The coronavirus pandemic is slowly inching its way to being a thing of the past here in the United States. States are loosening restrictions, more Americans are getting inoculated against the disease, and the numbers of new cases and deaths are both on the decline. However, it rages on unencumbered throughout the world, and those declining numbers are still significantly worse than what we experienced last summer. With those thoughts raging in my mind, I set out to Mid Ohio Sports Car Course to get a barometer of how the motorsport fan community was interacting in the wake of this thing that has killed nearly 600,000 people.
Overall, I’d give the event a B- grade. That’s not to say IMSA or Mid Ohio did anything inherently wrong, but the fans in attendance were largely ignoring recommendations by the track and sanctioning body.
(Full Disclosure: I have received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine more than two weeks ago. I wore a gaiter over my mouth and nose when near large groups of strangers, or inside buildings. I drove myself to the event in David’s Holy Grail, paid for my own tickets and lodging.)
The morning of the event I bought my tickets on the track’s website, as per usual. This time, however, the site instructed me to print my tickets and bring them on a sheet of paper, despite having the barcode on my iTelephone. A minor annoyance and twelve cents at OfficeMax. I’m glad the will call office was closed for this event, and most people probably printed their tickets at home, but because I didn’t have access to a printer, being about 2,000 miles from home, it required me to make a separate stop and interact with a community I don’t live in.
The ticket made mention of anyone testing with a fever over 100.4 degrees would be barred from entry to the track, but when I arrived there was nobody testing this, and I did not have my temperature checked. This is my only real checkmark against the track. It was the one thing it said it would do and did not follow through on.
IMSA and Mid Ohio seem to have otherwise prepared the track for a full cadre of sports car fans quite well. The track is so open and woodsy that it could pack tens of thousands of fans into the grounds and not have to worry about social distancing much. The grand stands dotting the grounds were largely empty, as per usual at a sports car race. The lawns lining the track from turn 4 to turn 12 were outfitted with pop up tents, lawn chairs, coolers, and booze-addled sports car fans soaking in the humidity and sunshine.
There was a ton of real estate down closer to the track, as many fans chose to set up their chairs at the level tops of the hills above the Esses or up by concessions stands at turn 5. In those areas, as well as the fan zone areas where Acura, Lexus, and Hyundai had experiences set up, you could buy a donut burger, or get yourself some Mid Ohio merch, there was little regard for COVID at all. I chose to avoid areas with large crowds, sticking to the open grass areas. The best view, and most distance-friendly area, was over at Thunder Valley on the back stretch between 9 and 10.
At one point when the two beers I drank caught up to me, and I needed to pee, I didn’t like the idea of submitting myself to the definitely-not-six-feet-distanced line, or the inside of a port-o-let, so I hiked out to the fixed building bathrooms in the infield. They were about as clean as a race track bathroom with a trough urinal can be, but the running water and well-stocked soap dispenser made me feel a bit better about it. Traffic was directed one-way with a specific entrance and exit, and both doors were propped open for fresh air flow. Not the best coronavirus bathroom experience, but about as good as could be expected. I did not take any pictures of this experience, for obvious reasons.
IMSA shut its paddock off from the fans, which was probably the right choice. Rather than subject the racers and crew to fan interaction from who knows how far away, and risk the whole paddock getting sick, it just kept the two separate. I don’t know when fans and teams will get to interact again, but it’s worth giving up temporarily to get back to the race track again.
Mid Ohio put on its tickets that distancing and masking were still in full effect, and must be observed while on the track’s property. I think I saw maybe twelve fans wearing masks at the track for the full five hours I was there. In fairness to track personnel, IMSA officials, photographers, racers, and team members, they were all geared up with face coverings. If a photographer can hike ten miles or more in a day of shooting a race while wearing a mask, you can sit in your lawn chair amid a sea of lawn chairs with a face covering.
Over the course of the day I was relatively comfortable because I was able to keep distance from many people and it was a breezy sunny summer day. The busiest and most tightly confined time of the day for me was crossing the bridge connecting the infield and the parking lot/paddock area. Foot traffic was heavy, and none were respecting distancing or masking. I kept my gaiter pulled up, and crossed as quickly as I could.
Ultimately, I’m happy that I went to the track, because I don’t think I’ve seen an IMSA race since 2018 at Laguna Seca. Going so long without the sweet sound of race cars is bad for your health. I do wish that more sports car fans would take this shit more seriously, though, because we aren’t out of the woods yet. You might be ready for coronavirus to be over, but it doesn’t give a shit what you want. Respect the disease and other humans. We’re almost through it, but the last thing we need is some new vaccine-resistant variant to crop up because we were tired and worn out.
This experience only further convinced me that having 135,000 people at Indianapolis for the 500 in a few weeks is a really bad idea. People won’t be respecting the rules of conduct, and maybe the track won’t be enforcing them, so hosting the single largest attended sports event in over a year is going to end in tears. That race has always been on my bucket list, but for yet another year I will not be attending.
Be smart about it, keep your distance, and get your damn shots, people. Mid Ohio is a great event space to attend, because distance can easily be had if you search for it, and sports car crowds are never going to pack the house. Race cars are cool, but not worth getting dead over.
Oh, yeah, and the race was a good one. It looked like Mazda had the overall win in the bag until its lead was neutered by a poorly-timed caution, and Lexus definitely had the car to win in GTD until it blew up from the lead. A fuel-saving stint to the end of the race meant there wasn’t much on-track fighting but it was a real nail-biter. Congratulations to the Turner Motorsport BMW for winning GTD and the Wayne Taylor Racing Acura for winning an Acura-sponsored race only a few miles from where Acura builds its cars. I don’t know who won in LMP3, because nobody gives a fuck about LMP3.