Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina has ordered an auto racing track in a rural part of the state to close after it staged events with packed stands, despite restrictions on gatherings, and became a flash point in the discussion on safely restarting sports.
The governor’s order said Ace Speedway, 65 miles northwest of Raleigh, the state capital, must issue public notices that its races and all other events are canceled until further notice. The speedway’s next racing events had been scheduled for June 19.
As of early Tuesday afternoon, the speedway’s Facebook page had no future events listed. Emails and telephone calls to the speedway’s owners, Robert Turner and his son Jason, went unanswered.
Cooper had imposed a standing order banning outdoor, public gatherings of more than 25 people because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The speedway, whose owners said the track faced dire financial straits, nevertheless held its season opener on May 23, with a near-capacity crowd at the 5,000-seat facility, and photos and videos of the lack of social distancing and few people wearing masks made the rounds on social media.
Cooper had promised consequences for the track, and had sent the Alamance County sheriff, Terry Johnson, to tell the owners to shut down. In defiance of those urgings, the speedway’s operators held another night of racing May 30.
The Turners closed the facility to most members of the news media that night, but photos surfaced showing another big crowd, without much evidence of obeying health precautions.
Last Saturday, the track put on another event but called it a “First Amendment demonstration.”
A sign posted at the front gate that evening read, “This Event is held in PEACEFUL Protest of Injustice & Inequality Everywhere. Ace Speedway.”
Cooper called the events “reckless and dangerous” to public health.
“People shouldn’t run a moneymaking operation that puts in danger not only their customers but people who come in contact with their customers,” Cooper said. “This is a reckless decision being made by the owners, pulling people together in that way that can cause spread of the virus.”
Cooper’s order said Ace Speedway could not reopen until June 22, at the earliest, and only then after its plan going forward is approved by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Alamance County officials said enforcement of the governor’s order rested with the sheriff, who said he didn’t understand why Ace Speedway had been “singled out.” Johnson said he was aware of other racing facilities around the state that had held events during May without repercussions.
NASCAR, with state approval, has held events but without fans in the stands. It has issued statements distancing itself from events at Ace, though the track has held NASCAR races in the past.
Mike Forde, a spokesman for NASCAR, said Tuesday afternoon that NASCAR would begin admitting fans to select events starting races on Sunday in Homestead, Fla., and on June 21 in Talladega, Ala. More details will be announced soon, Forde said, but fans will be screened before they enter and be required to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Ace Speedway’s prior events had coincided with a spike in locally reported coronavirus cases, although public health officials have made no correlation and there could be other factors.
On its Facebook page, the county’s health department reported Monday it had 43 new cases since the day before, and it cited several contributing factors to account for the increase, including more testing and the lifting of restrictions to allow people to move about more. Each new case is expected to expose two to three others to the virus, it added.
“Several household clusters have been identified and are the result of individuals attending cookouts, parties and other gatherings,” the department said.
The county has not released information about any cases connected to the speedway.