A familiar sound returned to the Cottage Grove Speedway on Saturday (April 3), but it wasn’t just the racecars making a buzz.
For the first time since 2019, spectators filled the venue’s grandstands for an evening of races, complete with the Speedway’s annual Easter egg hunt, which sent children scrambling to collect 1,000 plastic eggs hidden throughout the middle of the raceway.
A palpable joy painted the faces of families, the return of fans to the Speedway was a much-anticipated moment for many.
“People are super passionate about this place,” said Speedway owner Heather Boyce. “And last year they definitely missed being here. We heard that a lot.”
Restrictions resulting from COVID-19 prevented an audience at the Speedway last year, though the recent downgrading of the county’s risk level has opened doors to less restrictive social gatherings.
As Lane County was still listed under “low” risk status as of Saturday, tickets were sold to accommodate only 50 percent capacity of the Speedway.
Fans were asked to stay home if displaying any symptoms or were feeling ill and masks were required in the grandstand and concession areas when not eating or drinking or if people were not able to socially distance.
The event marked the first step toward a “return to normal” for the Speedway, which saw its new ownership under Boyce facing a challenging last year.
Boyce’s timing was less than ideal – she purchased the Speedway just as the COVID restrictions set in. Despite years of experience running the operation for the previous owner, nothing could have prepared her for the resulting shutdown and the restrictions were a major blow to the business.
“Last year was pretty rough,” she said. “We did open for about 11 races. Normally, we run closer to 40 events.”
Depending on weather, the Speedway’s season usually starts around the end of March or beginning of April and runs until September or October. Last year, it opened in July – but only to drivers. And without fans, the Speedway didn’t have much revenue to speak of.
“So we operated pretty much at a loss for the entire season,” said Boyce. “But we felt like it was important to be open so that our drivers could be here to race and it would keep them going. We wanted to make sure that they were getting to be here to do what they love and we could keep them in the sport.”
The Speedway didn’t opt for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, either, as staff weren’t employed at normal capacity.
“And the last thing I wanted was another loan,” said Boyce.
Fortunately, the Speedway was able to absorb the hit until it finally opened its doors to spectators again on Saturday.
Though operating at just 50 percent capacity, Boyce said things seems to be heading in the right direction financially.
“Our grandstands hold 4,000, so 50 percent capacity is right at 2,000 and that’s a pretty good night for us,” she said.
“We should be able to get back to where we’re returning somewhat of a profit.”
Boyce figures that as long as the Speedway can operate with at least 25 percent capacity – like in the case of a county risk level increase to “moderate” – the business can still prevent slipping backwards.
Currently, plans are to run on a full schedule, meaning race events every weekend and others scattered throughout until the first weekend of October.
“So we plan on just on being back to normal, having our special events, pretty much operating like we did in 2019 and before,” said Boyce.
The return of faces to the grandstands has been uplifting for drivers, too, like husband and wife racing duo Curtis and Tiffany Towns, who represent Cottage Grove.
While Tiffany has only recently taken up the sport, Curtis has been racing for 13 years and in that time has accumulated five local track championships, an Oregon state championship title in 2013 and others.
“I think 2015 was a really fun year for me,” he said. “I’m the only one who’s ever won a championship in two different classes — two divisions in the same year.”
Curtis took fifth in the largest car count of any class on Saturday night — IMCA modifieds — and was the winner of the Dot’s Trophy Shop Dash.
Nowadays the couple are both racing, though Tiffany had only raced a handful of times before Saturday night’s event in front of a crowd, rolling her vehicle twice in that time.
“So tonight I’m pretty nervous,” she said. “There’s a lot of learning and just trying to get out of your own head.”
Still, she said the setbacks haven’t swayed her determination to keep putting wheels to dirt.
“I can’t end on that kind of note,” she said.
Despite the nerves, Tiffany said bringing fans back was actually a plus as a driver.
“I think it gives me less anxiety when I know there are people out there because then it’s less just drivers focusing on you,” she said. “You build fans and kids are cheering for you. And even if you don’t win, you still have someone that’s in your corner. So I think it’s a lot nicer to have fans versus having just empty stands.”
The return of fans, too, brings with it a community bond, said Curtis.
“Small towns, local tracks — it’s all friends and family,” he said. “I work with a bunch of people that come and support me and they weren’t able to come watch last year. So now tonight, the first race where they welcome fans, I’ve got a lot of people I work with who actually came to the stands to watch.”
Races are scheduled to return to the Speedway on Saturday, April 10.
To purchase tickets or get more information, visit www.cottagegrovespeedway.com.
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