It’s a late Sunday in July. Dark clouds on the horizon have forced organizers at the Cornwall Motor Speedway to alter their normal race program. Intermissions have been shortened and the traditional post-race photos of victorious drivers are being omitted as the venue crew fights to complete the entire show before the skies open and the impending rain brings a quick end to the festivities.
It is not a perfect night to race. But it is a night that racing enthusiasts are glad to have.
Having fallen victim to the physical distancing restrictions associated with COVID-19, the regional racing industry is finally getting back on track and hoping to regain ground on some lost revenue.
“With the latest phase (of lifted restrictions), it is a relief for sure,” says Martin Belanger, the Speedway’s public relations director. “Business-wise, we can have up to 75 per cent of our grandstand capacity, a number that enables us to offer (prize money) to race teams that is like what we were giving pre-COVID."
For fans, admission prices are comparable to pre-pandemic times, although contact tracing registration and masks are now required.
Despite a shortened season, the 2021 race schedule shows indications of an impending return to normalcy, at least in terms of revenue.
“For 2021, we opened later than last summer with no fans, then 25 per cent of capacity for three weekends, and we are now at 75 per cent,” Belanger says. “We opened on June 20, so we lost at least five events because of restrictions.”
The business of racing
Aside from the track owners, the return of racing to local speedways has a positive effect on the greater racing community. More than 50 eastern Ontario businesses are directly involved with the Cornwall Motor Speedway, taking advantage of sponsorship and advertising opportunities presented by the track.
Andy Lubbers, owner of B&L Metals is among them. Inside his luxury box, located above the grandstands – situated to give a great view of the action in air-conditioned comfort – Lubbers often entertains clients in this unique and fast-paced manner.
“I’d say at least 20 per cent of my customers are connected to the speedway, either as race car owners, sponsors or simply fans of the sport,” Lubbers says.
And then of course there are the race cars themselves.
It’s a sport where entry-level cars can cost $10,000 and top competitors spend more than $80,000 to build rides capable of challenging for the coveted checkered flag. And, on any given race night there are frequently in excess of 100 cars in the pits area. The math quickly reveals the size of the industry: Keeping those wheels turning is big business.
Ralph Murphy, owner of King Edward Auto Parts in Prescott and team sponsor of the #38 Luke Whittaker 358-cubic-inch modified car, can relate.
“We probably have 75 to 80 regular race customers,” estimates Murphy, who supplements his day-to-day sales of parts for family grocery getters and daily drivers by offering competition parts as an authorized dealer for companies such as Bicknell Racing Parts.
Murphy’s passion for the sport comes across clearly in his words. It can also be seen in his sales reports.
“We have been in the race parts business for about five years,” he says, noting a significant drop in race-related sales in 2020 is finally rebounding. “Last year? Yes, we missed out on sales. This year is kind of making up from last year. I probably get eight to ten calls and messages per day right now (for race gear).”
With storm clouds clearing and hopes of a greater lift in COVID restrictions as the season progresses, perhaps everyone in the eastern Ontario dirt-track community is heading for victory lane.