The Viking Speedway in Alexandria would love to be a part of bringing some sense of normalcy back to the area this summer, but exactly when or if that might happen is up in the air.
The local 1/2-mile dirt track has already canceled its first four events of the racing season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes a Memorial Day doubleheader that was scheduled for this Saturday and Sunday night. Now the eight-member board of directors is waiting to see what Gov. Tim Walz allows in the coming days and weeks as it pertains to the guidelines set forth on other businesses that draw crowds such as restaurants, gyms and bars.
“I’m optimistic, but at this time it’s very unknown,” Viking Speedway president Justin Anderson said on May 18. “I’m hoping that with the governor releasing his guidelines coming up here over this week and into early next week about the restaurants and bars, what capacity they’ll be able to open to and the guidelines they’re going to require, that’s probably the biggest thing we’re looking at.”
Gov. Walz allowed Minnesota’s stay-at-home-order to lapse after May 17, but directives limiting certain business sectors and social gatherings remained in place. The governor kept schools, restaurants, campgrounds, bars, salons, gyms and theaters closed, while allowing customer-facing retailers and other businesses that had been deemed "non-essential" to reopen at 50% capacity beginning this past Monday.
“In my opinion, it will tell us a lot when he comes out with the mandates on these bars and restaurants by (June 1),” Anderson said. “If they’re at a 50% capacity, I would feel very optimistic that it won’t be too long after that that he would allow us to go. But if he doesn’t do a 50% capacity, if he tries something like 25%, then maybe our best-case scenario would be early July. There’s so many unknowns that I don’t know how to answer the question.”
During Gov. Walz’s May 20 press briefing, it was announced that restaurants and bars can reopen on June 1 in outdoor settings under strict safety guidelines with a maximum of 50 customers. Indoor dining with capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements are part of the next phase of the state’s plans to reopen, but no time table was given on when that would happen.
Anderson said the Viking Speedway board has been in contact with other race tracks who have tried racing without fans in the grandstands. Financially, it’s not feasible, he said.
Anderson said there are sponsors who are willing to work with the track again this year if they can participate, but many of those sponsors are also small businesses at a time when small businesses are often hurting.
“I don’t want to be the guy that calls and is begging for money right now,” he said.
The speedway will need to have some level of fans in the stands to operate, and Anderson kept coming back to that 50% of capacity number as a hope.
That would allow spectators to space themselves out properly in the Viking Speedway grandstands if they practiced social distancing guidelines. Anderson figured the speedway drew less than 50% of capacity last summer during a normal race night.
He knows there are a lot of drivers who are eager to get back on the track and be an entertainment option if they are allowed to do so. He and his family are at the Viking Speedway every Saturday night, in addition to frequenting the I-94 Speedway in Fergus Falls and others.
“Growing up and being around it, right now it’s kind of a bummer,” Anderson said. “It’s so nice out and we can’t be doing it. I can’t speak for all of our drivers and fans, but I would venture to guess that we’re all on the same page. If we can get back to doing something that seems normal, it would definitely be a good thing.”
(Editor's note: This story was updated at 4 p.m. on May 20 to reflect more recent information after Gov. Tim Walz's afternoon press briefing)