week he gets his wish as Gondik Law Speedway will host its season opener with the 15th annual Minnesota Modified Nationals on Thursday and Friday in Superior. The event was originally scheduled for Ogilvie (Minnesota) Raceway but was moved due to Minnesota’s COVID-19 restrictions.
What a difference two days makes.
Just 48 hours earlier Stariha didn’t think the Superior track would be racing until mid-June, at best, with the coronavirus pandemic putting the brakes to American life as we know it.
Then Wednesday, everything changed as the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order, and suddenly bars were back in business and racing returned to the pole position.
“It’s just crazy. That’s the best word for it,” Stariha said of the change of events. “I didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect the state to open up like that. It’s just crazy.”
While some Wisconsin bars have resembled a free-for-all following the high court’s ruling, the “Wild West” as Evers called it, Stariha said Gondik Law Speedway will work hard to promote a fan-friendly, safe environment, in accordance with Douglas County’s wishes.
“I got it straight from the county: ‘If you’re not safe, you guys are done,’” Stariha said. “We have all the intentions of being safe, because we want to and because we have to. We don’t want to jeopardize the health of anybody.”
In order to do that, Stariha said, the track is hiring extra staffing to amp up its cleaning efforts. He said employees will wear masks. The concessions menu will be limited to speed up service, and lines to the concessions and restrooms will be staggered. Hand sanitizer stations will be placed around the facility.
The key guideline to follow will be maintaining 6 feet of distance between groups. Stariha said even spaced out, the track can still safely accommodate more than 1,000 people.
“Families and groups that came together can sit together,” Stariha said. “We’ll put them wherever we can. We don’t know if there is going to be 1,000 fans or 200 fans. We don’t know what’s going to happen; that’s the hard part. We want people to feel safe, and we’re going to put measures in place to make sure that happens.”
NASCAR is getting back in the fast lane with seven events on its top three series over an 11-day stretch, starting with Sunday’s Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, but those races will take place without fans.
While NASCAR is largely TV-driven and can get by without fans in the stands, local tracks can’t and pay-per-view would be a longshot.
“It’s tough to make any money in racing if you can’t put people in the stands,” Stariha said.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bridge, don’t expect racing anytime soon.
Halvor Lines Speedway in Proctor was scheduled to have its 70th anniversary opening night May 3. The track actually might have been able to open that early, given the early spring, but Proctor track officials are waiting for the green flag from Gov. Tim Walz.
Walz announced Wednesday night that retail stores can open Monday but must operate at 50% capacity. Bars, restaurants, salons and gyms can open June 1 but with restrictions in place.
“I thought we were going to get better news than what we did,” track president Mike Donnahue said. “He just dialed it back a little bit, which will help some businesses but doesn’t really help us.”
Donnahue said any talk of hosting a practice is a moot point until track officials know when they can open.
“We’ve worked on the track a little bit, but not much. You don’t want to spend $500 worth of fuel and then not race,” Donnahue said. “We’re in a holding pattern. We’ve got to wait and see.”
Donnahue said that doesn’t stop people from calling and asking, “Are you racing Sunday?”
Racers and fans are a diehard bunch, and they’re chomping at the bit.
“I tell them all the same thing: There’s nothing we can do,” Donnahue said. “We’ve got our hands tied. We don’t even know if we’re going to have a Proctor fair. We don’t know anything right now. It’s crazy.”
And crazy, as Stariha said, has become the new norm.