First-Year NASCAR Track Operator Finds There’s No Playbook for a Pandemic12/14/2020
(Editor’s note: We revisit a story Autoweek.com published in April, early in the pandemic, about the plight of Langley Speedway and first-year track promotor Vaughan Crittenden. Autoweek senior motorsports writer Al Pearce checks in with Crittenden to see how he and his track fared in 2020.)
Nobody was surprised when the gates remained closed and locked on March 28, the scheduled opening night for NASCAR racing at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Virginia. Fans and competitors were understandably deeply disappointed, but not overly concerned at the time.
They were neither surprised nor concerned a week later, when the reschedule opening night also was canceled. Or the week after that or the weeks and months that followed. After all, NASCAR’s major series were idle and Gov. Ralph Northam had put Virginia on a Phase 2 lockdown in reaction to COVID-19. Almost all sports/entertainment facilities across the Commonwealth were ordered closed indefinitely.
For first-year Langley promoter Vaughan Crittenden, “indefinitely” meant almost 100 days, from the last weekend in March through all of April, May, and June. After being ready since mid-March, the track adjacent historic Langley Air Force Base stayed shuttered until Saturday night, July 4. It was a frustrating delay for Crittenden, the 29-year-old James Madison University graduate who had spent the previous two years preparing for his first posting as a track operator.
“But there was never a time in the spring when I thought we might not open,” said Crittenden, a bright, innovative promoter with a bright future in motorsports. “Only one other NASCAR track in Virginia (Dominion Speedway near Fredericksburg) opened and ran, so I’m pretty proud of what we did. We were ready to go the last Saturday in March, but the three-month delay gave me time to get even more ready. The restrictions from the government forced us to become more efficient. That was the only good thing about it.”
With one noticeable exception—more about that later—Crittenden, track owner Bill Mullis, and promoter-turned-marketer Chuck Hall had a good year. Gov. Northam allowed the speedway to sell 1,000 tickets each Saturday night, a figure that included drivers and crews. It varied each night, but the fan/competitor ratio generally went 700/300 or 750/250. Crittenden jokes that he sold out every weekend, but for a speedway with room for almost 6,000 fans, his 750 “sellouts” were bittersweet.
“I looked at the grandstand on July 4 and realized that those 750 would have been the worst night in Langley’s (70-year) history,” he said. “That was hard because any other July 4 would have been our best night all season. But I was happy we were giving our teams an opportunity to race and giving our fans a place to watch them.
“In the three months waiting to open I worried that something might happen (with the pandemic) to keep us closed. Even when the governor moved us from Phase 2 into (less restrictive) Phase 3 in mid-June, I kept worrying that something might happen. He put some areas back to Phase 2, but mostly for bars and beaches. Thankfully, he left us in Phase 3. Once he did that, I thought we were good to go, probably for the rest of the season (until Oct. 31).”
There was brief concern in early July, when the governor returned some of Hampton Roads to Phase 2 after a surge in COVID-19 cases. That came shortly before Langley’s annual Hampton Heat Late Model extravaganza, the track’s most successful and popular show. In its own little way, the Hampton Heat 200 is Langley’s version of the Daytona 500.
“We had 100 people lined up outside the ticket office during that week’s COVID-19 press briefing,” Crittenden recalled. “I was watching on TV, waiting to be sure we were still in Phase 3. When he said only beaches and bars were going back to Phase 2, I told the ticket people to start selling Hampton Heat tickets. We were very fortunate we didn’t have to return to Phase 2, which would have limited us to 250 fans for our biggest race of the year. It was a great race for as many fans as the governor would allow.”
During its 14-weekend season—rainouts took a toll—the track hosted 115 races in 13 classes: Late Model, Grand Stock, Modified, Super Street, Enduro, Super Trucks, Legend, Bandolero, Ucar, Pro-6, Winged Karts, Virginia Racers, and the CARS Tour. Langley often ran seven or eight features a night to catch up lost dates from early in the year. (NASCAR’s top series often did weekend doubleheaders in 2020 to make up dates).
“It was important to give the teams as many opportunities to race as we could,” said Crittenden, who was highly praised for adding races so drivers could qualify for national short-track championship points. “There were nights when teams signed in on Saturday afternoon and didn’t race until early Sunday morning. We had some awfully long days and nights, but we got in as many races as we could.”
By all accounts, he and his staff did well. “I thought they did a great job, all things considered,” said Marty O’Brien, the local newspaper’s long-time motorsports writer. “I never heard anything negative about how things were going, and believe me, I would have heard if people were unhappy. For a young guy facing his first season in the middle of something he couldn’t control, Vaughan did a good job.”
Former track and NASCAR Regional champion Mark Wertz felt Crittenden’s reliance on social media was crucial to the track’s success. “It could have been a black-line season, but he attacked social media to keep everybody informed and excited,” the long-time Langley frontrunner said. “He’s younger than some of the previous promoters, so he took a different approach. It used to be sort of ‘open the gates and they will come.’ Well, clearly that wasn’t going to work this year and he realized that. With everything he went through and as a rookie promoter, he did an exceptional job.”
Crittenden’s toughest test—no matter his experience level—was Saturday night July 11. Eleven-time Modified Series champion Shawn Balluzzo, 64, died instantly in a multi-car accident early in a 50-lap feature. He was the track’s all-time winningest driver—the accepted figure is upwards of 100 victories—a popular and respected competitor, and a mentor/coach/friend to almost everyone in the pits.
“That was the one thing I never expected, and there we were in just our second weekend,” Crittenden said of the tragedy. (Balluzzo’s wife, Terri, is the track’s long-time office manager and administrative assistant). “Everyone knew it was bad, but we didn’t have the official word so we went ahead and finished the program. Even when we found out, we didn’t announce it. We thought people would be better off at home with each other when they heard. The whole night really sucked.”
Crittenden, Mullis, and Hall already are well along toward the 2021 NASCAR season, scheduled right now from April 3 through Oct. 16. But as with everything here lately, those dates are “tentative and subject to change.”
No matter…. the Langley folks will be ready.
Track operators had their hands full in making ends meet in 2020. What will it take for you to go back to your favorite tracks in 2021? Start a conversation in the comments section below.
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