WEST SALEM — Chuck Deery likes to put it this way: He operates out of the windshield, not the rear view mirror.
So when the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway general manager was able to get the track’s season underway at the end of May, he didn’t fret about the three events the speedway canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor did he worry about more cancellations or a shutdown.
Instead, Deery and the speedway focused on the races in front of them. The result was one of the most successful summers in the track’s history.
And the next several days, the speedway caps off its season with its signature event: Oktoberfest Race Weekend. Races begin at 6 p.m. Thursday and run through Sunday.
“Certainly, comparative to other venues, no doubt we were blessed to be able to run weekly and have such a stellar field of cars and great support from the fans throughout the season,” Deery said. “It’s been great, and (we’re) looking forward to Oktoberfest to wrap it all up.”
There are a number of reasons why the speedway had such a good summer. For starters, it was able to hold races while some other Wisconsin facilities weren’t able to operate because of the coronavirus. And the Fairgrounds Speedway was able to do so safely; Deery said no cases of the virus have been traced back to the speedway.
That combination of factors drew more teams to West Salem, which led to a higher level of competition.
“Rising tide lifts all ships, so it was a good deal,” Deery said. “It was just good for our local guys (and) was nice to see the outside cars come in and compete. And, again, the fans certainly got a great year of racing.”
Add in good weather, a luxury the speedway didn’t have in the three previous summers, and attendance was up.
Deery expects high turnout again this weekend, as about 500 teams across 17 divisions — including some from Oregon and Colorado — make their way to the track.
“If you are a race fan, Oktoberfest is short-track racing heaven,” Deery said.
Local fans will get to watch the conclusion of the Fairgrounds Speedway’s season this weekend, including four 20-lap features to determine the Kwik Trip Late Models winner, a unique twist for Oktoberfest this year.
Two of those features will be run Thursday night, and two will be run Friday night. This year’s title is still very much up for grabs.
Nick Murgic of Rosemount, Minnesota, who has won three features and has finished in the top five in all but one race this season, is the current leader with 640 points. Steve Carlson (569) of West Salem and Billy Mohn (563) of Lakeville, Minnesota, are well within striking distance with four races to go.
“More cars will be able to compete from other racetracks, there’s guys that haven’t raced all year that are excited about the chance to make it into four features, especially during Oktoberfest, which carries a higher level of credibility,” Deery said of the two twin features to end the Fairgrounds Speedway’s season. “The Saturday night fans that follow these guys are definitely in for a treat.”
Although the Kwik Trip Late Models finale has been tweaked, other Oktoberfest staples are unchanged.
The Super Late Models-Futures (Thursday), the Big 8 Late Models (Saturday), the CWRA Late Models (Sunday) and the 200-lap ARCA Super Late Models (Sunday) are all back. And, of course, there’s the Dick Trickle 99 — a race split into three 33-lap segments with the winner determined on overall points across the segments — on Friday night.
“It’s a race within a race within a race,” Deery said. “... It’s hard to win, but you can win a piece of it, too. You can win a segment. So it’s a unique event, and because of its uniqueness, the race teams certainly enjoy being part of it.”
With more fans expected at the venue, which seats 5,500, Deery said the hospitality areas have been modified to allow for more social distancing, and other measures the speedway had in place this summer — such as making hand sanitizer available throughout the stands and having employees wear masks — will remain.
After fans respected the speedway’s safety protocols this summer, Deery hopes the virus won’t be an issue this weekend and that everyone can enjoy a night — or nights — at the track.
“People come here from all over just to meet up with old friends and socialize for a weekend,” Deery said. “It’s a great tradition for this area. It’s a great economic boon for this area. We’ve just got a lot of good things in our favor. We got dealt a very good hand.”
Eric Lee can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @ByEricLee
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