Fred Dickey in the No. 7N car was one of several drivers who raced in front of no fans in the grandstand due to Covid-19 concerns in Santa Cruz County. (Juan Reyes – The Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE—Ryan Winter had a decent night at Watsonville’s Ocean Speedway racetrack as he placed second in the South Bay Dwarf Car main event on Aug. 7. It was a nice finish for the Galt native, but he admitted that something was missing.

“The atmosphere,” he said. “Just when you come off the track or when you do an interview, especially when you have a good race and it’s a really good battle, [the fans] are really happy.”

It’s been nearly two months since the storied dirt oval reopened for action but fans are still prohibited from sitting at the grandstands because of stay-at-home restrictions. Winter, who is in his 11th season, said racing weekends have not been the same without the crowd, especially when the drivers come off the track following a win.

“The best thing is getting out of the car and people are on their feet, cheering,” Winter said. “That’s the best part.”

Dave Kegebein, Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds CEO, said the races are one of their regular activities in the area. But he said that having no fans to match the roar of the zooming cars has been very strange. 

“Like all sports you’re seeing, you’re missing that ambience and there’s economic impact, of course, but I think what’s even bigger than the economic impact is the psychological impact of what we’re missing,” he said.

Kegebein said it’s tough not being able to have the food concessions running and the loud atmosphere provided by the spectators, many who have flocked to the track for decades.

“In many cases there’s an awful lot of folks there that it is their weekly entertainment there in the summer,” he said.

The Ocean Speedway normally offers 25 races per year but this year the season was cut down to 14 races due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Kegebein said it is unlikely that fans will be allowed into the fairgrounds during the “abbreviated season.”

The grandstands have 2,600 seats. Kegebein said they proposed limiting their capacity to 300-400 fans but county officials shot that plan down. He said to some degree he’s starting to get used to having nobody in the stands.

“It’s just kind of become the new normal, which is terrible,” he said. 

Winter said he knows that his fans and his family, which includes his wife and daughter, will be able to watch it from home online but it’s just not the same without them in the pit area.

“They’re still there but just not here,” he said. “We still race the same, it doesn’t feel too much different unless you get out in front of the fans and there’s nobody out there. That’s the weird part about it.”

Winter said he was disappointed when the county banned fans from the races because they are half of the reason why the drivers put on a show.

“If it wasn’t for the fans we wouldn’t really be doing this,” he said. “It was kind of a disappointment but then again we really just wanted to race, too.”

Kegebein said economically they’ve been able to break even and that the promoter has committed to finish out the season, which runs through September. Beyond that, however, the future is uncertain.

“It’s not good, it’s not healthy, but at least right now we don’t think we’re going to shut it down for economic reasons,” he said.

Justin Parr is a first year driver at Ocean Speedway. He said he was upset when he found out that there would be no fans for the rest of the season. Parr, who races in the No. 95 car in the IMCA Sport Mod class, said that without the fan-driver connection the track has felt empty. People attend events to be a spectator because they want to have some connection to the athlete, he said.

“I still get the feeling of that excitement and stuff that I always wanted to, but there’s like a little caveat of no fans,” he said, “so it’s not as good as it really can be for me.”

Kelly Campanile and Adriane Frost are seasoned veterans in the IMCA Sport Mod class. Both drivers are used to having the crowd cheer them on as they zoom past the grandstands.

Campanile, who drives the No. 2 car, said racing is not the same without the fans because it’s what they race for.

“You’re basically just racing for your crew and your friends here,” she said.

Campanile said it’s sad because she knows many people enjoy coming to the track with their families on a Friday night.

“This is their entertainment and they can’t make it out,” she said.

Frost, who drives the No. 22 car, said she was once one of the hundreds of fans watching her favorite racers battle it out for the checkered flag. Those experiences motivated her to get behind the wheel where she said she tries to inspire the young girls who watch her compete to follow in her footsteps.

“I started as a fan, so being a fan is the No. 1 thing that makes us go,” she said. “I like seeing all the little kids afterwards come down and I let them get in my car. I miss the fans.”

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A Watsonville native who has a passion for local sports and loves his community. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College, San Jose State University and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumnus, he primarily covers high school athletics, Cabrillo College athletics, various youth sports in the Pajaro Valley and the Santa Cruz Warriors. Juan is also a video game enthusiast, part-time chef (at home), explorer and a sports junkie. Coaches and athletic directors are encouraged to report scores HERE.


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