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With uncertain future, Kingsport Speedway racers test out track

Jeff Birchfield • Updated Mar 14, 2020 at 5:54 PM

KINGSPORT — Race car drivers at Kingsport Speedway did their best to make it business as usual Saturday afternoon.

While getting their cars ready for the season, they acknowledged the uncertainty of the upcoming race schedule. The season-opening race for Saturday, March 21, is likely to be postponed or canceled altogether due to novel coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions. On Friday through his website, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee strongly discouraged gatherings of 250 people or more.

With the track needing over twice that many spectators to pay drivers’ purses, it’s doubtful there will be races at the 3/8-mile concrete oval the next couple of Saturdays.

Paul Stanley, driver of the No. 40 Chevrolet in the Pure 4 class, said he had been waiting to get back on track since September. Still, he understands the need for caution.

“It’s frustrating, but we have to take care of the public,” Stanley said. “That’s the most important thing, to take care of your family and friends. This is an afterthought when you think about keeping everybody safe.”

Haley Baer, a former Mini-Cup champion who will be making her debut in the No. 42 Ford in the Mod Street class, has already felt the effects of the COVID-19 restrictions as a student at the University of Tennessee.

“Public health has to come first,” Baer said. “NASCAR could go with no fans and an online deal where you pay $5 to watch. That might keep a track running. Where I’m at UT, school got canceled (for online classes). But this is a public safety and health concern.”

Billy Duty, driver of the No. 2 Ford in the Mod 4 division, explained it’s a particularly tough situation at the beginning of the season. The drivers are raring to go after months of inactivity.

“It’s been a long winter. At the end of the year, you’re glad it’s over and you’re tired for a few weeks,” Duty said. “Then, you miss it and by the time race season comes around, you really miss it.”

GETTING READY TO RACE

There was a light turnout with 10 cars at the first two hours of the test. Still, there was a common theme among those in attendance to be prepared whenever that first race occurs.

“It’s getting ready, getting the bugs worked out,” Duty said. “We’re trying to get everything together when we get the season going. It’s the first time we’ve been in the car or even had anything started. We’re finding bugs that you don’t want to find on race day. You don’t want to load up and go home that first race. The tires are worn out from last year and everything sit all winter, but overall it feels pretty good.”

Alex Miller, driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet in the Mod Street division, was working through a new chip rule which limits the engine’s RPMs. He was encouraged after finding plenty of speed in the test.

“We’re fast right now, faster than pole times last year,” Miller said. “The car is really good, although the track is still slick down in the corners. It will come in as the weather warms up.”

Baer was learning her new ride. She got off to a rocky start, spinning out her first time on the track. However, it was part of her process of getting ready when the green flag waves that first race day.

“It’s about seat time, practicing and starting off in a good spot,” Baer said. “We want to get the car set up so that I enjoy it and we run competitively. It’s more learning and having fun.”

HAVING FUN

Having fun was another key component of Saturday’s test. Stanley, who finished ninth in the 2019 Pure 4 point standings, said it was good to be back among friends.

“It’s about having fun in this class. That’s all we want to do,” Stanley said. “None of us are going to be professional race drivers in NASCAR. It’s just local racing with these 4-cylinder cars. They’re cheap for somebody to just have fun.”

Staying light-hearted, Miller joked the track was the safest place to be since racing fuel kills coronavirus. Asked what it meant to be behind the wheel again, he flashed a broad smile when answering.

“I love it. It feels good to be back in the car,” Miller said. “It’s been a long time, waiting for months to get back in this thing.”

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