Eastern Ontario racers aim to be back on track mid-June

Brockville Ontario Speedway promoter Paul Kirkland overlooking the empty speedway. (Nate Vandermeer / CTV News Ottawa)

Eastern Ontario racers and speedway owners are hoping to have action back on local tracks soon, but their frustrations are mounting as they say they proved last year that racing can be done safely.

"We start preparation basically as soon as the season ends in October," said Luke Whitteker at his family's race shop northeast of Iroquois, Ont.

Racing a 358 DIRT Modified since 2010, he captured a track championship at the Brockville Ontario Speedway back in 2017.

"We start looking at what we have and what we finish with, what we need to do to the car or what we need to do with the chassis and stuff to get ready for the next year, motors refreshed and all that," Whitteker added.

The team has been working with sponsors over the winter months for the car, bringing some new ones on board, even with a shortened season ahead.

"Even though our seasons have been shortened, it's great to have them back and continuing their support," Whitteker said. "I just wish that we could get it on the track and get their names out there a little better and get some photos in victory lane."

Sponsorships can run up and over the $1,000 mark for the season, with those businesses looking to get exposure at race tracks across the region.

"We've got a lot of those really, really great sponsors that continue coming back," Whitteker said. "A thousand, it goes a long way, but anything helps above or below."

The team was looking forward to racing in Quebec, as their dirt tracks opened the last weekend of May, but races and fans from Ontario were not allowed to attend.

Whitteker drivers for a Quebec team when he races in that province.

"I was expecting to be on track this weekend. It's just unfortunate we couldn't get there," Whitteker said. "(Quebec tracks) have been fighting pretty hard for the Ontarians to get there and race. Unfortunately, their health unit isn't allowing the Ontario drivers and fans to make it to the track. So we'll have to make do with what we have and wait until we can get on track here in Ontario."

North of Brockville, at the Brockville Ontario Speedway, promoter Paul Kirkland is getting his track prepared for the season.

"Premier Ford said June 14th that they were going to start opening up outdoor activities, so racetracks and motorsports facilities were on the list," Kirkland said. "We're going to start practicing on the 19th, which is the Saturday following the 14th reopening."

No spectators will be allowed at the practices. Kirkland says they'll have to wait until Step Two rolls out, 21 days after Step One.

In 2020, only 100 fans were allowed to attend races, frustrating both fans and Kirkland.

"We had to turn people away last year that were bitter because they couldn't buy a ticket," Kirkland said. "We had to do a lottery because we were only allowed so few."

Kirkland hopes the number will be greater than 100 for this season, now that vaccines are getting into arms and cases are dropping in the area.

The Brockville track is one of 30 racing facilities in the province that have formed a coalition to urge the government to let more people attend their events.

"Mark Rinaldi (of Brighton Speedway) is sort of heading it up for us, and he's been able to get some answers, but there's not very much clarification," added Kirkland. "It's just around in circles and doesn't really give us any direction really at all."

Kirkland even measured his grandstands last fall to show how many people could attend safely.

"We could put 1,100 in here and that was a six foot separation's using a bubble," Kirkland said. "Five people in the bubble could sit in a section and we could move other people six feet away from that bubble.

"They have no clue. No answers, no maybes, no nothing," Kirkland continued, referring to discussions with MPPs across the province.

Kirkland added there was not one case of COVID-19 linked to the speedway's events in 2020.

"We followed all the guidelines that they set out for us and it was absolutely zero issues. We know it can be done properly," he said.

Kirkland says anything over 100 fans will be a bonus for this summer.

"If they gave us fifty percent (of capacity), that would be awesome," Kirkland said, noting that 25 per cent of the season has already been lost.

"I get calls every day. The race teams want to know when we can start and what's going on," Kirkland added.

"Golfing's a hobby, fishing is a hobby. Everybody wanted to go golfing and the province opened up the golf courses. So, I mean, why they couldn't open up the racetracks, I don't understand," he added.

Back at the Whitteker shop, the team is hopeful they can be on track in a couple of weeks if all goes according to plan.

"We proved last year that we can race safely and have fans in the stands and we can continue doing the sport that we love," Whitteker said. "The last time I was on track was about mid-October last year, at Cornwall Speedway, for their end of year weekend."

While Whitteker was trying to feed his racing itch with online racing, it just wasn't the same.

"It just doesn't do it. To be in the car and the to hear it and smell it and be out there with your with your friends and family and doing the sport, that's what it's all about," Whitteker said.

"We've put together another good car for this year and we're ready to go."