Up to 1,500 spectators will be admitted for Saturday’s program

The green flag drops for Elko Speedway’s racing season Saturday night, much to the relief of longtime track owner Tom Ryan.

The racing program, which starts at 6 p.m., is expected to attract more than 100 drivers in six divisions, including Late Models. They’ll compete on the three-eighths-mile oval in front of up to 1,500 fans.

Elko Speedway received permission from the state of Minnesota last week to admit that many spectators. It’s nowhere near the track’s capacity of 6,000, but it’s enough to bring back racing, Ryan said.

NASCAR and other sports organizations might be able to operate without fans on site, but that’s not feasible for local short tracks, Ryan said.

“Our business model depends on spectators,” said Ryan, a Rosemount native and Lakeville resident who’s beginning his 21st racing season as Elko Speedway’s owner. “The people who race pay entry fees, but some of the money from ticket sales and concessions also go to purses. We don’t have TV revenue like NASCAR, so we need the fans.”

Typically, Elko Speedway’s racing season runs from late April or early May to late September or early October. This year it’s a two-month sprint to the finish Oct. 3. Ryan had hoped it wouldn’t be this way. He knew the pandemic would delay the season’s start, but tentative Elko opening days in June and on July 4 were scrubbed because state guidelines in place at the time wouldn’t have permitted more than 250 spectators.

During the spring and summer Ryan has been on weekly conference calls with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and its commissioner, Steve Grove. So too were representatives of the St. Paul Saints, Canterbury Park and other organizations. All had similar questions: When can the businesses open, and what safety measures have to be in place?

The loosening of crowd restrictions allowed the St. Paul Saints to resume playing at CHS Field this week instead of having “home” games in Sioux Falls, S.D. The Saints have a 1,500 spectator maximum spread across six sections, each with its own entrance, restrooms and concession stands.

Ryan said he’s confident Elko Speedway can safely accommodate 1,500 spectators because “we’ve used a lot of the same safety protocols for our drive-in movies.”

Although there’s been no racing, the facility hasn’t been idle. Its adjacent drive-in theater has been allowed to operate, with patrons staying in their cars. It’s also shown streamed concerts by Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton. Ryan said approximately 3,000 people watched the Brooks concert from inside their vehicles.

Concessions consisted of wrapped food and sealed beverage containers, which will continue when racing begins. On race days, spectators will sit in every other row and there will be fewer people in the skyboxes. Ryan said a zig-zag pattern has been formulated to get customers to concession stands without bunching up. Masks will be required, of course.

“Really, it all boils down to people keeping six feet away from each other,” he said.

Ryan said he understands the unenviable position Gov. Tim Walz and state officials are in as they manage Minnesota’s response to the pandemic. But he also admitted to frustration seeing Wisconsin track owners opening their facilities to racing – and spectators – when he couldn’t.

“We’ve been hearing about the outbreaks in places like Florida, Texas and Arizona, and nobody wants it to happen here,” Ryan said. “I understand that, but we’re not Florida. Tracks in Wisconsin have been open, and I think their case numbers have been a little lower than ours.”

On July 4, Elko Speedway had scheduled a program called “Racing against Racism,” which was to highlight the sport’s role in promoting racial equality. It won’t take place Saturday, but plans are to have it later in the season in hopes that more spectators will be allowed to attend.

“We expected more than 3,000 people (July 4),” Ryan said. “We want to have the event, and it deserves a big crowd.”

Elko Speedway, which has operated since 1965, now is the only racetrack in the Twin Cities area and most of the drivers are local. Saturday, they’ll celebrate a step toward normalcy.

Tickets for Saturday’s races are available at elkospeedway.com or the Elko Speedway mobile app.

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