Eric Parlin, of Oxford, watches action on the track at Oxford Plains Speedway earlier this season while waiting for his turn. Just 200 fans will be allowed to the Oxford 250, a race which routinely draws close to 10,000 spectators. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

OXFORD — In a year unlike any other in sports, it will be an Oxford 250 unlike any other this weekend.

“Our grandstands will be at 2.5 percent capacity,” lamented Oxford Plains Speedway owner Tom Mayberry.

“The biggest thing is that we know something’s out there, we just can’t see it,” said Georgia native Bubba Pollard, the 2018 Oxford 250 winner.

The 47th annual Oxford 250 is expected to take the green flag early Sunday evening, in the face of a global Covid-19 pandemic that for months brought most sports — locally and nationally — to a standstill.

More than 50 race teams are entered for a race that will look quite different than the rest. 

The main differences?

Only 200 tickets were sold for an 8,000-seat grandstand at Maine’s largest outdoor sports facility, leaving many fans scrambling to find new ways to take in the action, including paying up to $50 for a pay-per-view online subscription streaming service. The race has sold all, or most all, of its grandstand tickets in recent seasons. The purse structure is also different compared to what was in place previously. 

Mayberry said the history of the race was the driving factor in holding the 250. He made the decision in mid-July to hold the race.

“We’re coming up on the 50th in a couple of years, and we didn’t want to miss this one. It’s important to keep the history of the event going,” Mayberry said this week. “I’ve always said this is the event that takes care of the whole year for us (financially). This is the event you run to get through to the year, and you run all year to get to this event.”

If he had it to do all over again, he wouldn’t.

He never imagined how difficult it would be, even after agreeing to keep the $25,000-to-win purse while altering the payout for lap-leader bonuses. Instead of the leader of each lap receiving $100, this year lap sponsorships were sold with $50 going to the purse and the other $50 going to the track.

“I can tell you this, if it’s like this again next year, I wouldn’t do it,” Mayberry said. “If everything was the same as it is right now, I wouldn’t because it’s just been too hard.”

Mayberry has faced a myriad of challenges.

There is the obvious loss of revenue generated from ticket sales. With grandstand tickets ranging from $30-$50 for the race, tens of thousands of dollars will be lost. 

Mayberry has also had to severely limit the number of campers on the grounds and get creative with where they are placed. For a race weekend that has typically drawn hundreds of campers each year, sprawled all over every corner of the massive property, he said there are fewer than one-third the number of camping units that were at the track a year ago, estimating that more than 90 percent of them are affiliated with race teams and not fans.

Dave Farrington Jr. (23) drives the inside lane at Oxford Plains Speedway during Super Late Model action on Aug. 8. Oriana Lovell photo

 

There is also the near constant contact with state and local authorities over social distancing guidelines, attendance figures and planning logistics. Mayberry said the two women who work in his office have answered more than 2,000 phone calls in the last two weeks, virtually every single one of them asking if there are any tickets remaining.

The answer, each and every time, is “no.”

“From the beginning, what we were worried about the most is what’s happening now — having the race with no fans,” Mayberry said. “The competitors, the crews, they’re paying more to race this year to help offset the costs and all of that, but by far the biggest disappointment I have is not having fans.

“This race needs the fans.”

Pollard is making his third straight trip to Oxford Plains Speedway this weekend. Pollard said he did not quarantine upon his arrival to Maine, nor did he take a Covid-19 test.

“I’m old school,” he said. “I’m the type of person who believes in living every day like it’s your last. You can’t live in fear, but we want to be respectful of others.”

Perhaps nobody who is attempting to qualify for Sunday’s Oxford 250 has taken a more measured approach than Westbrook native John Peters.

Peters, who now lives in Morrisville, North Carolina, where he works for a software company, will make only his second start of the season this weekend. His first was last weekend, in a 100-lap race at Oxford Plains Speedway.

When Mayberry announced his plans to go ahead with this year’s Oxford 250 back in mid-July, that’s when Peters began planning to get back into the game.

“Was it challenging? In a word, yes,” Peters said. “We decided from the beginning that we were going to take this (pandemic) seriously. We had to ask ourselves things like is it wise to be traveling? If so, how are we going to do it? Who are we going to be around when we do these things? Can we go to the race track? Can we see family? Can we see friends?

“I decided from the beginning, if everyone on my team was not comfortable with it, I was not going to do it. In my life now, with my priorities, it’s family first. I wasn’t going to put racing before that.”

Because of Maine’s guidelines for visitors, Peters and his girlfriend went to a local pharmacy and got a COVID-19 test three days before he flew. The results came back clear, and they took a direct flight from Charlotte to Boston, renting a car and driving straight to Peters’ parents’ house in Westbrook.

He’s been there all week.

“What we couldn’t have was come up here and go through a race — or not go through a race — and find out people were upset about what we had done,” said Peters, who will fly back to North Carolina next week, take another COVID-19 test, and then return to work. “I know in my heart I’m doing it the right way.

“If we were to ever have an outbreak out of this race —  I don’t want that for the track, for racing, for anyone involved. We don’t want that optic at all, because it wouldn’t be good for the sport.”

Social distancing guidelines will be monitored at OPS this weekend, Mayberry said.

Cassius Clark, a Farmington native who races for The King Motorsports team owned by Rollie MacDonald, said he believes racing is inherently social distanced. Pit areas at tracks across Maine — and elsewhere — this abbreviated season have felt almost normal.

“Each team is like its own baseball team playing against the other teams, anyway,” Clark said. “In the places where things could congest — like the tire (sales) areas — they’ve changed that around. There are certain aspects where they are really trying to limit everything.

“At the end of the day, it’s racing. You deal with your crew once you get there, and really that’s it. There are some people wearing masks, there are people hand-sanitizing every five minutes. If anything, this has just made us all cleaner.”

Pollard has already won more than a half-dozen races in 2020, and raced in a number of different states, from his native Georgia, to Florida and Pennsylvania, on asphalt and on dirt. He’s competed several times at tracks where either no spectators were allowed or in front of just a handful.

“The atmosphere is different, but you’re there to do a job and try to win races,” Pollard said. “We want the fans there — that’s what you feed off of. But at the same time, you’ve got to try to support it. It’s tough not having fans, but in the circumstances we’re under, we’re doing what we can to support short track racing.”

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