A card with at least seven races and qualifying was carried out on Saturday at Ace Speedway in Elon, N.C., with a large crowd in attendance, despite apparent warnings from the Alamance County sheriff to cancel the program.
The speedway’s owners, Robert Turner and his son Jason, barred reporters and news crews, with exceptions for a reporter and a photographer from The Times-News of nearby Burlington, N.C. and a photographer for Getty Images. Jason Turner said the reason was the negative coverage the facility received a week earlier for its season-opening event, which was attended by thousands and held in defiance of the governor’s order against outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina had described the large crowds at the track’s reopening on May 23 during a pandemic as a “dangerous and reckless” situation, and suggested that the state could be compelled to intervene.
At the request of the governor, Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson appealed to the track’s owners on Saturday afternoon to call off the races, The Times-News reported. Ace Speedway raced anyway, in front of what The Times-News called “a smaller yet still ample turnout of fans.”
Although no filming or videotaping for television was allowed, the operators posted their own short video on Instagram of a field of 19 cars in one of the events.
In denying admittance to a photographer from The New York Times, Jason Turner said he did not want additional coverage of the event because too much attention had come the track’s way after the season opener. He added that he thought the coming week would be “bad,” with possible repercussions from the governor.
Another reporter who was turned away, Andrew Carter of The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., said a speedway worker told him the owners decided to bar reporters because they felt the place was made out to be “the devil” last week.
The city of Burlington, of which Elon is a nearby suburb, has one of the highest average daily growth rates of coronavirus deaths in the country and once topped the list. Some infections are tied to outbreaks at assisted-living facilities, but some critics still see Ace as contributing to the problem.
Videos posted on social media of the season opener showed a densely packed, near-capacity crowd at the 5,000-seat facility, with few people wearing masks or any other protective equipment.
Johnson, the county sheriff, had said after that event that he considered the governor’s order against outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people “vague” and “unconstitutional,” so he refused to stop the events. He added, “I will not enforce an unconstitutional law.”
A county commissioner, Tim Sutton, criticized the way the county was handling racing at Ace. “No, Alamance County did not do this,” he told The Times-News. “It was one person. The board of commissioners didn’t do this.” Later in the interview, he accused the commissioners chair, Amy Galey; the county attorney, Clyde Albright; and county management for taking it upon themselves, in a closed-door meeting, to allow Ace to race.
Galey denied the accusation, and then accused Sutton of having “a history of making false, inflammatory and downright stupid statements.”
The track, now a four-tenths-mile paved oval, has been in business since 1956, despite financial struggles, and has gone through a succession of owners and operators.
NASCAR, meanwhile, emphasized it had nothing to do with the Ace events, though in the past the track has held NASCAR-sanctioned events. Ty Gibbs, a member of Joe Gibbs Racing, which competes in NASCAR, raced at Ace in the season opener — and won. Gibbs was not listed as a competitor on Saturday night.
NASCAR has been under pressure to prove it can conduct its events responsibly, without exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus. It was one of the first major sports to return to hosting live, nationally televised events with races in Concord, N.C., and Darlington, S.C., without fans in the stands.
Ace Speedway, however, had fans in attendance over the weekend, and was hardly alone. Dozens of small tracks, of which there are about 1,000 nationwide, reported results on Friday and Saturday night. Racing has been going on since May 2 at another North Carolina short track, 311 Speedway in Stokes County.