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Southern National ready to go racing

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LUCAMA — This time of year, the grandstands at Southern National Motorsports Park are usually filled with fans cheering on their favorite drivers on the asphalt oval.

But since early March, the stands have been eerily quiet, and every Saturday night they sit empty, track owner Mike Diaz figures he loses between $38,000 and $48,000 in revenue.

Bans on mass gatherings because of COVID-19 are hurting tracks across the state and country, he said. “It’s affected all of the race tracks because we were virtually shut down,” he said.

Some tracks have likely fared worse than Southern National, Diaz said, though he did have to lay off seven part-timers. “I was lucky enough to get two races in at the beginning of the season,” he said. “I have a little bit of an advantage over some race tracks because I don’t necessarily have a lease or a mortgage payment.”

But he does have monthly bills that keep coming due even if they are lower these days. “Water, sewer, power, everything keeps coming in every single month,” said Diaz, who has owned the track since 2011. “Not being able to run has really affected revenue, and luckily enough, the financial backing behind Southern National is pretty strong.”

What Diaz and other track owners are hoping is that tracks can open during Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan. That tentative date is June 26.

“Hopefully, North Carolina can move into Phase 3, and hopefully on the 26th, there can be a percentage of the capacity of the stands,” said Diaz, who plans to hold practice on June 27 and races, with fans, on June 28.

If that happens, the track plans to follow social distancing guidelines and provide masks and hand sanitizer to fans and staff.

If Phase 3 doesn’t happen later this month, Diaz has a backup plan to reopen. “I have 148 trackside spots, which means you can pull your car directly up to the race track,” he said.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has signed off on that plan, Diaz said. “I wrote it because there are drive-in theaters operating in North Carolina, and there’s no difference in a drive-in theater and Southern National,” he said.

Diaz is still figuring out how concessions might work, though right now, he is just ready to see the green flag drop. “We’re looking at just getting open and just putting on a race,” he said. “We want to open up, we want to do the right thing. Everybody in North Carolina right now wants to get opened up, but we have to do it safely, we have to do it the right way.”

Diaz didn’t want to weigh in too heavily on the spat between Gov. Roy Cooper and Ace Speedway, an Alamance County tract that has repeatedly defied the governor’s ban on mass gatherings. Diaz said his focus is on Southern National, though he did say the owners of Ace Speedway are, like most track owners, hard-working folks just trying to put food on the table.

“I wish nothing but the best for Ace Speedway,” Diaz said. “They’ve had some really, really good crowds, and hopefully they’ve made some money. Every single race track has their own uphill battle they need to fight. I wish nothing but the best for them.”

Diaz did say he hoped Ace Speedway hadn’t soured the governor on all race tracks. “I hope that doesn’t affect the governor’s process moving forward about race tracks,” he said.

In the end, North Carolina voters, come November, will say whether they supported Cooper’s lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Diaz said. “The governor’s an elected official,” he said. “If everybody doesn’t like what the governor’s doing, they have a right to go out and vote. I think everybody should take away from this (that) the right to vote is extremely important. I think more people will exercise their right to vote, and I think that’s a good thing.”