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For racing in the era of coronavirus, passion and desperation aren’t always enough to overcome frustration

Slinger Speedway

Slinger Speedway
Brad Mueller (left) and Mike Held lean on each other in the first super-late model feature at the Slinger Speedway season opener in 2019. (Photo: Dave Kallmann / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Slinger Speedway

By: Dave Kallmann / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As Saturday night turned into Sunday, sleep became difficult. Some mornings, particularly race mornings, are still that way.

Anticipation leads to anxiety. Questions arise and repeat.

An internal debate tugs at the soul. Thankfully it’s civil, unlike that angry shouting match online. That isn’t debate.

Finally, some semblance of light showed itself, offering brief hope for some metaphorical sunshine on what strangely had become the most anticipated race day in a long time.

But no.

The Slinger Speedway opener, already postponed, would not be happening and the Milwaukee area’s racing season was on hold for at least another week.

After all the cajoling and planning and lobbying, the working and the rearranging, the compromises promoter Todd Thelen had to make with local governments and his own deep-seated beliefs, he lost this one not to an unimaginable international health crisis but to a race organizer’s oldest nemesis, the weather.

Daylight was false hope. Raindrops, although silent, weren’t going anywhere. And one of the strangest, most confusing and challenging weekends in a long time in the sport had taken another heartbreaking twist.

This could have been a good one, good being a relative term.

Although Slinger is a leader by location and prestige, it wasn’t the only track in the state set to open. A successful event – by whatever metrics define success during the coronavirus pandemic – could help the case for others: Track Enterprises’ Milwaukee Mile date in a month, other tracks in more populous areas, Road America and traveling series such as the ARCA Midwest Tour and IRA Sprints.

OK, no, this wasn’t Indianapolis 500 qualifying weekend as it should have been, but NASCAR was returning. That and some local events with limited crowds would at least slap a trowel full of mortar into the gap in an increasingly agitated fan base’s lives. Patch the hole? No. Help? Yes.

But what did we get?

The rainout here was only the least of the lowlights.

At Cedar Lake Speedway in New Richmond, in the northwestern part of the state, a 62-year-old safety crew worker was crushed to death Saturday night when an overturned school bus landed on him during cleanup work.

A day earlier, IRA postponed late May dates in Wisconsin, given uncertainty over restrictions related to COVID-19, and replaced that stretch with a two-day show in Park Jefferson, South Dakota, May 29-30.

More could be known this week about the June 14 Milwaukee race. Decisions will be necessary soon regarding the June 19-21 IndyCar weekend at Road America. Slinger will give it another shot in a week with Memorial Day as a built-in rain date.

Nothing about any of this seems normal.

In 30-plus years around racing, I’d signed hundreds of liability releases but had never seen a “communicable disease” waiver. Never heard of entry-by-invitation for a weekly show. Never seen a promoter limit the sale of general admission tickets – advance only – to 15% of his facility’s capacity.

I’d also never found myself quite so trapped in the middle of an impossible argument between groups of friends.

The situation we find ourselves in is not as black-and-white as a race fan’s favorite flag, and racing is just one part of that situation. Medicine has advanced since the plague ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages. Hopefully humanity has too.

My livelihood is threatened by this quandary. Not as much as that of someone who owns a business such as a racetrack, but threatened nonetheless. At the same time, I’m immunocompromised, so “if they died, they were weak anyway” isn’t an acceptable answer.

Where does this leave us?

The educated guesses of those who’ve spent their lives working to understand immunology, health-care and the economy are better than the concrete conclusions of cut-and-paste keyboard warriors. I’ll defer to the experts ahead of those who choose to politicize a public health crisis. Ideally, good sense would dictate the pace of racing’s safe return.

Regardless of the timetable, the whole concept of normal changed with the shutdown of the sports world in March. What would have looked familiar was close-quarters racing among fierce competitors with true fans.

The one thing that really showed during the run-up to Sunday was the passion, desperation and willingness of people to work toward some sort of solution, no matter how imperfect.

Sadly, even those aren’t always enough


Dave Kallmann, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Published 6:17 p.m. CT May 17, 2020