The racing world has been brought to a halt as a result of the coronavirus. With the season set to begin in March, it has instead been postponed to meet CDC and state requirements to keep both racers and fans safe. MPN spoke with American Flat Track Chief Operating Officer, Gene Crouch to discuss what fans can expect for the remainder of the 2020 racing season.
MPN: How has American Flat Track adapted to the pandemic?
GC: I think the world changed for us on March 13. Our season runs for about six months, so that’s six months of planning and six months on the road. We did a significant amount of work to prepare for the launch of our Super Twins premiere class that was going to be at Daytona on March 14. We were set for a live window on NBC Sports Network; the kickoff of a fantastic season of 18 races from coast to coast. And on Friday the 13th, the world changed for us, like it did for the rest of the world. Over the ensuing months, we had to figure out how to pick up the pieces and get the sport back on track.
Getting the staff tooled up to work from home was relatively easy for us because we are already a company that works remotely. There was really no change in our ability to communicate and to collaborate with one another.
I think the most surprising change for me is the opportunity to collaborate with companies and entertainment properties that were previously considered competition. We’re now in discussions with NBA teams, NFL teams and NASCAR. We have been part of the Safe Race Taskforce with MX Sports and AMA for motocross and Supercross. It’s important that we all figure this out because if any of the sports or entertainment properties gets it wrong, it will negatively impact sports and entertainment across the whole industry. So, we’re all working together to communicate what we’re learning; about the best practices to develop protocols that are aimed at safety.
MPN: Do you have a date nailed down for AFT’s return?
GC: Our return to racing will be on July 17 and 18, here in Volusia County, FL, at the Volusia Speedway Park. That venue has been great to work with. We have not raced there in quite a while, but this is an opportunity for us to plan an event that’s in our backyard and to work with the local county and state officials to ensure that we have met and exceeded all of their guidelines.
We’ve developed an event operation protocol in conjunction with NASCAR. NASCAR has set the bar in terms of getting sports back and doing it in a very safe and effective manner. Our operation protocol emulates theirs. They’ve done a significant amount of work to ensure that they’re aligned with the Center for Disease Control, and prevention guidance to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure and spread and they are implementing that across the board, as we’ve seen at the events that they’ve had over the last month.
There are three interconnected pillars to the event operations protocol. It’s about robust medical screenings, social distancing and compartmentalization and then a detailed contingency plan to address any emerging infections. It’s constantly being improved, based on what we’re learning as a community.
MPN: How would you summarize your experience over the last few months?
GC: Talking with fans on the front of house side, it’s about open communication and ensuring the fans are aware of what we’re doing, what our plans are and how we’re going to get back to racing. Then on the back of house side, collaboration has been the biggest takeaway for us. My charge is to bring all the pieces together and ensure that there’s open collaboration between departments and that we’re breaking down any walls in order to maximize the opportunity within the industry and the greater sports entertainment world.
MPN: Do you anticipate fans being present at the first race in July?
GC: We’re continuing to collaborate with public health experts to develop our plan to ensure that we’re in accordance with all federal, state and local requirements. Our aim is to return to racing with fans. The implementation of these new health and safety protocols will help provide a safe environment for fans, competitors and staff. We’re planning guidelines and protocols that include reduction in ticket availability, reserved seating areas that have buffer zones so there’s plenty of space for fans to spread out. We’re going to provide complimentary facial coverings to fans who enter the venue. We have enhanced sanitation and disinfection protocols. We’ll be cleaning the facilities frequently. And I think one of the biggest opportunities for us on the business side is to move to cashless, contactless transactions and mobile ticketing.
We’ve spent a significant amount of time to develop new technologies that will allow us to give a better experience for the fans and also provide a safer environment for everyone.
MPN: How has the racing schedule changed?
GC: Initially, we had 18 races on the calendar that went coast to coast in 18 different cities. We were about to hit the road right after our kickoff event that was planned for March 14, at Daytona International Speedway. When we took a look at the landscape, we were monitoring the state and federal guidelines on a daily basis to analyze the latest news, what the governors were saying and how the pandemic was spreading. We realized that there were a number of venues that we were unlikely to be able to return to this year. We needed to do everything we could to pick up the pieces and get back racing, to provide the opportunity for exposure that we guaranteed to our sponsors via our broadcast on NBC Sports and our live streams on Track Pass on NBC Gold. We promised we would do 18 TV shows, 18 live streams, and that’s what we set out to do.
We had to pivot and move to a double header format, which provides a number of benefits. It means that we go on nine trips instead of 18. This helps on the travel expense side of things, with team travel budgets.
Our condensed schedule will run from July 17 and 18, at Volusia Speedway Park through Oct. 15 and 16, which is at Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach.
We are very happy with the schedule that we put together. We know that these events will be enjoyed by millions of fans over the course of this of the season. The AFC experience may change a little bit at the track, but the same great racing will be taking place. We’re excited to get back to the track.
MPN: How are the racers adapting to the changing environment of racing?
GC: Maintaining fitness is key. As soon as they were able to get back out on their bikes and start putting miles in, they were. Motorcycle racing is a very physically demanding sport. So, it’s important that they’re able to keep up their stamina, even in the off season. What I think will be interesting is to see who used this time wisely. And we’ll see some of that on July 17.
About 10 weeks ago, we launched a collaboration with the riders called the AFT Show. We began to produce a live streaming podcast via Skype to maintain social distancing but still create a platform for exposure of both our sponsors as well as the companies who support the athletes. Fans could engage with the content during their downtime every Thursday night when we air a new episode on Facebook.
MPN: Dealers are seeing increases in sales and service since the pandemic began. What do you think fans have been up to as they anticipate a new season of racing?
GC: I think we were pleasantly surprised as an industry to see how resilient our customers were. Motorcyclists are outdoor people. They want to get out and ride. In hindsight, it’s really not that surprising that off-road sales went through the roof. This was an opportunity for people to pick up that new dirt bike and when you’ve got a helmet and riding gear on, you’re socially distancing.
Everyone’s got a list of projects they’ve wanted to do, but they’ve been so busy with everything in life. Now that everyone has time, there’s a boom in the aftermarket and service side of things. Other industries have not been as fortunate as we have, and we are very lucky in that regard.
MPN: Do you have any final thoughts about what fans can expect this season?
GC: Everyone in the world has learned how unpredictable things can be. Our number one goal is to preserve this historic form of motorcycle racing and continue to usher it into the future and maintain our growth strategy. But the number one thing is safety, and in developing and maintaining the highest safety standards for fans, for competitors and for staff at all times. We’re excited to bring the sport back to the fans on July 17 and 18!
For more information about American Flat Track, visit americanflattrack.com.