Pandemic puts Martinsville Speedway on slower track
Over Halloween weekend, Martinsville Speedway welcomed fans back to NASCAR Cup Series races for the first time since the pandemic began. However, occupancy was limited to 1,000 people for a race series that normally attracts more than 40,000 fans.
And for some area businesses that depend on race fan dollars, the limited-attendance event was a nonstarter.
“If I didn’t work at the hotel and wasn’t talking about it already, I wouldn’t have known it was race weekend,” says Carlee Lewis, who was then the front desk clerk at the 55-room Baymont by Wyndham hotel about seven miles from the track. “We only had 15 to 20 people each night.”
In normal years, the Baymont is sold out a year in advance during Martinsville’s twice-a-year NASCAR Cup series competitions.
At the Travel Inn, a half mile from the track, manager Jay Patel also reported low occupancy during the races, as well as no revenue from selling race-day parking. “We are normally sold out and have people that come here every year, sometimes wanting the same room,” he says. “Not this time.” The Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 race in June was televised with no fans in attendance due to state COVID-19 restrictions.
Information is hard to come by on how much revenue Martinsville has lost this year due to restrictions for race attendance, in part because its owner, NASCAR, as a private company, is not required to report earnings and attendance. The speedway has about 44,000 seats.
According to Clay Campbell, the speedway’s president, a 2009 economic impact study — the most recently conducted — showed the races have an annual regional impact of $170 million.
Will Pearson, the owner of Sportlanes bowling alley, reports that business was “pretty decent. We had quite a few racing fans. I guess there’s less to do in Martinsville right now because of COVID, but we’ve been here since the ’50s, and people tend to come back to the icons.”
Before Sunday’s race, won by 24-year-old driver Chase Elliott, Pearson waited about an hour to get lunch from the packed Peoples Save Station, a gas and grill near the speedway.
“I don’t think it was everywhere, but the businesses known to race fans are the ones who profited,” offers Pearson. “During the pandemic, customers seem more appreciative of the local businesses, the mom-and-pops who have hung on and survived.”