Column By: NICK GRAZIANO / WORLD OF OUTLAWS – CONCORD, NC – World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series Director Carlton Reimers woke up on Friday, March 13, anticipating to race.
He, the World of Outlaws officiating crew and the drivers were all anxious to go racing at Cotton Bowl Speedway in Paige, TX after a rare three-week break in the most grueling coast-to-coast 80+ race schedule in all of motorsports, featuring 900hp, 1,400lb winged warriors. However, the growing concerns around the COVID-19 virus hovered over the event.
“We (World of Outlaws management) had numerous conversations about it (the COVID-19 situation) for weeks, we had just updated our teams on Wednesday and we were very much set on go,” Reimers said. “We were going to race. We had everybody down there, our traveling stars and the best local drivers in the area. We had a release covering off on some pretty significant restrictions and procedural changes I was going to put out on WhatsApp (to all of the teams) and then the media. It was hammer down; we were racing.
“Just as I was about to hit the send button, World of Outlaws Chief Marketing Officer Ben Geisler called and said, ‘Give us two minutes.’”
Geisler received a critical piece of information and was juggling communications with World of Outlaws Chief Executive Officer Brian Carter, who was busy monitoring an appeal hearing involving a controversial decision to disqualify a race winner from the World of Outlaws openers at Volusia Speedway Park in Florida.
When they got back to Reimers, he was asked for his thoughts based on the new information and the decision was made to postpone the event at Cotton Bowl Speedway along with the following races in Arizona and California until April 9, due to the uncertainty, growing health concern and mixed guidance from various county, state and health organizations with regard to the impact and response to COVID-19.
It was a decision Reimers said he was comfortable with.
“On Thursday, they already canceled the South by Southwest Festival just down the road (in Austin), which is huge,” Reimers said. “You know, it appeared things were shutting down across the country. And Houston was starting to shutdown other things, too. Then, of course, most of the major stick and ball sports were delaying or postponing everything, but F1, NASCAR and IndyCar were all racing with various restrictions. We had a plan to do something of our own, but similar.”
Then, on Friday, Formula 1, NASCAR and IndyCar cancelled events in rapid succession. Word reached World of Outlaws management that the primary driver behind those cancellations was the White House would be declaring a National Emergency Friday afternoon.
“The World of Outlaws aren’t really known for backing down, but the idea of thousands of fans walking through the gates and likely having our Driver meeting at the same time President Trump was holding a press conference that we were not totally up to speed on, just didn’t feel like the right thing to do,” Reimers said.
Once the internal decision was made to postpone the next seven events, Reimers and the World of Outlaws events team back in the Concord, NC office started contacting the affected tracks. An hour earlier, Reimers was on a call with Sam Hafertepe, Sr., owner of LoneStar Speedway, talking about how the next day’s event was still moving forward. Then he had to call him back with the bad news. Hafertepe was understanding, though, he said.
“Things were moving so fast it was hard to keep up with all of it,” Reimers said. “You’d think we’re good then I’d get another call or text from Carter (World of Outlaws CEO) and another Governor or county would have put something else out. We had a race in California partnered up with USAC and they almost cancelled it from their side before we had all of our ducks in a row. Fairgrounds were announcing facility closings before anyone had considered upcoming races.”
He added teams needed to be informed if they should start the long-haul West or head back to their shops (mostly in the Midwest). The tracks were getting information via phone or email from their local health department, the State Fairground Commission and the Governor’s office. And sometimes all three had a different message.
The varying situations across California were too up in the air and the World of Outlaws decided it was best to send everyone home for at least a couple of weeks to get their personal lives in order, despite the heavy financial implications for the teams who depend on prize money and went home without a paycheck.
“Everyone has to deal with the pain of this,” Reimers said. “Everybody has got to do their part, no matter how small it is. You can argue all day that we could have raced at Cotton Bowl and it wouldn’t have affected anything. But the reality is, as well thought out as the final plan was, it was done quickly in just a couple of days and with a limited amount of information. We decided the best thing at the time was to step back and better understand where this was all headed.”
With the tracks taken care of, Reimers sent out a group message through WhatsApp to all of the race teams and drivers letting them know about the postponements. A few were already at the track, while others were about to head that way.
Defending Series Champion Brad Sweet was supportive of the decision, after having had a bit of scare of his own. Sweet had flown through Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport the night before on an American Airlines flight only to wake up Friday morning to news that an American pilot had been diagnosed with COVID-19 hours before Sweet landed.
Ten-Time World of Outlaws Champion Donny Schatz shared his own perspective following the postponements, saying “I’ve had a lot of calls texts and messages about our racing plans in the next few weeks. If we all do our small parts to keep everyone coronavirus free, maybe we can get back to normal quicker.”
Aside from weather cancellations, the only other time Texas-native Reimers could recall the World of Outlaws cancelling a race due to a national situation was after the Sept. 11 attacks. The Series was scheduled to run at the Texas Motor Speedway Dirt Track, alongside the NASCAR race weekend — a big weekend for the Series, Reimers said. The decision was made to cancel the event and it was a much easier decision, he added, due to the magnitude of the situation.
A few years back the Series lost 18 of its first 23 races due to rain, Reimers recalled. It was a financial burden on everyone, especially with most of those races being out in California where costs tend to be higher than average. While it still isn’t comparable to the current situation with COVID-19, Reimers said he was asked if the Series could survive being down for a month. His answer, “We’ve done it before.”
But for now, the main focus is everyone’s safety.
“This is a worldwide thing and we have to figure out how to return to racing in the safest way possible,” Reimers said. “The White House asked for another 15 days to help fight the coronavirus earlier this week and we’re going to honor that while we work on rescheduling races and come up with a plan to go back racing very soon.”