Auto racing in Nebraska is nearing a return.
In the coming days, cars at US 30 Speedway and Eagle Raceway will be kicking up dirt and mud, and at times rubbing body panels.
But that's where the closeness will stop.
In order to run these events during the current health climate, race tracks will have restrictions — in the pits and in the grandstands — in place. Eagle Raceway, set to open its season at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, will operate at 25% capacity, or at 2,000 people. Capacity at the track is more than 9,000.
Once Gov. Pete Ricketts relaxed some COVID-19 restrictions last month, track owner and promoter Roger Hadan worked with the Cass County Health Department to come up with a plan for the green flag to drop.
Among the grandstand guidelines at Eagle:
* Masks and face coverings are recommended.
* No more than six people should sit together, and the groups should be 6 feet away from other groups or persons.
* Patrons will not be allowed to congregate outside their seating area.
* Grandstand patrons will be dismissed by sections and rows by announcers after the event concludes.
* Sanitizing stations will be available near the ticket booth, concessions stands and bathrooms.
* Sunflower seeds and peanuts will not be allowed in the grandstand area.
* Fans will be asked to use social distance techniques in the parking lot.
"We're going to do some different options," Hadan said. "There's going to be the ability to order your food from your seat and then we'll bring it out to them, try to keep people out of lines. We want to open every one of the concession areas to try to make sure that people can go into lines and having some spacing in them. The bathrooms are going to be marked, so they're one way in and one way out.
"There's a lot of hoops we're jumping through."
"Until we see the (public restriction) rules that are passed to us, I don't know if there's anything that we can really be optimistic about."
The pit area will have similar guidelines, pit crews will be limited to six people (including driver) and pit meetings will be conducted via online.
The return of racing comes with some sacrifices, including a decrease in purse money, which is fueled by gate returns. So less fans and less return equals less prize money.
"It's scary because we need to figure out how to operate this place without very many fans in the stands," Hadan said. "It's going to create some consequences for the fans who do come and the drivers who participate to cover the purse."
Eagle, which runs on Saturdays, must open operating at a 2,000-person cap, and that includes drivers and pit-crew members. Hadan said the grandstand crowd can change depending on how many people are in the pits. If there are 500 people in the pits, then the grandstand seating limit would be set at 1,500.
"I started with the pit area first to give all of the drivers an opportunity to come race," Hadan said.
Many drivers have yet to hit the race tracks yet, outside of practice sessions. But Tyler Drueke will open his Eagle schedule with six races under his belt. The Elmwood-Murdock graduate has raced in South Dakota and Missouri, where tracks opened earlier. Those tracks also had similar COVID-19 guidelines, information is sent via cellphone and Facebook Live.
"Nothing really changes as far as the actual racing," said Drueke, a multi-season sprint champion at Eagle. "They just don't want you going to other pit areas and talking and getting in big groups.
"It's really been show up, stay at your trailer, race your car, load up and go home."
Because many fans will not be able to attend, Eagle Raceway is offering a pay-per-view livestream option, which fans can purchase at the track's website (eagleraceway.com).
Eagle plans to run all five classes — IMCA Sprints, modifieds, sport mods, hobby stocks and sport compact — this summer. Hadan said he'll have a good idea of how many cars to expect once online pre-registering ends Wednesday night.
US 30 Speedway, located outside of Columbus, will begin racing Thursday. It will mark the first organized sporting event in Nebraska since the boys state basketball tournament (March 12-14).
Grandstand seating will be limited to 750 spectators.
"Probably the biggest hurdle we had to jump through was figuring out how many people we can have here safely and be able to social distance and whatnot and still be able to social distance and still put on a good show," track owner Bobby Lincoln told the Columbus Telegram.
Beatrice Speedway announced it will open its season June 19 with seating and social distancing restrictions in place. Kam Raceway in Hastings (June 12) and Lincoln County Raceway in North Platte (June 13) also are set for June returns.
Other Nebraska tracks are either working through some logistical details or feasible obstacles before opening the season.
Junction Motor Speedway near McCool Junction announced it will not run races in June.
I-80 Speedway near Greenwood said it will not be racing this weekend, but left open the possibility of beginning June 13.
"I-80 Speedway is continuing to work with the Cass County Health Department to get a plan together for the upcoming weeks," a statement read on the track's Facebook page.
Though it will look different, there is excitement among the drivers, Drueke says.
"I think it will drive up demand," said Drueke, who will race in Missouri on Friday and Kansas on Sunday. "You tell anybody there's a limited amount of tickets it seems like it drives up demand for some reason.
"We spend all this money and time in the offseason building these cars and trying to make them as nice as we can and as fast as they can go and summer rolls around and you haven't been able to test it. It's just nice what we do for a hobby, for fun, we're able to do it. Slowly, but surely, we're getting back to normal."
Reach Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or email@example.com. On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.
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