The legendary Springfield Mile is on.
Following months of planning, Tommra Kiesow is a woman on a mission, working alongside her husband David to ensure that COVID-19 precautions and safety remain at the forefront of the Springfield Mile. For more than 20 years, the Kiesows have been involved in the management and promotion of the historic motorcycle race, which traces its origins back to 1937, on the Illinois State Fairgrounds’ oval, one-mile dirt track.
“This year marks the 103rd and 104th running of the Springfield Mile, at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, which is considered America’s fastest flat track for motorcycle racing,” Kiesow said.
She emphasizes the differences between the Springfield Mile, a national motorsports competition, which will be held over Labor Day weekend in a format that is under strict COVID-19 regulations sanctioned by the American Motorcycle Association, and the public motorcycle rally held in South Dakota, recently. In contrast to the estimated 400,000 who traveled to Sturgis, Illinois’ Phase 4 guidelines for 20% capacity will mean only 2,300 seats are available for the Springfield event, leaving 80% of the State Fair Grandstand empty, according to Kiesow.
Spectators and participants who enter the fairgrounds September 3-6 will see vast differences from prior visits. The extensive COVID-19 safety protocols mandated by race organizer American Flat Track go over and above many state and county COVID guidelines to require temperature checks for all racers, staff and fans, mask wearing and strict social distancing required at each stop during the 2020 season.
Springfield is the mecca of flat-track racing, comparable to NASCAR’s Daytona or the Indy 500, according to Kiesow.
“If fans only go to one race, annually, it’s the Springfield Mile, which is why we fought so hard to make it happen,” she said.
All tickets for the Mile were sold in advance online, so there will be no box office sales on Saturday or Sunday, according to Kiesow. “This year we have sold no tickets internationally to fans from places like Japan, Australia or the UK, as we would have in the past.”
Early this spring, facing shutdown due to the pandemic, AFT looked to experts at NASCAR and borrowed their events operation protocols, making procedural changes nationally to reduce the number of track locations for the 2020 race series, creating double-header weekends to minimize travel in an effort to provide a full, safe racing season. AFT CEO Michael Lock said, “Instead of just being race people, we learned of a whole new industry this year, of health, public safety and staff safety. Overall, it’s been good for the (AFT) organization long term.”
A sea of empty seats in the Grandstand and Multi-Purpose Arena, hand washing and sanitizing stations, fewer vendor lines and continuous cleaning of high-touch surfaces will be highly visible as well as on-the-ground reminders of efforts to keep the community safe.
“It is reserved seating, so as we sold aisle seats, we took out the rest of the row so no one will have to climb over others to get to the middle seats. With 80% empty, spectators will be very spaced out from top to bottom,” Kiesow said.
With an eye to safely reducing contact, each racing team is being limited to four essential personnel in the pits area. Racers and staff are being encouraged to stay on the fairgrounds in their RVs and not go to hotels or restaurants, to reduce exposure to the Springfield community, according to Kiesow.
“Normally we allow autograph time for fans to talk to racers, but this year they will not be allowed to cross sides from the Grandstand to the paddocks in the infield area. The tunnels will be closed, and no tailgating will be allowed,” Kiesow said.
According to Lock, the expansion of live broadcast on NBC Sports Network’s Trackpass stream service has made responding to COVID-19 distancing requirements more effective. Nielsen data showed an increase in viewership of the first race in the 2020 season, the Volusia Half Mile on July 17, which was delayed due to COVID restrictions, setting the tone for a record-breaking season.
“We’ve been bowled over by the loyalty and enthusiasm of our fanbase. They bombarded social media, passionate and desperate to carry on the flat-track tradition,” Lock said.
This has resulted in the largest single-show audience ever to watch American Flat Track with a quarter-hour peak of 266,000 viewers, and a 10-fold increase in the number of viewers in the key 18-34 age demographic. On that first race day, 218,000 viewers tuned in, resulting in a 114% increase over the 2019 season opener.
The only Illinois rider entered into the feature event, Godfrey’s Jeffrey Carver Jr., is also one of only three Illinois riders to win the Springfield Mile. He won the Memorial Day weekend race in 2018, joining Rockford’s Bill Tuman (1953) and two-time winner Dave Camlin, of Rock Island, who won both races in 1996. Carver has finished in the top-five in points each of the last three seasons.
Cole Zabala, of rural Collinsville, is the only in-state rider in this weekend’s AFT Production Twins races, a class for riders who have not accumulated points in the AFT SuperTwins series.
Social distancing has changed the race experience for Carver, 29, who finds that connecting with fans fuels and energizes him.
As a privateer, owning and managing his own team, dubbed Happy Trails Racing, Carver spends a majority of his time on the road, racing and serving as an ambassador for motorsports. He traveled to Nepal with Sideburn Magazine and participated in numerous public events, visiting communities throughout the U.S. in 2019.
“This year, it has been challenging to quarantine and not have that aspect of meeting people, camping and seeing new landscapes to stay mentally recharged,” Carver said. “Racing is my work, but the interaction and travel is what keeps me centered.”
Zabala, 22, who is with McNaryStrong racing, will compete Friday in the AFT Singles short-track race at the state fairground’s Multi-Purpose Arena on Friday, followed by Saturday and Sunday in the Production Twins class, for only his second time racing on the Springfield Mile track. He and his team are looking forward to the opportunity to race at the Grandstand, with its faster speeds and “legendary” paperclip left turns.
“I take it as a learning day to develop myself as a rider, stay calm, collected, go out to do the best we can, and have fun,” he said.
Balancing the challenges of week-to-week compliance directives from state officials and government public health agencies to provide a safe and healthy event with restricted ticket and concession sales, while planning an outdoor event dependent on the state’s reopening situation, admittedly has been stressful for the Kiesows.
“Obviously the COVID pandemic has cut drastically into our budget, so we had to search for extra sponsors,” Tommra Kiesow said. “Memphis Shades, maker of motorcycle windshields, parts and fairings, which has been a sponsor for more than 20 years, has stepped up to become a presenting sponsor.”
In addition, other sponsors include The Law Tigers, Robert Chick Fritz Distributing and Miller Lite, according to Kiesow.
The weekend schedule will kick off with the AFT Singles at the Multi-Purpose Arena with race action beginning at 2:45 pm today. The mile races are Saturday and Sunday, featuring the AFT Production Twins and AFT SuperTwins classes.
Though Saturday and Sunday’s racing events are sold out, viewers can go to NBCSN Gold Trackpass to catch the weekend action. https://www.nbcsports.com/gold/trackpass/schedule/2020-09-04